With the season almost here, and the BTN up and running at most of our homes, I can't help but wonder how I am going to handle the Big Ten's non-conference games this year. I am talking about, of course, who I am going to be rooting for. While my third party fandom is usually rather pale, there are a couple of very exciting games this season. Each game has both real and imagined "perception" implications. Let's take a look...
Illinois v Missouri - 8:30 pm
Illinois enters this neutral site rivalry as 8.5 point dogs, with last season's six point loss fresh on everyone's minds. This year's #20 vs. #6 matchup will probably look similar, with the difference being the major upgrade in overall confidence, hampered slightly by the Zooker's loss of backfield monster Rashard Mendenhall.
A Big Ten Win Means....A major upgrade in conference respect. Overshadowed only by this season's Game Of The Century, a Big Ten win over a much-hyped (and much-talented, by the way) Missouri team would mean more ammo for you fearless conference debaters out there. It also means Illinois, a team I think is in for a bit of a regression, could actually be a legitimate threat to win the conference championship.
A Big Ten Loss Means...Not much, although I suppose it depends on the score. A game similar to the one played last year (minus with Williams being knocked out in the second quarter) would probably fit into everyone's preseason opinions nicely and do little in the way of perception damage. A blowout, on the other hand, means more trouble and more pressure on OSU to defend a Big Ten reputation they seem adamant (although too often unable) to protect. It could also take some of the luster out of the night game in Happy Valley.
Utah@ Michigan - 3:30 pm
The much anticipated debut of the Anti-Michigan Man against a "Mid-Major" capable to playing the role of spoiler. Michigan is just a three-point favorite at home and will likely be starting a "Hide The Children" quarterback. Utah has to smell blood here, and with 14 returning starters and a Rivals ranking in the 20's, this one could be fun to watch.
A Big Ten Win Means....Michigan isn't in for a 2007 Notre Dame type slide, and that Michigan has a really good defense. There is less upside here, of course, because Utah isn't Boise State and they obviously don't play in a BCS conference.
A Big Ten Loss Means...Another year with Michigan as a potential punchline. It also sets up a more troubling 2005/2007 type game against PSU, with the difference being this one will be in Happy Valley. What really makes this streak hurt is that there are some many games where Paterno had the much better team, and if he thinks Michigan is weak I worry the head coach will again find it appropriate to play zero-risk, zero-reward football and attempt to painfully grind out a win...a strategy that obviously hasn't worked in the past.
Michigan State @ Cal - 8:00 pm
One of the potential Big Ten sleepers takes its week one road show out west as 3.5 point dogs against a Cal team that is probably looking at a four or five loss season (worth noting that, with a lot of untested players, quicker than expected improvement could result in a much better record than that). MSU is probably lucky to have them early in the season, although, as we've discussed before, the Big Ten has struggled out west.
A Big Ten Win Means....Michigan State gets past the 'dark horse' talk and becomes a real life contender for the conference. With a seemingly quality win on the road, Michigan State will have the confidence to ride out six or seven wins before performing their patented late season FAIL. Or, maybe they're over that, in which case we can start building this rivalry already. A win means our Big Ten finale will have some potential implications, instead of being an afterthought involving a perpetually mediocre and downhill sliding Spartan team against a Penn State team that can't seem to get over the hump. It is also the first episode in a four part series involving the West Coast and Midwest, one that will surely be talked about when we do the whole "what conference is playing the best?" song and dance during the BCS Championship Game selection process.
A Big Ten Loss Means...that home field advantage was probably the difference in what Vegas considers two relatively evenly matched teams. It also means Michigan State might not be ready to make that leap into the top tier of the conference like everyone is "fearlessly predicting". Both of these teams have a lot of questions, so it might not be totally clear what this game means until later in the season.