The strength of a conference is defined by its overall record in non-conference games.
For the Big Ten, the painful reality has been its slide into mediocrity since 2008. They currently sit somewhere between the ACC and the American Athletic, which is sad considering its history and tradition.
Over the last five seasons, the Big Ten went 30-37 against BCS conference teams. The best record was 7-5 in 2010.
As bleak as the downward spiral has been, the trend appears to be turning around this season. The conference is 6-1 against BCS competition, and the ranked teams have looked pretty good
Week 3 brings a perfect opportunity for the Big Ten to make a bold statement when the conference faces three ranked teams in the latest Top 25 Associated Press poll.
The Buckeyes should easily handle Cal, while Notre Dame should beat Purdue—a team that has looked weaker than normal in its first two games.
This leaves Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa as the teams to make or break the Big Ten’s image this season.
Here’s a breakdown of those games:
UCLA at Nebraska
Bruin quarterback Brett Hundley became a household name after his performance against the Cornhuskers last year. He torched Nebraska for 305 yards passing and four touchdowns, leading UCLA to a 36-30 victory.
Nebraska went on to win the Big Ten Legends Division, but the defense never fully recovered after the loss to UCLA. They were shredded in their other three losses, giving up an average of 59 points and 575 yards.
The Nebraska faithful were hoping that head coach Bo Pelini would be able to fix the weaknesses during the off-season. After allowing 602 yards to Wyoming in the season opener this year, there is still considerable doubt.
The defense rebounded against Southern Miss this past Saturday, but the Golden Eagles have not won since December 2011, so the performance feels hollow.
The Bruins will provide the real test to determine if the Cornhuskers are ready for prime time this year.
The keys to the game will be keeping Hundley on the sideline and not committing turnovers.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Ameer Abdullah form one of the best rushing backfields in the game. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck needs to give them about 40 carries. Anything less could spell trouble.
The last thing the Cornhuskers want is to need Martinez’s arm to win the game. The offense just needs to burn the clock, protect the ball and score. Play Tresselball.
Nebraska is a favorite to compete for the Big Ten title along with Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern.
The Wolverines took care of Notre Dame while the Wildcats tore through Cal and Syracuse. Unless the wheels pop off for Ohio State, the Buckeyes should cruise over Cal
This is a game that the Cornhuskers need to win to prove they are championship worthy. Plus, Bo Pelini needs the win to stay out of the hot seat.
Kickoff is early and the crowd will be ready to do its part. Nebraska will build a big lead early, and then hold on tight in the end to squeak out a 41-37 win.
Wisconsin at Arizona State
The Badgers have looked great mopping up vastly inferior opponents. Then again, that is what they always do.
Now it is time to see if they can do it on the road and at night against a Sun Devil team, which is poised to compete for the Pac-12 South Division this season.
If there was any question about new head coach Gary Andersen’s system, Wisconsin fans already have their answer—don’t fix what isn’t broken.
The Badgers have already amassed 780 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. To keep their opponents a tad bit honest, they have thrown in a few passes, but Andersen knows the ground game is his bread and butter.
Arizona State waxed Sacramento State 55-0 in Week 1, and had an early bye this past weekend.
Despite the limited action, we can expect second-year head coach Todd Graham to have a balanced attack on offense and play aggressively on defense.
The Sun Devils are led by quarterback Taylor Kelly and running back Marion Grice. Kelly threw for 300 yards and five touchdowns against the Hornets. Grice finished with 59 yards rushing and 65 yards receiving with one touchdown. Look for Graham to have the ball in hands all night.
On defense, All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton spurned the NFL to return for his senior year in the desert. He anchors a veteran front for the Sun Devils that should help slow down the Badgers rushing attack.
To win, the Badgers need to take the crowd out of the game with a fast start and stay in manageable second and third down situations throughout the game.
Quarterback Joel Stave will need to make a few plays, but his tendency to throw interceptions could cost them in a hostile environment. It might be smart to keep his passing to a minimum.
Expect a back-and-forth contest all night with momentum swings. Arizona State will hang with Wisconsin most of the night, but ultimately the Badgers will wear them down to pull out the win. Wisconsin will win 35-28.
Illinois vs. No. 19 Washington in Chicago
Technically a home game for Illinois, they clash with Washington for a night game in Soldier Field.
The real question right now is which Illinois team will show up against the Huskies. The one that held on for dear life to beat Southern Illinois 42-34 in Week 1, or the one that throttled Cincinnati 45-17 last Saturday? The answer depends on the play of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
After a disappointing junior season, Scheelhaase has looked good so far passing for 728 yards with six touchdowns and just one interception.
Turnovers have plagued him throughout his career. If he can protect the ball against the Huskies, the Fighting Illini will have a chance.
Washington comes into the game off a bye, but they looked sharp in whipping Boise State 38-6 in the season opener.
This was a shocking win, considering the Broncos rarely get beaten this badly. They beat Washington nine months ago in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
Just like Scheelhaase, Washington quarterback Keith Price is looking for a rebound season. After a great sophomore year when he passed for 3,063 yards with 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, Price’s numbers slipped to 2,728 yards with 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2012.
If his execution against Boise is any indication, Price is locked and loaded for his senior year. He finished with 324 yards passing and two touchdowns.
Making his life easier will be sophomore running back Bishop Sankey who rushed 161 yards with two touchdowns. Sankey is well on pace to eclipse his 1,491 yards from last year, and is showing why he is on the preseason Doak Walker Award watch list.
The Fighting Illini will need to score a lot of points to win this game, and they won’t do it. They play well, but come up short. Washington wins 42-28.
Iowa at Iowa State
Considering both teams lost embarrassing games in Week 1, the annual battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy looks like a real dud again this year.
Iowa did manage to pull out an unimpressive 28-14 win over FCS opponent Missouri State last Saturday, so maybe that will pull them off life-support.
Iowa State had a bye giving Cyclone fans a week off from additional sorrow.
The Hawkeyes’ problem is they can’t seem to get out of their own way. Penalties, turnovers and poor execution on third downs have plagued them in both games. The fan grumblings in Iowa City are easy to understand.
For the Cyclones, the main problems against Northern Iowa was failing to take advantage of red-zone opportunities and the inability to stop the Panthers passing attack.
The good news is quarterback Sam Richardson was pretty efficient throwing for 242 yards with two touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 74 yards. The bad news is he injured his ankle in the loss, but he is expected to start against Iowa.
For Iowa to win, they need to establish a strong running game, significantly cut back the mental errors and be disciplined on defense against the Pistol.
In the win over Missouri State, Mark Weisman rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Kirk Ferentz needs to ride his horse all night.
On defense, the Hawkeyes linebackers and cornerbacks need to play smart against the Pistol formation. The linebackers need to get pressure up front and the corners have to lock down the receivers and not bite on the play action. That is definitely easier said than done, but it is the only way to have success against the spread offense.
Iowa has lost two straight in the series. The Cyclones will make it three, Iowa State wins 24-14.
The Big Ten schools rarely chant Big Ten like the SEC does. That is partly because they lose more often and partly because most fans just don’t care how the other schools perform. That may change this weekend.
Buckeyes fans might be the loudest cheerleaders on Saturday because they know Ohio State can not afford losses by Wisconsin, Nebraska and Illinois to the Pac-12. This will hurt the Buckeyes if they go toe-to-toe against Oregon for votes down the line.
The Big Ten has great leadership, revenue, TV contracts and its own network. What it lacks is the powerful image on the field to support the strength off of it. Doing well this weekend won’t change everything, but it will be a good start.