Each season — and especially since the advent of the College Football Playoff — the non-conference portion of the schedule serves as an opportunity for teams and conferences to make a statement.
Well, consider the Big Ten’s statement made: It’s contenders can go toe-to-toe with and beat the contenders from any other conference in the country.
It’s a small sample size, sure, but the Big Ten passed all four of its major non-conference tests with flying colors this month, three huge wins over ranked teams Saturday teaming nicely with that season-opening win for Wisconsin over LSU to form quite the resume that any other conference has to be jealous of at this point in the season.
In past years — cough, cough, 2014, cough, cough — we’ve seen the supposedly adverse effects that lack of non-conference success can have on the nationwide perception of a league. When Ohio State fell to Virginia Tech, Michigan State fell to Oregon and Michigan fell to Notre Dame, the sky appeared to be falling, and only the Buckeyes turning into the country’s best team by season’s end changed the view of the conference.
So you see how hard that perception is to change. This season, the Big Ten could certainly benefit from a longstanding positive perception thanks to what it did Saturday night.
Let’s start with Ohio State, which looked once more like one of the best teams around with a 45-24 road beatdown of Oklahoma. The Sooners’ season-opening loss to Houston knocked a little bit of the glisten off this game coming in — it was supposed to be a matchup of Playoff contenders and still was, but not as flashy a game as it could’ve been — but the Buckeyes treated them like they were just another team.
Ohio State’s offense was incredible. Redshirt freshman receiver Noah Brown catching four touchdown passes, including one that might not be topped as the best highlight-reel snag of the season. Redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber had a huge game, rushing for 123 yards. And J.T. Barrett made everything look easy.
But that would be burying the lede a little on the Ohio State defense, which despite needing to replace a host of top players who departed for the NFL is playing on another level. Oklahoma’s two offensive touchdowns were the first let up this season by the group known affectionately as the “Silver Bullets.” Of course the Buckeyes got another pick six, their fourth of the season in just three games, and two interceptions brought their nation-leading total up to nine.
Certainly there are teams in the country with better resumes than Ohio State right now. But if the Buckeyes keep playing like this, it’ll be surprising to see a better team by season’s end. Seriously, they’ve been that good.
But Ohio State wasn’t the only one. Fellow Big Ten East Division power Michigan State scored the conference’s other huge road win Saturday, topping Notre Dame in South Bend. The Spartans looked dominant at times, bouncing out of an early 7-0 hole with 36 straight points in the second and third quarters. The offense shone with both grind-it-out drives and home run balls, and for the middle chunk of the game, the Michigan State defense completely shut down an offense led by one of the best quarterbacks in the country, forcing four punts, three turnovers and the end of the first half on eight consecutive drives.
It wasn’t perfect, with Notre Dame scoring touchdowns on three straight drives to make it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. But Mark Dantonio won yet another big game, and — if for some reason they weren’t there already after all they’ve done in the past few seasons — the Spartans established themselves as one of the country’s main Playoff contenders.
And then there’s Nebraska, which last season seemed so far from contention in Mike Riley’s first year. The Huskers welcomed the Oregon Ducks to Lincoln for a huge showdown, and the Huskers walked away the victors. Tommy Armstrong was terrific with four total touchdowns, including a mighty clutch go-ahead score on a 34-yard scamper late in the fourth quarter. The Ducks helped seal their own fate with four failed two-point conversion attempts, but give the Huskers the credit they deserve, vaulting themselves back into the spotlight that’s typically reserved for the sport’s biggest programs and in the process making themselves as much a contender as any other team in a now wide-open Big Ten West.
In college football, there are never any absolutes. And Week 3 — and the non-conference schedule in general — had some dark moments for the Big Ten.
Iowa’s loss Saturday to FCS power North Dakota State certainly wasn’t the monumental upset those who haven’t been paying attention made it out to be. The Bison have five straight FCS national titles and now five straight wins over teams from Power Five conferences. But for a team with Playoff aspirations, that was a game it couldn’t lose. The Hawkeyes aren’t knocked out yet by any means, but after reaping the benefits of a 12-0 regular-season record last season, the margin for error gets smaller now with a loss.
And the state of Illinois had a tough non-conference slate, with Illinois and Northwestern combining to post a 2-4 record. The Illini were hammered by Western Michigan on Saturday, gaining just three rushing yards to fall in back-to-back weeks after a 25-point beating from North Carolina — both those games coming in Champaign. And while the Wildcats’ win Saturday over Duke gave the conference another victory in Power Five vs. Power Five football, it comes on the heels of two brutal season-opening losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State.
But the three big games Saturday, along with Wisconsin’s still-so-impressive Week 1 win over a then-fifth-ranked LSU team boasting one of the most dangerous running backs in the country, have turned September into a glorious month for the Big Ten, particularly its teams at the top. (We haven’t even talked about Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines, 3-0 with a high ranking after beating Colorado in comeback fashion Saturday, outscoring the Buffs, 38-7, after the first quarter.) With the College Football Playoff selection committee already paying very close attention to what’s going on — even though an awful lot can and will change between now and when the first batch of rankings are released in November — the Big Ten’s big wins should cast the league in a very flattering light moving forward.
And moving forward, more colossal matchups await. Wisconsin and Michigan State play next weekend in East Lansing in a battle of what will surely be two top-10 teams. The following weekend, Michigan plays host to Wisconsin (another potential top-10 showdown). And then come the East headliners later in the fall with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan all battling one another for a ticket to the conference title game in Indianapolis.
But with most of the teams in the Big Ten completing their non-conference slates this weekend, the statement has been made. This might just be the best conference in the country.