By DAVE CAMPBELL
This is one of those rare weeks when even Michigan fans might hope for an Ohio State victory. Minnesota wouldn’t mind a win by Wisconsin, either, as much as the Badgers are disliked across the state line.
The best opportunity until bowl season for the Big Ten to make a statement as a national power conference will take place on Saturday, with four nonconference games against top-tier Pac-12 competition.
“We’ve got so much pride in this conference and we have a lot of pride in the schools that are in this conference,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Tuesday. “And we have some bitter rivals, believe me, but this conference is a great conference.”
Said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini: “I think it’s very good. It’s deep. And I think that’s going to show itself as the year goes on.”
— No. 4 Ohio State, which had trouble beating California in Columbus last year, plays the rematch with the Golden Bears on the road.
— No. 20 Wisconsin travels to Arizona State, which is 8-0 all time at home against Big Ten teams.
— No. 23 Nebraska hosts No. 16 UCLA with a chance to avenge last season’s loss to the Bruins.
— And Illinois, coming off a startlingly decisive victory over Cincinnati, takes on 19th-ranked Washington in Chicago, their first meeting since 1972.
No. 17 Northwestern helped the Big Ten get off a solid start by winning at California. Like Hoke, whose Wolverines took down Notre Dame last week, Wildcats coach Fitzgerald will be rooting for the rest of the Big Ten this weekend.
“I wish our colleagues and our brothers here in the league the best of luck,” Fitzgerald said. He added: “There are certain weekends of the year you can change your perception, and as you look at the schedule it looks like this is one of those weeks.”
Iowa also travels to rival Iowa State of the Big 12, and Purdue hosts No. 21 Notre Dame. The other games: Bowling Green at Indiana, Akron at No. 11 Michigan, Youngstown State at Michigan State, Western Illinois at Minnesota, Western Michigan at Northwestern, and Central Florida at Penn State.
Also on the Pac-12 slate for Saturday: No. 5 Stanford at Army, Fresno State at Colorado, Boston College at USC, Tennessee at No. 2 Oregon, Southern Utah at Washington State, and UTSA at Arizona. Utah hosts Oregon State in a conference game.
Over the last five seasons, the Pac-12 has a slight edge over the Big Ten: a 13-12 record in nonconference games and 4-3 in bowl games. But last year, the Pac-12 won four of the five meetings. And the Pac-12 has won eight of the last nine Rose Bowls that pitted teams from the two leagues.
So while the Southeastern Conference has ruled college football for the past decade, the Big Ten isn’t exactly set as the next best. The improved Pac-12 is certainly part of that discussion.
According to STATS, the Big Ten went 62-73 over the last five years against teams from the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and Notre Dame, including bowl games. The five victories last September, against nine losses, were against four teams that finished a combined 22-28, including bowl teams Syracuse and Vanderbilt.
During the same span against the same major leagues, the Pac-12 was 59-68, a slightly better winning percentage.
So far this year? The Big Ten is 4-0. The Pac-12 is 1-2.
“I think differences between conferences are more exaggerated than accurate,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach, whose team lost to Auburn in the opener before a win at USC. “There’s definitely nuances between conferences, but if you’re in one of the major conferences — the Pac-12, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the SEC, the ACC — they’re probably more similar than they are different. They all have 300-pounders, guys who can run.”
Last week, the Pac-12 was 8-0 in nonconference games, outscoring opponents 384-111.
By Saturday night, the picture of conference strength this season could be a little clearer.
As far as the scrutiny of the results, well, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer brushed off the big-picture importance during his time on the Big Ten coaches conference call. So did Pelini. Illinois coach Tim Beckman said he didn’t even realize there were so many games this weekend pitting Big Ten teams against major opponents.
But Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, the newbie of the group, let down his guard.
“It’s important for all of us, from a recruiting standpoint and playing another big-time conference, so I do believe it matters for the conference,” he said. “Those are important games.”