Big Ten gets big weekend to show it can compete with college football's elite

Across the last couple bowl seasons, the frustration and, indeed, embarrassment mounted for the Big Ten. There have been blowouts, no-shows and examples of complete mismatches.

If Alabama whipping Michigan State 49-7 on one channel wasn't bad enough two years ago, Mississippi State humiliated Michigan 52-14 on another. Michigan State beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl last season, but the league has won just a single Rose Bowl since 2000.

They play good football in the Midwest. Seriously. The league may lack the nationally elite excellence that can win a BCS title. It suffers, however, from a depth of good clubs from historic programs that create an eat-your-own regular season.

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The Big Ten isn't as horrible, dated and slow as the critics like to crow. It just often looks that way around New Year's Day.

So here comes a new season. All is fresh again and the Big Ten is set for what is, in all likelihood, its best and perhaps only chance until after Christmas to reverse the reputation that it isn't competitive on the national scale.

On Friday, No. 13 Michigan State hosts No. 24 Boise State. On Saturday, No. 8 Michigan plays No. 2 Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

All eyes will be on Big Ten teams playing name programs in big out-of-conference games. All eyes will be wondering if anything is different this year.

In reality, this isn't the best or fairest of tests for the league.

Boise State is – if you can believe this change in fortune – probably overrated based on its name. The Broncos must replace a slew of starters, including six NFL draft picks [two in the first round] and star quarterback Kellen Moore, who wasn't drafted but made everything work.

Michigan State won't get a ton of credit if it defeats Boise but that isn't the Spartans' fault. Boise is still Boise. Chris Petersen has lost six games in five seasons as a head coach. Beating the Broncos should always be considered a good win.

Michigan meanwhile takes on the daunting task of facing the defending national champions. 'Bama is favored by 14 and the number keeps rising, with Vegas sports books saying more than 70 percent of the money is currently on the Crimson Tide.

The Wolverines are getting big hype, but they also must replace six of nine starters on their two lines and will deal with the kind of athletic defensive front that has neutralized Denard Robinson in the past.

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So there would be no shame in losing to Alabama. None at all.

Still, this is about all the Big Ten has to prove itself. The rest of the out-of-conference slate is mostly uninspiring, providing few, if any chances, at a head-turning result.

Boise and 'Bama represent the only two non-league opponents that were ranked in the preseason. The entire league plays no one else of great merit – although we're willing to concede Notre Dame, which plays Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue, could get there.

Of course, Notre Dame's return to strength would require winning all of those Big Ten games, which, in turn, wouldn't help the league.

Other than the Irish, the schedule is dull. Ohio State plays Cal and, um, Central Florida. Penn State is at Virginia. Iowa gets Iowa State. Wisconsin, the league favorite, plays at Oregon State. Nebraska is at UCLA. Illinois is at Arizona State. Northwestern plays Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Boston College.

Feel free to get excited at any point.

The trend in college football is to play essentially no one, and the Big Ten has caught the disease. Everything else is mostly from the old I-AA, Mid-American or Sun Belt conferences. There's a reason Jim Delany pushed for a nine-game conference slate: He can't trust the schools to schedule competitively.

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After this weekend, there isn't much for the Big Ten to impress the many who doubt its relative strength. The SEC might not play a much better non-conference schedule – just six preseason ranked opponents, more mismatches against lower-division opponents – but it isn't dealing with an image problem.

So like it or not, this is showtime for the Big Ten. Boise represents the chance for a quality, nationally televised win. The next night Alabama would be the ultimate sign that Michigan and, by proxy, the Big Ten is legit.

The league could use a blast of cool credibility. Fans are prideful in their brand of football and spiteful at the suggestion the game has passed their programs by. They have a money-making television network, a host of six-figure capacity stadiums and some of the great game-day environments in the country.

And they'd like the focus to be on that, not getting outclassed by the SEC, not Jerry Sandusky and not postseason bans for Penn State and Ohio State.

This is a new season, though. Some new coaches. Some new energy. Bowl losses are to be forgotten. Scandals can be moved on from.

Here comes the Big Ten's big – and perhaps only – weekend to flex its muscle. The nation will be watching.

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