Until the Big Ten season begins on the fourth Saturday in September, I will swallow my pride and root for Wisconsin's despised in-conference opponents. Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State... you name them, and I will be rooting for them. After all, the more impressive the Big Ten conference looks on a national scale, the better Wisconsin looks in the rankings and to potential recruits.
With this philosophy in mind, I should be pretty satisfied with the Big Ten's 10-1 record on college football's opening weekend, right? Wrong.
Suppose Northern Illinois, a Mid-American Conference member, had completed their two-point conversion attempt with 8:29 remaining in the fourth quarter and then scored with a minute remaining following their onside kick recovery. Wisconsin would be 0-1.
It took Iowa two blocked field goals with under a minute remaining to fend off an upset from Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as division 1-AA) and Missouri Valley Conference member Northern Iowa.
No. 6 ranked Ohio State, the Big Ten's best chance for a national title, was just barely able to stave off Navy by intercepting a potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt with just over two minutes remaining. Meanwhile, ""Juice"" Williams began his senior campaign with Illinois with an embarrassing 37-9 home loss to unranked Missouri.
Both the AP and the USA Today Coaches Poll feature only two Big Ten teams in the top 25: Ohio State and Penn State. Even if Wisconsin wins out during the remainder of their pre-Big Ten schedule, don't look for them to crack the top 25 anytime soon.
The Badgers' 2009 out-of-conference schedule, like many previous years, will not feature a fellow BCS opponent. Essentially, by playing these teams, Wisconsin has nothing to gain and everything to lose. A loss to a mediocre, mid-major opponent will put a blemish on Wisconsin's record from which it will be impossible to rebound.
Since 2006, Wisconsin's game with Washington State in 2007 has been their only out-of-conference game against a BCS opponent.
The Badgers' and the rest of the Big Ten cannot hope to join the likes of the SEC and the BIG 12 as the nation's premier conferences unless they radically improve their play against mediocre teams and begin to challenge themselves with stronger out-of-conference schedules.
Ohio State has a chance to perform damage control this weekend as they welcome No. 3 USC to Columbus on Saturday night. Michigan will play host to No. 18 Notre Dame on Saturday in what will be another opportunity for the Big Ten to restore some credibility to the conference.
It was only the first week of play for the Badgers and the rest of the Big Ten, so some rust must be expected. Had Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin been upset on Saturday, the picture would be far grimmer for the Big Ten Conference this week. Luckily that did not happen and those three teams will look to tighten up their game plans and execute on a much higher level this weekend.
The Badgers' strength of schedule is likely to improve in the coming seasons as they will play Arizona State in 2010 and 2012 and Oregon State in 2011 and 2013. As for now, Wisconsin needs to focus on handling Fresno State this weekend. That should not be a problem, so long as the Badgers are able to bring their defensive intensity into the fourth quarter, something they did not do against NIU.