The Big Ten’s regular season schedule is always a challenge, but some games just mean more than others.

Sometimes it’s a rivalry game, other times teams are just trying to make a statement. Occasionally, the result of one game can impact the rest of a team’s season.

Here’s a list of games from the 2021 Big Ten slate that should be considered “must-win” for each program:


Must-win game: Vs. Michigan State on Oct 16

Indiana is coming off an awesome season, and defeating the Spartans for a second-straight year will ensure the Hoosiers keep some of that momentum. This game is sandwiched between games vs. Penn State and Ohio State, so a win over Michigan State would prevent a potentially lengthy losing streak.


Must-win game: Vs. West Virginia on Sept. 4

Maryland’s offense showed promise last season, but the results need to be more consistent in 2021. Beating West Virginia in a major nonconference game during Week 1 would be an ideal place to start. 


Must-win game: Vs. Ohio State on Nov. 27

Could it be anyone else? The Wolverines haven’t gotten over the hump vs. the Buckeyes since 2011. Ryan Day was a receivers coach at Boston College that year. Jim Harbaugh was in his first year with the 49ers. This is Michigan’s must-win game until further notice.

Michigan State

Must-win game: @ Northwestern on Sept. 4

Mel Tucker needs a big season in Year 2 at the helm in East Lansing. Northwestern might not be the defensive juggernaut it was a year ago, but the Wildcats still might be the class of the Big Ten West. Tucker leading the Spartans into a Week-1 win in Evanston would be a big statement. 

Ohio State

Must-win game: Vs. Oregon on Sept. 11

Ohio State hosts Oregon in Week 2 in what will be one of the most-anticipated nonconference games of the 2021 season. The Buckeyes shouldn’t have a ton of trouble with their Big Ten slate, but a win over the Ducks would likely give them a buffer. Even if there’s a slip-up somewhere in conference play, Ohio State would likely still make the College Football Playoff. 

Penn State

Must-win game: @ Ohio State on Oct. 30

If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. It’s a tall task, but Penn State has big aspirations. If the Nittany Lions are going to achieve them, they’ll have to topple Ohio State sooner or later. James Franklin does have one win over the Buckeyes, which came in 2016. 


Must-win game: @ Illinois on Oct. 30

Rutgers was competitive last season, but still went just 3-6 in Greg Schiano’s first season back in charge. The Scarlet Knights have a very tough schedule this season, and facing Illinois in Year 1 under Bret Bielema is their most obvious chance for a conference win. Rutgers will probably threaten a few upsets, but this is one it can’t afford to let slip away. 


Must-win game: Vs. Northwestern on Nov. 27

Bret Bielema could use a rivalry win at the end of his first season with the Illini. As most transition years are, this could be a tough season for Illinois. But catching a young Northwestern team at home in the final week of the regular season is a nice break that should be taken advantage of. It would also give Bielema and his staff plenty of momentum heading into the offseason. 


Must-win game: @ Wisconsin on Oct. 30

Iowa easily took care of business vs. the Badgers last season, but that was the Hawkeyes’ first win in that series since 2015. If Northwestern takes a step back, this game could be for the Big Ten West title. 


Must-win game: @ Wisconsin on Nov. 27

Minnesota will also be in the mix for the Big Ten West this season, but it will need a win over rival Wisconsin. That’s proved difficult in the past, as the Badgers have won all but three games in this series during the 21st century. 


Must-win game: @ Michigan State on Sept. 25

There are multiple must-win games on Nebraska’s schedule, particularly if the Huskers want to make a bowl game this season. But they absolutely can’t afford a loss to Michigan State in late September. The schedule is too unforgiving to lose an early conference game to a team that’s still trying to find its identity under Mel Tucker.


Must-win game: Vs. Iowa on Nov. 6

Northwestern will be trying to replace several key pieces from last year’s squad, including cornerback Greg Newsome and linebacker Blake Gallagher. But by November, Pat Fitzgerald should have the Wildcats rolling. If they can avoid early-season slip-ups, defeating Iowa at home will be key in attempting to repeat as Big Ten West champs. 


Must-win game: Vs. Minnesota on Oct. 2

Jeff Brohm needs some momentum, and he needs it badly. The Boilermakers are coming off a nightmare season in 2020, and Brohm can’t be dropping games to Minnesota when Notre Dame and Ohio State are also on the schedule. The Badgers are a good team, but this is a game Purdue should win at home if things are clicking in West Lafayette. 


Must-win game: Vs. Michigan on Oct. 2

Wisconsin’s early-season schedule is brutal. The Badgers face Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan in the first four games of the season. The game vs. the Wolverines is at home, and could determine Wisconsin’s momentum for the remainder of its schedule.