How strong is the Big Ten in 2021?

That question can’t be answered conclusively through the first 2 weeks of the college football season.

The league’s flagship football program has already been handed a nonconference loss. On paper, the most impressive win is Penn State over Wisconsin — a conference game. And then there’s Iowa’s win over Iowa State, which gets docked points because it’s happened every year since 2015.  The Hawkeyes also looked great against Indiana, but again, that tells us very little about how the league matches up against its national counterparts.

All of that changes this Saturday.

The obvious heavyweight bout will take place in Happy Valley, where 10th-ranked Penn State hosts No. 22 Auburn. But there are plenty of other matchups down the conference card that will be just as vital to gauging the overall strength of the conference. Big Ten teams are underdogs in 5 games against fellow Power 5 programs this week, and each is a chance to show the league is being slept on.

The lightweight bout

Minnesota at Colorado

The Buffaloes gave then-No. 5 Texas A&M all it could handle before succumbing late in a 10-7 loss, and it’s that performance that explains why Colorado enters this game as the favorite.

Given the potential for a letdown after an emotional performance, we can’t read too strongly into this outcome if Minnesota wins. But if the Golden Gophers get blown out … it would not be a good look.


Michigan State at Miami

Michigan State is a touchdown underdog, which feels like a heavy case of brand bias. The Hurricanes were clobbered by Alabama, then squeezed past Appalachian State in a game that gained more notoriety for a cat falling out of the upper deck at Hard Rock Stadium than anything on the field.

This is a great opportunity for the Spartans to prove they’ve been overlooked. Michigan State is 3rd nationally with 7.9 yards per carry, and Miami’s defense is 78th in yards per play.

A Spartans win here obviously doesn’t hold the same cachet it would have 20 years ago, but it’s still a potentially nice feather in Mel Tucker’s cap.

Nebraska at Oklahoma

When you average out these old rivals, you end up with a middleweight.

There’s little reason the believe the Cornhuskers will be competitive, much less win this game. But if the potential worst team in the Big Ten is able to keep the Big 12’s top Playoff hopeful sweating deep into the fourth quarter, it certainly reinforces where each league stands in the pecking order.

Light heavyweights

Cincinnati at Indiana

If you had told someone who attended Indiana’s 42-6 beatdown of the Bearcats in 2000 (me) that the next meeting between these programs would have potential Playoff implications, none of it would have made any sense. Especially if that person had spent the morning tailgating outside Memorial Stadium.

But 21 years later, here we are.

For the Bearcats, it’s a must-win to break the glass ceiling of the 4-team College Football Playoff. For the Hoosiers, a chance to beat a Top 10 team in a non-pandemic setting for the first time since 1987. Given the stakes for both sides, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this is among the most competitive games on the national schedule in Week 3.

Purdue at Notre Dame

Keeping things in pork tenderloin territory, this promises to be both an entertaining game and a chance for the Big Ten to make a statement.

Purdue-Notre Dame is renewing for the first time in 7 years, ending the longest break in action for the rivalry since World War II. And from the moment Drew Brees arrived in West Lafayette in 1997, the series has not lacked for entertaining games. Eight of the past 18 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less, and Purdue won 4 of the 10 games that weren’t.

Notre Dame is clearly vulnerable after late escapes against Florida State and Toledo. If a Purdue team few projected to reach a bowl game can sweep the leg against the Irish, it will show there are few gimmes in the Big Ten this season.

The heavyweights

Auburn at Penn State

A preface: Auburn might not be all that good. A bowl game is no sure thing despite its current No. 22 ranking.

The Tigers have subsisted on cupcakes in their first 2 games under new coach Bryan Harsin. Akron is potentially the worst team in the FBS and was treated accordingly in a 60-10 whooping. Alabama State is an FCS program that needed overtime to beat Division II Miles College in Week 1 before an inevitable 62-0 thrashing at Auburn.

And that’s what makes this a must-win scenario for Penn State and the Big Ten as a whole. At best, this is a mid-level SEC program. At worst, the Tigers could conceivably finish at the bottom of the SEC West.

Either way, a home loss for the potential Big Ten favorites would be a disaster. Defeat raises the specter of no Big Ten team reaching the CFP, and that’s what makes this the most important game on the schedule.