After reading Pete Fiutak's entertaining article comparing the schedules of Ohio State and Boise State (which Drew referenced in yesterday's post), I concede that he makes some good points. But while games at Illinois and Minnesota may look like patsies to the average sports writer, until you've been on the road in the Big Ten you don't know how tough it can be. This Saturday, ready or not, everything changes, as the Buckeyes enter conference play. And no matter where Jeff Sagarin or any other computer geek ranks the lower echelon Big Ten teams, there is no such thing as an easy victory on the road in college football's most physical conference.
Let's consider this week's tussle with the Illini in Champaign as an example. There is simply no comparison between playing Illinois and taking on New Mexico State, San Jose State or Idaho. Why?
1. Memorial Stadium will be packed with over 60,000 fans who will rock the house with some serious noise. I'm guessing that's a little more intimidating than facing 15,000 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, or Moscow, Idaho!
2. Illinois (like most every Big Ten team) actually has some tradition. I'm not just talking about legends like Red Grange and Dick Butkas, but recent teams like the 2001 squad which went to the Sugar Bowl and the '07 team which played in the Rose Bowl. There is some recent success to actually inspire hope and confidence. Of course Idaho did play in the Humanitarian Bwol in 2000, and New Mexico State was in the Sun Bowl back in '59 and '60!
3. The Fighting Illini are stocked with some highly ranked players. Quarterback Natahan Scheelhaase was offered by Oklahoma, Iowa and Arkansas. Running back Jason Ford turned down Wisconsin, Boston College and Iowa. Justin Green had verballed to Ohio State before changing his mind on signing day. Wideout Jarred Fayson originally signed with Florida, choosing the Gators over Miami (Fl), Alabama and Georgia, Remember Martez Wilson? The Buckeyes coveted the athletic linebacker, but so did USC, Notre Dame and Michigan. I could go on. Needless to say, you won't find that kind of talent on teams in the bottom half of the WAC.
Now, I mention all of this not only to make a point, or to refute those who would favorably compare the conference schedules of Boise and OSU, but to remind fans that the season takes a gigantic turn this week. It is Big Ten time, and that means hard-hitting action, packed venues, heated rivalries and coaching staffs who are familiar with what you've got. We've all circled dates with Wisconsin and Iowa (which are a little tougher than Fresno State and Nevada) but don't overlook the other games. Every week brings a challenge, and a team that overlooks any opponent (especially on the road) will be licking their wounds come Saturday night.
Personally, I can't wait. Even the tailgating gets more serious come October. The stakes are high and you won't find any $5 tickets a few minutes before kickoff. So strap on your helmet and get ready for some vintage Big Ten football. There's nothing else like it.