When the Big Ten and Pac-12 agreed to schedule 12 non-conference matchups a year beginning in 2017, the thought was that these games would bolster the non-conference schedules of teams from both conferences, upping the respectability come BCS-discussion season.
That deal fell through several months after the announcement, and so there likely won't be a Pac-12 game on every Big Ten calendar in years to come. But that doesn't mean the conferences who have always had strong ties — the two champions have met in the Rose Bowl for nearly a century — won't continue to see each other on the gridiron. And this week is a perfect example.
Big Ten commish Jim Delaney might not get his 12 games against the Pac-12, but this week alone features four contests between the two conferences. And it could go a long way in proving the strength of the Big Ten.
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"I think it's big," Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said Tuesday. "You focus on the league. It's important for the Big Ten for a lot of reasons. It's important from a recruiting stand point and playing another big-time conference. I do believe it matters for the conference. Those are important games. Every game's important, but I know this: We're going into Arizona State, and for my knowledge there's never been a Big Ten team go in there and win. So it's a huge opportunity for us and for the other schools in the conference to hop out of conference play before we get into it here in a week or so and show what we can do against another quality conference like the Pac-12."
The Badgers' trip to Tempe is one of a few games that will provide the highlight of the non-conference season for Big Ten teams. Additionally, Ohio State visits Cal, Nebraska hosts UCLA and Illinois takes on Washington at Soldier Field.
Those might not be top-5 teams like Oregon and Stanford, but they still provide a stiff challenge from the Pac-12. UCLA is ranked No. 16 in the AP poll, with Washington clocking in at No. 19. Arizona State is the first team in the "receiving votes" category, while Cal played an incredibly close game earlier this season against Northwestern, ranked No. 17.
"I think every week's big. Our conference, we want to win all the out-of-conference games," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "I think it's always big. Our conference, I think it's very good, it's deep, and I think that's going to show itself as the year goes on. We have a lot of respect for the Pac-12 and their conference, so it's going to be a challenge and it always is. There's good football played out there, we understand that. And I think if you talk to (UCLA) coach (Jim) Mora and everybody else that's playing in the Big Ten, I think the respect is mutual for the two conferences."
For the Huskers in particular, they know first-hand what kind of punch the Pac-12 packs. They fell to UCLA in Pasadena last season. And Andersen was right with that stat: A Big Ten team has never won a road game against Arizona State. Washington rocketed up the polls thanks to its blowout win over Boise State in the season's opening week.
"I think it's a very, very quality opponent," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "(I) coached against Boise and know what kind of program Boise has. They did a fine job in that season-opener against Boise. So I believe they've got a very, very good football team, and guys have bought in, they play extremely hard. You can see that their game's elevated even from last year."
But the week has its importance for the conference as a whole, too. Michigan might have impressed with its big win over Notre Dame, but outside of that, these games against the Pac-12 are the Big Ten's best chance to build up some conference prestige for any potential national-championship contender.
Northwestern already has a win in the bank against a Pac-12 foe, and four more would go a long way. But, of course, that's easier said than done. For teams like Wisconsin — whose first two opponents were UMass and Tennessee Tech — and Ohio State (Buffalo and San Diego State) these game hold quite a bit of importance.
"I think it gets amped up whenever you go to play a Pac-12 opponent and we get to that point in the season," Andersen said. "I think they're excited about that opportunity, and they know this is a quality opponent. I didn't really feel a difference in preparation yesterday, but I'm sure they spend a little extra time on film study and do the things that they do. They prepared very well for UMass, had great respect for them, same thing for Tennessee Tech, and I expect the same (this week).
"But it does, when you're playing a team that's done what Arizona State's done, you throw on the film, and you better get ready real quick."