Low-level competition suddenly a lot scarier for Big Ten

Low-level competition suddenly a lot scarier for Big Ten
September 4, 2013, 2:15 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Survive and advance.

That's the oft-repeated mantra of the NCAA basketball tournament, with its parade of potential upsets for the top-ranked teams. But it might be a little more apt in the realm of college football after a slew of Week 1 upsets, including eight wins by FCS teams over FBS opponents.

The FCS, or Football Championship Subdivision, is comprised of smaller schools and programs that don't run in the same circles as the big boys of college football (who make up the FBS). Some might still remember it by its old name of Division I-AA. These schools are usually brought in to play the big boys and get beaten, badly.

But Week 1 saw an uprising from these perennial punching bags, as eight staged big upsets. FCS school McNeese State dropped 53 points in a trouncing of the American Athletic Conference's South Florida Bulls, and ranked Oregon State, which plays in one of the nation's major conference's in the Pac-12, fell to FCS opponent Eastern Washington. And in perhaps the most noteworthy example of this, last year's Big 12 champion Kansas State lost at home to FCS foe North Dakota State on Friday night.

[MORE: Northwestern's depth getting tested early]

The non-conference schedules of the Big Ten teams are littered with these types of games, not necessarily big upsets but games that would hardly generate more than a yawn even with a win, be they against FCS opponents or teams from the lower levels of the FBS, teams that don't reside in the "Power Five" conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC).

But after the opening-week statements turned in by the FCS, those seemingly weak non-conference schedules might suddenly be putting a scare into Big Ten teams.

"It's opportunistic to walk into a school like Wisconsin or anywhere in the Big Ten or wherever it may be, in the SEC. And it's the opportunity of a lifetime for those young men to walk in and have three hours in those stadiums. And a lot of times they expect themselves to play very well and win," said Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen during Tuesday's Big Ten coaches conference call. "I spent a lot of my coaching career preparing teams to walk into that environment and play well, and I'm sure that's exactly what Tennessee Tech expects this week."

Wisconsin is one of three Big Ten teams going up against FCS opponents this week, and most of the others will be heavily favored in games against lower-level FBS schools. None of the coaches were taking their opponents lightly, and for a change it appears they have good reason.

[RELATED: Good and bad as Fighting Illini head into Week 2]

Illinois received a scare from FCS opponent Southern Illinois last weekend, dispatching of the Salukis by only eight points. Indiana scored 73 points, but the Hoosiers defense still allowed 35 to FCS school Indiana State. And there were plenty of pushes by those lower-level FBS schools, as well. Nebraska was heavily criticized for its close call against Wyoming of the Mountain West. Michigan State underperformed in a win against a MAC opponent in Western Michigan.

It just goes to show that no one is safe, but Nebraska coach Bo Pelini seems to think the close calls can serve as wake-up calls and benefit a team.

"I've seen games like that before, and we'll see them again, hopefully not to that extent," Pelini said Tuesday. "There were some good things, there were some positives. I equate it to like a basketball game when you miss a lot of layups. We had a lot of layups that we missed, and I think the experience was invaluable for our guys. I think they learned a lot from watching the film. I think we'll be a lot better going forward because of the experience we had on Saturday."

So now instead of using the non-conference slate to iron out the kinks before conference play begins, the task could be to hold on for dear life.

"As we learned last weekend, there's no guarantees, period, any time you play against anybody," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

[MORE: Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 1]

The one Big Ten team that does have a marquee matchup on its non-conference slate this season is Michigan, who highlights the college football week with their game against Notre Dame on Saturday night. The Michigan-ND rivalry has typically allowed the Wolverines to circle at least one big-time matchup on the schedule every year, proving it's a team that values early season competition at the highest level. Last season, the Wolverines took on defending champion Alabama with hopes of a exclamation point of a victory in the campaign's early days.

"We opened up with Alabama last year. Some people might think we were crazy," Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said. "Personally I think it was one of the best things we've done. No one likes to lose, obviously, but I think it taught us a lot as a staff, taught us a lot as a team where we want to get to and what we want to do. I think the Notre Dame rivalry was such and is such a great game to play. I think there's a balance somewhere in there, but I think if they're truly going to take strength of schedule in deciding who's going to be in the national championship, then I think you need to play a strong schedule."

Hoke and everyone else saw the effect that a weak schedule can have on even the most well thought of teams Tuesday when Ohio State, the favorite for the Big Ten crown, was dropped from No. 2 to No. 3 in the AP poll after beating Buffalo by 20 points. For some, apparently that wasn't enough.

If Michigan can win Saturday, it won't have that problem as the season progresses. But for others, playing low-level competition is no longer a string of guaranteed wins.

It's a gauntlet.