Mark Dantonio and Michigan State have a chance to win some glory for themselves and the Big Ten with a victory at Oregon on Saturday. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
The leaves havenít even turned and itís already hunting season. And much like relentlessly frustrated Yosemite Sam, the Big Ten has a big gun and a big hat, and is chasing big game(s).
Itís hunting for respect, not rabbits. And this week, itís hunting fowl.
Weíre talking ducks and chickens. Weíre talking about the biggest nonconference weekend of the year, as the entire Big Ten turns its bloodshot eyes toward us. Michigan State heads to Oregon to shop at the Nike store, and also to try to hold the Ducks under 52 points. And Michigan heads to Notre Dame one last time, with the historic divas primed for a good olí chicken fight.
Itís been well-documented (mostly by me), that the Irish bailed on the series because they were tired of getting beat four times in five years. It sort of makes sense ó if they were going to lose, they wanted to lose to someone better, so it wasnít as embarrassing. Thatís why Notre Dame, with wonderfully snotty timing, announced it was adding Ohio State to its 2022 and í23 schedules.
Itís too bad, but one of college footballís great rivalries has turned into a remake of ďMean Girls.Ē Itís a messy and unnecessary breakup, and the Wolverines are the ones with mascara streaking down their faces. That should ramp up the motivation, not that anyone around here needs more motivation.
As we know, the Big Ten has a reputation problem, partly because it has two national titles the past 44 years. Iím pretty sure the Southeastern won two national titles in one calendar year. Of course, a conference has to respect itself before it gains the respect of others, and adding Maryland and Rutgers was a classic display of low self-esteem.
The stakes are higher with the new four-team playoff, stocked by the five power conferences. No one ever wants to be stuck in that fifth chair at the table, the one wedged into a corner with limited access to the mozzarella sticks.
Thatís why No. 7 Michigan Stateís clash with No. 3 Oregon is so huge. At some point, the Big Ten has to win one of these intersectional showdowns to show its strength. Itís not enough anymore to build a 24-7 third-quarter lead and then collapse into a 28-24 defeat, as Wisconsin did against LSU. In Yosemite Sam terms, itís not enough just to shoot holes in Bugsí hat and then blow on the smoking barrel.
Now, is this fair to the Spartans, to carry the reputation of an entire conference into a stadium where the visiting team is 2-34 the past five years? No it is not. But itís also an opportunity for Michigan State to re-validate itself and prove there was nothing fluky about the Rose Bowl victory over Stanford, or the resounding victories over Jacksonville State and Ohio State and Michigan and Iowa and Michigan and Nebraska and Michigan and Northwestern and Michigan.
Mark Dantonio said his team wouldnít be intimidated, and said it in such an intimidating way, I believe him. I mean, Oregon might be a high-scoring machine, but itís in a town called Eugene, which is the name of approximately 63 percent of middle-aged American uncles. And while the Spartans are expected to wear their road whites in the 90-degree heat, the Ducks likely will come out in a combination of mustard yellow, lime green, lavender and peach, with a splash of periwinkle. Frankly, as long as they donít wear maize and blue, they should be fine.
Again, Iím not here to heap pressure on the Spartans. They have a defense capable of plucking the Ducks, and maybe holding them a yard or 2 under their 565-yard average. But weíre barely past Labor Day and the Big Ten doesnít have many chances left to earn a spot at the big-boy table.
Which brings us back to Michigan and Notre Dame, who arenít expected to hug it out after Saturday nightís finale. Michigan was upset by being spurned, and lashed out with several fowl references, including a rendition of ďThe Chicken DanceĒ over the PA system after its 41-30 victory last year. Notre Dame was dutifully offended, and sniffed that it prefers playing a wider variety of opponents, such as fierce rival Purdue (or Perdue).
And now, the latest bitter jab as Notre Dame adds Ohio State. (By the way, early Vegas odds set the chances of Urban Meyer coaching in those games at 0.00000000000002 percent.) The Irish prefer simpler tests, as some of their players allegedly have shown. Five have been suspended while the school investigates possible academic improprieties. Apparently, the issue arose when an alert professor noticed players turning in papers under the name ďLennay K.Ē
At a hallowed institution such as Notre Dame, this is called ďcheating.Ē At a place like, say, Ohio State, itís called ďadvanced tutoring.Ē
But enough of the petty sniping. This is big-game hunting, and Notre Dame knows, to truly wake up any echoes, it takes more than cock-a-doodle-doing. Just two years ago, the Irish reportedly played in the national championship game, and enjoyed it so much, they brought back elusive quarterback Everett Golson.
That could be trouble for Brady Hoke and the Wolverines, who desperately need a victory against an overrated opponent to superficially enhance their reputation. They just might get it ó as long as they can keep the Irish from sneaking peeks at their play sheet.
If Michigan State is Yosemite Sam, loud and feisty, then Michigan is Elmer Fudd, confused and determined. The Big Ten isnít messing around this time, and the wascally varmints are duly warned.
Pick: Oregon 31-20
Pick: Michigan 30-27
Virginia Tech at Ohio State: This is another game that could provide the Big Ten much-needed artificial enhancement. The Hokies are unranked, but as far as I know, Braxton Miller is not running through that Buckeyes tunnel. Ohio State 27-9
Akron at Penn State: The Nittany Lions are struggling to sell out their home opener, which isnít a surprise. I mean, how do you take the Zips seriously? Just last season, they were thoroughly intimidated by 100,000-plus at Michigan and dropped a 28-24 stunner. Maybe they learned something. Akron 28-24
Eastern Michigan at Florida: One team has fallen completely off the map and lost seven in a row. The other team is 1-0 Eastern Michigan! Florida 38-10