Michigan and Michigan State are giving the Big Ten a couple of early chances to burnish its national reputation.
The conference's image has taken a beating in some quarters, and not just because of the child-sex scandal at Penn State or the NCAA penalties at Ohio State.
There is the perceived gap between the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference, a gap many think is growing wider each season. That, of course, is not a problem exclusive to the Big Ten. But the tension is palpable in a conference that once upon a time boasted of being the best in the land.
The SEC wears that label now, and its six straight national titles leave little room for debate. The Big Ten's recent performances against SEC teams have been less than stellar, and the record against other BCS leagues has been nothing to brag about, either.
All this makes for a delicious opener when No. 8 Michigan plays second-ranked and defending national champion Alabama on Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke on Tuesday tried to juke a question about the importance of representing well in the early Big Ten-SEC matchup.
He mentioned the great academic institutions and athletic programs of the Big Ten before acknowledging any duty to fly the flag for the conference.
"There is no question that's part of it when you play a team from another league," he said on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference.
No. 13 Michigan State, picked by many to win the Legends Division and play Wisconsin again in the Big Ten championship game, can do its part Friday when it opens against 24th-ranked Boise State.
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said he is concerned only about Michigan State, not how the Big Ten stacks up nationally. That argument can wait until later in the fall.
"Collectively, we as a group will stand together at the end of the day," he said. "We're not going out there representing the Big Ten Conference as much as putting on the green and white and representing Michigan State today."
The Big Ten was 4-6 in bowl games last year after its teams went a combined 7-7 in the regular season against BCS conference opponents and Notre Dame.
Last year's notable games: Penn State lost for a second straight year to Alabama, Iowa was beaten by Iowa State and Michigan State and Purdue both were beaten by Notre Dame. Since 1999, the Big Ten is 1-8 in the Rose Bowl and its 4-3 bowl mark in 2009 is its only postseason record above .500 in that time frame.
Ohio State won the Big Ten's last national championship, in 2002. The Buckeyes played for the title again in 2006 and '07 but were derailed by the SEC's Florida and LSU.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he's come to realize the importance of building up the image of the Big Ten in high-profile non-conference games.
"If we all win, it makes us all better," he said.
Hoke said he is comfortable having his team play Alabama in the opener. The Wolverines play three of their first five games away from Ann Arbor, including Notre Dame and improving Purdue in back-to-back weeks. They also play at Nebraska and Ohio State.
"We like it, and I like it personally," Hoke said. "When you want to be the best and you want to be champions and all those things you need to play the best and play those programs that are on a high level. We think as a team, that's just going to make us better when we get into the Big Ten."
Dantonio's Spartans will open against a Boise State team that returns only six starters from a squad that had six players taken in the NFL draft.
Boise State has beaten ranked opponents each of the last three years in openers: 19-8 over No. 14 Oregon in 2009, 33-30 over No. 7 Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., in 2010 and 35-21 over No. 19 Georgia in Atlanta last year.
The Broncos have won six straight and eight of nine against teams from BCS conferences.
Minnesota is the first Big Ten team to play, visiting UNLV on Thursday.
Other Big Ten openers, all Saturday: Northwestern at Syracuse; Southern Mississippi at Nebraska; Iowa vs. Northern Illinois, in Chicago; Western Michigan at Illinois; Indiana State at Indiana; Miami (Ohio) at Ohio State; Ohio at Penn State; Eastern Kentucky at Purdue; and Northern Iowa at Wisconsin.
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