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Most important Big Ten conference game for each program in 2024

On3 imageby:Jesse Simonton07/09/24


According to the Yoots!, the 2024 conference schedule is about to be litty. We get Texas vs. Texas A&M again, plus the introduction of games like Ohio State at Oregon and Tennessee at Oklahoma. 

But while every coach talks about how every Saturday is important, some games just mean more, right!?!?! 

In a newly expanded 12-team College Football Playoff, some programs are vying for a coveted spot in the field, while others are just hoping to gain bowl eligibility. 

So a team’s team’s most important game could be against an arch-rival. But it could also be a trap game on the schedule or a potential swing spot for their playoff hopes. 

And just because one team’s most important game may be against your alma mater though, doesn’t mean it’s the most significant conference matchup for your favorite school. 

The most important 2024 Big Ten conference games:

Michigan Wolverines football will face Bret Bielema and llinois in Champaign in 2023. (Photo by Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)
Michigan Wolverines football will face Bret Bielema and llinois in Champaign in 2023. (Photo by Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)

Illinois — vs. Minnesota (Nov. 2)

The Fighting Illini are looking to return to the postseason after a disappointing 5-7 year in 2023. Bret Bielema’s team drew one of the stiffer schedules (a midseason stretch of at Nebraska, at Penn State, Purdue, Michigan and at Oregon) in the Big Ten this fall though, so navigating the program to six wins will be tricky. 

A Week 2 non-conference game against Kansas looms large for postseason hopes, but in terms of league games, the Illini need to take care of business at home against he Gophers if they have any chance of making a bowl game. Illinois won consecutive games just once all last season, but after their difficult midseason stretch, there’s an opportunity for the Illini to run off some wins late — starting with Minnesota.

Indiana— vs. Purdue (Nov. 30)

The Hoosiers have a cake non-conference slate, so they need to win three Big Ten games to become bowl-eligible in Curt Cignetti’s first season. There are some winnable games early — particularly if a huge transfer portal class comes together quickly — but the end-of-the-year schedule includes games against Nebraska, Washington, Michigan and Ohio State. 

Finding six wins could come down to the Old Oaken Bucket series against their in-state rival. The Hoosiers have lost five of six against the Boilermakers, losing winning in 2019.

They’re guaranteed another brutal fall if they lose to Rutgers for the third straight season, though. Allen needs to beat the Scarlet Knights in 2023. The Hoosiers have a brutal five-game stretch of at Maryland, at Michigan, vs. Rutgers, at Penn State and vs. Wisconsin — with the game against Rutgers the only time they’ll be favored. 

Iowa — vs. Wisconsin (Nov. 2)

The two Big Ten West rivals are now just plain ole conference rivals but the battle for the Heartland Trophy is both a very important game for Midwest bragging rights — and potential College Football Playoff ramifications. 

The Hawkeyes have beaten the Badgers three of the last four seasons, and with maybe the oldest and most experienced defense in the nation this year, they should remain a pain to play against (Wisconsin has been held to 10 or fewer points in its last three losses to Iowa). Outside of Ohio State, the Hawkeyes don’t play another surefire preseason Top 25 team. Continue handling business against the likes of Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota and Kirk Ferentz’s team might be a playoff bid-thief in 2024.

Maryland — vs. USC (Oct. 19)

The Terps have been fast-starters the last few seasons, only to turtle when the schedule has stiffened come late autumn. Maryland started 5-0 last season and then promptly lost four straight. A mid-October game against new Big Ten foe USC presents a similar swing-season game. 

The Terps could (should?) 5-1 or 6-0 when the Trojans make the cross-country trip. A win would vault Mike Locksley’s Q-rating and could be a sign of the program’s continued climb up the conference standings. But a loss — with games against Oregon, Rutgers, Iowa and Penn State remaining — could be the start of another second-half swoon.

Michigan — vs. Oregon (Nov. 2)

How can Michigan’s most important Big Ten game not be against Ohio State? Well, the Wolverines will be playing with house-money in a rivalry showdown at the Shoe to end the 2024 season. All the pressure will be on Ryan Day to not lose four straight games to the Team Up North. 

But if Sherrone Moore is able to exceed expectations and return Michigan back to the Big Ten title game, winning at home against a Top 5 Oregon team could prove pivotal for tie-breaker situations. Both teams are eying a run to the CFP, and the early November matchup will be strength-on-strength with the Ducks’ high-octane offense against Michigan’s still-loaded defense.

Michigan State — vs. Indiana (Nov. 2)

The Spartans are facing a reset as they transition away from the Mel Tucker regime and into the Jonathan Smith era. Games against Michigan and Ohio State carry more weight for MSU fans, but if the team has any hopes of a turnaround season, the Spartans need to handle business against another Big Ten rival. 

Michigan State has one of the worst four-week slates of any team in the country this fall — Ohio State, at Oregon, Iowa and at Michigan — but then Indiana comes to East Lancing. They finish the year with Purdue, Illinois and Rutgers. So regardless of how badly the midseason gauntlet goes for Smith’s team, the first-year head coach has the opportunity too capture some momentum heading into Year 2 with a November run.

Minnesota — vs. Maryland (Oct. 26)

Thanks to two of the easiest schedules, Minnesota won nine games in consecutive seasons, and then the bill came due for PJ Fleck and the Gophers in 2023. They stumbled to 5-7 and face another schedule loaded with land mines this fall. If Fleck wants to halt his program’s tumble down the Big Ten ranks, then beating a Maryland team that occupies a similar tier in the league is a must. 

The Gophers will be coming off a stretch against Iowa, Michigan, USC and UCLA, but they will have two weeks to prepare for the early November homecoming affair. They have road games the following two weeks, so the game against the Terps could be season-defining in regards to Minnesota’s postseason chances.

Nebraska— vs. UCLA (Nov. 2)

In a potential leap Year 2 for Matt Rhule’s program, you could cherry-pick a handful of games that could be considered the most important for Nebraska in 2024. The Cornhuskers haven’t beaten rival Wisconsin in a dozen years. They’ve lost eight of nine against Iowa. A road trip to USC will be big. 

But the schedule sets up very nicely for the Cornhuskers to not only snap a six-year streak of missing the postseason — but making a run at 8-9 victories. That is if Nebraska can start winning some games in November. The Cornhuskers went winless in the month in 2023 — and are just 1-10 in November the last three seasons. They could start 6-1 or 7-0 and then get smoked at Ohio State. Rebounding immediately against a so-so UCLA team could be a sign of a program turning the corner.

Northwestern — vs. Illinois (Nov. 30)

As evidenced by the Wildcats’ over/under win-total of 5.5, there’s not a lot of confidence that David Braun can engineer similar magic that he road to a stunning 9-4 season in 2023. Although Northwestern ranks No. 1 in defensive returning production, its schedule (no longer in the cozy Big Ten West) suddenly features Ohio State and Michigan, who the ‘Cats play back-to-back in late November. 

Depending on how the rest of the season shakes out, their Thanksgiving weekend rivalry game in Wrigley Field against Illinois is probably Braun’s best bet to score a marquee victory for his program. The ‘Cats won a fun shootout against the Fighting Illini last season (45-43).

Ohio State — vs. Michigan (Nov. 30)

The biggest layup of this entire series? 

Ryan Day is 56-8 as the head coach of the Buckeyes, yet three consecutive losses to the Team Up North (who also won the Big Ten title all three seasons culminating in a national championship in 2023) has Ohio State’s head coach under immense pressure to snap the ugly skid

The Buckeyes could win the national title in 2024, but another loss to Michigan — especially this Wolverines team with a first-year head coach and a roster in transition — would still be held against Day, who otherwise has had a flawless 2024. Lose ‘The Game’ and not make (or win) the championship and who knows what’s in store for Day’s future at Ohio State — a rather unthinkable possibility considering all his other successes.

Oregon — vs. Ohio State (Oc. 12)

While most programs struggle early in conference realignment, the Ducks have a chance to win the Big Ten in Year 1. Dan Lanning has assembled a squad capable of beating any team in the country — including maybe the top-ranked Buckeyes in mid-October. 

The two favorites could square off more than once next season. Oregon won at Ohio State three years ago, and now the Buckeyes hope to spur their own road upset in their first trip to Eugene in nearly 30 years. 

Penn State — vs. Ohio State (Nov. 2) 

Is this the year James Franklin gets the money off his back and starts winning an upset or two that spurs the Nittany Lions back the Big Ten title game for the first time since 2016?

Franklin is (in)famously just 4-16 against Michigan and Ohio State. The Wolverines aren’t on the schedule this fall, but the Buckeyes are and it caps a very tricky three-week stretch for Penn State, which plays at USC and Wisconsin. Penn State has a playoff-caliber team, but we’ll find out if the Nittany Lions are more than that if they can finally unseat Ohio State atop the Big Ten standings.

Purdue — vs. Nebraska (Sept. 28)

The Boilermakers have rivalry games against Wisconsin (where they’ve lost an astounding 19-straight), Illinois (who they beat in Ryan Walters’ first season) and Indiana, but any 2024 optimism could hinge on their Big Ten opener against Nebraska. 

With games against Notre Dame and at Oregon State (a toss-up to be sure), Purdue could be looking at a 1-2 start with a brutal conference slate awaiting. The Boilermakers will be short underdogs against the Cornhuskers, but if they can net the upset, they would enter October with a little juice before a gnarly final two months (Oregon, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State + the aforementioned trio of rivals). 

Rutgers — vs. Wisconsin (Oct. 12) 

In the first season of the Big Ten with no division, the Knight received the gift of all gifts schedule-wise — avoiding the Top 4 preseason teams in the league in Ohio State, Oregon, Michigan State and Penn State.  They still have a bunch of toss-up games on their slate, but there’s a path for Greg Schiano to build on last year’s 7-6 season with an 8-9 win campaign. 

To do so will require taking care of business against a favorable home slate, including hosting Wisconsin in mid-October. The Knights have a pair of difficult road games the first month (at Va. Tech, at Nebraska), but if they can beat the Badgers they could set themselves up for a big second-half surge the last six weeks of the year.

UCLA — vs. USC (Nov. 23)

While the Bruins are newcomers to the Big Ten, a Week 11 showdown with their crosstown rival Trojans is the biggest game for DeShaun Foster in his first season in charge of his alma mater. UCLA is not exactly setup for much success in 2024, and that has a lot to do with losing top-flight coordinator D’Anton Lynn and a trio of starters (defensive backs Kamari Ramsey and John Humphrey, wideout Kyle Ford) to USC. 

For a program likely flirting with bowl eligibility come late November, beating USC could determine UCLA’s postseason fate — and a win would be a massive statement for Foster’s team in Year 1.

USC — vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 28)

The Trojans start the 2024 season with a bang in a non-conference showdown with LSU in Las Vegas. Two weeks later, they’ll make their Big Ten debut in the Big House against the reigning national champion Michigan Wolverines. There’s a decent chance USC starts the season 1-2 before its Big Ten home opener against Wisconsin (with former much-maligned DC Alex Grinch on staff).

The game against the Badgers could be a potential swing game for Lincoln Riley’s squad — a win could vault USC on a nice two-month run (they’d be favored in at least six of the next seven games) but a loss could spell doom for a team that still has Penn State, Nebraska, UCLA and Notre Dame on its schedule. 

Washington — vs. Michigan (Oct. 5)

While the Huskies are essentially a totally new-look team (20 of 22 starters must be replaced) with a new head coach to boot, the program would still like some sweet revenge over a Wolverines team that beat them in the national title game in January. 

Jedd Fisch has the fortune of easing into the 2024 slate, and there’s a strong chance his team is 4-1 or 5-0 before hosting the Wolverines in Husky Stadium. Considering all the changes within the program (new coach, AD, roster) in the last six months, beating Michigan (before a tough second-half stretch awaits) would be a welcomed sign for Fisch in Year 1.

Wisconsin — vs. Penn State (Oct. 26)

Where exactly does Luke Fickell’s program stand in Year 2? A  late-October matchup against a likely Top 10-ish Penn State team should reveal some answers. Wisconsin aims to be a Big Ten title contender in the future, but that’s not in the cards in 2024 — still, the Badgers are a frisky enough roster to compete with the best teams in the league, especially in Camp Randall Stadium. 

Although Wisconsin plays Alabama and at USC in the first month, the Badgers should still be 5-2 when it welcomes the Nittany Lions to town. An upset over the Nittany Lions would not only give Fickell his first signature win with the program but provide some juice before a three-week stretch that goes at Iowa, Oregon and at Nebraska.