Published Saturday, June 22, 2013 at 9:32 pm / Updated at 10:09 pm
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McKewon: Non-league slate's menu hardly five-star

As I beheld the sheer mediocrity of the Big Ten's collective 2013 nonconference schedule, I couldn't come up with the right word to describe it until I looked at my daughter Mary's little Paris map stickers.

Ennui.

It just fits. It's a French word for that thing the unusually idle, unusually rich feel when the thrill fades from having something new — toys, houses, cars, relationships, conference switches — and they're left to reckon, with, you know, the search for meaning in such a setting.

The Big Ten is beer-batter-thick with history, the stadiums are generally and genuinely great stages, and when the light catches a Michigan helmet just so, it feels like a time before I was born. It's nearly immaculate in that way. But the actual nonconference teams the Big Ten invites into this setting?

Let's put it this way: Out of 48 games, 13 are on the Mid-American Conference meal plan. Present your punch card, dig in, and hope you don't get the rare case of food poisoning. The league signed up for 10 FCS games, too. Creighton left the Missouri Valley Conference — and look who joined! The Big Ten! Six of the league's FCS games are against Missouri Valley football teams. Indiana State appears twice. The SEC appears just once, with Missouri traveling to Indiana.

The SEC has many of the same tricks — all 14 teams have an FCS game on the schedule with some southern flunky — but that league is new money. The conference itself is rigor enough. The Big Ten — old money — has curiously ordained, in 2014 and 2015, that top teams stay away from each other for the regular season. This fattens the best teams, one supposes — but even a rich diet gets old if it's rich every day.

And, naturally, the league's still inviting to the table an old, back-stabbing financier, Notre Dame, for a trio of games — two of which will eat up ABC prime-time TV slots for the league. It's always good when one of the three best games in the entire nonconference slate — Nebraska-UCLA — has a noon kickoff so Purdue can get its face shoved in the mud on Saturday night by the Irish. Doesn't the gigantic Big Ten TV contract cover, at this point, the 10,000 empty seats Purdue might have if it played, say, Kansas State instead of Notre Dame?

That the Irish still linger is indicative of the weary comfort the Big Ten resides in. Trips to mid-level Pac-12 teams like Cal and Arizona State are the Big Ten's idea of risqué. Unless it's an FCS team, the South and the East — you know, where the Big Ten is expanding — aren't on the radar. The Big Ten's still paying on the cheap for the same old entertainment. There's a certain style to a businessman dressing like he's in the 1980s. It has its limits, though. Maybe — maybe — a playoff helps teams recognize this. Rhetoric won't.

Here's my ranking of a sleepy September. Remember, the ranking is based on the quality of the opponent, the quality of the Big Ten team and, to a smaller extent, the potential for a close game.

1. Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 7: Grudge bowl. Michigan foolishly wants the series to continue for decades, ND wants out, and Michigan's playing the scorned lover. It's the best stinking nonconference game in the Big Ten all stinking September.

2. UCLA at Nebraska, Sept. 14: Nebraska probably will be favored and win, regardless of how much preseason fawning the Bruins and quarterback Brett Hundley get. This would be a fine spot for a little Adidas alternate uniform action if, indeed, such a uniform were in the works.

3. Ohio State at California, Sept. 14: A terrific, exciting game last year, with OSU pulling it out 35-28 in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes might be better, the Golden Bears not as good, and Ohio State avoids a late-night start. Another Big Ten team won't be so lucky.

4. Michigan State at Notre Dame, Sept. 21: My Fighting Irish fatigue is ... already ... setting ... in.

5. Wisconsin at Arizona State, Sept. 14: Not a good fit for Wisky. It's a 9:30 p.m. start, the Sun Devils managed to keep coach Todd Graham for a second season and ASU's offense was really humming by the end of the year. Take the home team.

6. BYU at Wisconsin, Nov. 9: New coach Gary Andersen played at Utah, coached at Utah State and generally spent his whole adult career at schools in BYU's shadow. This game will mean something to him.

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7. Penn State vs. Syracuse, Aug. 31: (at East Rutherford, N.J.) Penn State is paying Bill O'Brien more than $3 million per year so he doesn't make like former Orange coach Doug Marrone and leave for the NFL. The offenses in this one won't be pretty.

8. Iowa at Iowa State, Sept. 14: The Cyclones aren't winning a ton — 6-7 the last two years — but they've beaten Iowa two straight and coach Paul Rhoads has a personality.

9. Michigan at Connecticut, Sept. 21: Since the Wolverines have a bye game after the trip to Storrs, I can imagine Brady Hoke visiting ESPN the following Monday, where numerous TV hosts chuckle at him saying “Ohio” in his Ohio accent.

10. San Diego State at Ohio State, Sept. 7: Buckeyes draw a decent Aztec team that takes a lot of chances on defense and could make for an exciting game.

11. Notre Dame at Purdue, Sept. 14: The Fighting Irish thieve yet another prime-time slot from another deserving Big Ten team. Over by halftime.

12. Northwestern at California, Aug. 31: Cal's not very good and Sonny Dykes is coaching his first game, but I don't like the 9:30 start time one bit. Northwestern's not usually a prime-time team, and certainly not late-night. Tough opener.

13. Syracuse at Northwestern, Sept. 7: Excellent game in 2012 — the Wildcats won 42-41. But the matchup loses some of its salt in 2013, with Syracuse starting over with a new coach and new quarterback.

14. Washington vs. Illinois , Sept. 14: (In Chicago) It's proving time for UDub coach Steve Sarkisian, who has recruited well and sprung the occasional upset, but produced three straight 7-6 seasons.

15. Missouri at Indiana, Sept. 21: Tangential MAC meal plan: Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel once led Toledo. Great basketball-on-grass matchup.

16. Central Florida at Penn State, Sept. 14: The Golden Knights are contenders in the new American Athletic Conference, which features the likes of Cincinnati, Houston and, for this year, Rutgers and Louisville. But UCF lost its three big games last year vs. Ohio State, Missouri and Tulsa. Still, the Golden Knights are going to play defense.

17. Navy at Indiana, Sept. 7: The Middies make a single appearance on a Big Ten schedule this year and once again prove that, if half of the college coaches wanted to win as badly as they say they do, they'd run the wingbone offense.

18. Northern Illinois at Iowa, Aug. 31: MAC meal plan: open-face, warmed-over memories of the Hawkeyes beating a BCS team last year with Iowa's mashed potato offense.

19. South Florida at Michigan State, Sept. 7: I really like new coach Willie Taggart and what he'll eventually accomplish at USF. But the Bulls don't get out of East Lansing with a win against Sparty's defense.

20. Wyoming at Nebraska, Aug. 31: In a postgame rage rant last year, Cowboys coach Dave Christensen called Air Force coach Troy Calhoun “Howdy Doody” and “flyboy.” It was Wyoming's Military Appreciation Night.

21. Illinois at Cincinnati, Sept. 7: The Bearcats are my pick to win the Captain America Conference.

22. Purdue at Cincinnati, Aug. 31: The Boilermakers are starting all the way over with new coach Darrell Hazell. He'll need five years to fix Purdue's mediocrity — if, indeed, he's the guy.

23. Southern Miss at Nebraska, Sept. 7: Within a calendar year, new Golden Eagles Athletic Director Jeff Hammond fired Ellis Johnson after a 0-12 season and learned he'd lose his own job. Colorado feels ya, USM.

24. Northern Illinois at Purdue, Sept. 28: MAC meal plan: boiling-hot Purdue fans when NIU walks out of Ross-Ade Stadium with a win.

25. Kent State at Penn State, Sept. 21: MAC meal plan: golden flashbacks to Kent's 11-3 season in 2012 as PSU holds top running back Dri Archer to less than 100 yards.

26. Western Michigan at Iowa, Sept. 28: MAC meal plan: I'm rather afraid it could be Hawkeye on the menu. Or spaghetti loaf.

27. W. Michigan at Michigan State, Aug. 30: MAC meal plan: Friday night rectangular pizza with big Bronco chunks! With extra plod courtesy of the Spartans' offense!

28. W. Michigan at Northwestern, Sept. 14: Some anonymous donor gave WMU $100 million to build a medical school. It will open next year. And there is this football game. MAC meal plan.

29. Central Michigan at Michigan, Aug. 31: MAC meal plan: flan, made to the runny consistency of the Chippewas' 94th-ranked scoring defense. Devin Gardner gets a good first game to settle in before Notre Dame.

30. Bowling Green at Indiana, Sept. 14: MAC meal plan: fire-kissed Falcon wings on a bed of new potatoes, honey-glazed with a peach-mango-avocado puree. (And honey.) BGSU has played only two Big Ten teams in the last five years. Backslider.

31. Eastern Michigan at Penn State, Sept. 7: We suspend the MAC meal plan because eagles are too cool, and relatively endangered to boot. EMU itself is darn near extinct: 13 wins in five years.

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32. Miami (Ohio) at Illinois, Sept. 28: MAC meal plan: roasted Red Hawk with braised cabbage. Tim Beckman's hot seat ought to be ready by this game.

33. Massachusetts at Wisconsin, Aug. 31: MAC meal plan: a minute or two in the microwave to get Wisconsin's offense warmed up before the usual Badger beating.

34. San Jose State at Minnesota, Sept. 21: Swill. And possibly an upset.

35. UNLV at Minnesota, Aug. 29: Mama needs a new pair of shoes and a 4-0 nonconference start!

36. Youngstown St. at Michigan St., Sept. 14: Mo Valley meal plan. Mark Mangino coaches some position for the Penguins.

37. Akron at Michigan, Sept. 14: MAC meal plan: Zips! That's ziti with zucchini, the speed with which it travels through your digestive system, and the number of points Akron will score at Michigan.

38. South Dakota St. at Nebraska Sept. 21: The Jackrabbits are on the Missouri Valley meal plan, but their elaborate defensive scheme put Taylor Martinez through the wringer in 2010.

39. Minnesota at New Mexico State, Sept. 7: What bet did Jerry Kill lose to play a road game in Las Cruces?

40. Buffalo at Ohio State, Aug. 31: MAC meal plan: Braxton Miller's buffalo bites. Tastes like 400 total yards and four touchdowns.

41. Maine at Northwestern, Sept. 21: The Wildcats have arrived to the point that they can pay an FCS team to show up and get its Black Bear butt handed to it.

42. Western Illinois at Minnesota, Sept. 14: Mo Valley meal plan! Get some!

43. Missouri State at Iowa, Sept. 7: Steve Alford bowl. Mo Valley meal plan.

44. Florida A&M at Ohio State, Sept. 21: The Rattlers were surprisingly competitive last year at Oklahoma, losing 69-13.

45. Southern Illinois at Illinois, Aug. 31: On today's Missouri Valley meal plan: sauteed Saluki tossed with quinoa. Shawn Watson and Bill Callahan both coached at both schools.

46. Indiana State at Indiana, Aug. 29: Sensing a moment of postmodern, meta synergy, Hoosier hoops coach Tom Crean fills in for Kevin Wilson, loses, and yells at himself for wrecking Indiana's program. (Oh, and, Mo Valley meal plan.)

47. Indiana State at Purdue, Sept. 7: Mo' Mo Valley: The Sycamores take another dip into the Big Ten welfare program.

48. Tennessee Tech at Wisconsin, Sept. 7: Last year, Tech put a scare into Oregon, taking a 7-0 lead two minutes into the game before losing 63-14.

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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