A few days ago one of my twitter followers asked - "What's the Most Important Game in 2011?"
I had no answer for him. No, scratch that. I said that I'd get back to him with an answer. Or that I'd do an article (isn't that the same thing?) about it, and get the other guys involved. (It's now taken me a week, being that far behind these days while concentrating on a heavy work load and trying to finish up this year's Cornhusker Kickoff yearbook.)
I have my opinions about the most important game of the upcoming season, but I really like hearing what others have to say, and since there's a whole gang of us writing on CN now, I posed the question to the group. Some pretty good answers, me thinks, and not all the same.
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Answers after the jump.....
If we're going to talk about most significant game, I'd say that's the Wisconsin game. Not only did the Big Ten welcome us to the club by giving us The Most Brutal Schedule Ever*, but the Huskers kick off the season AT Madison AT night. What an introduction, huh?
The most important game, however, will be Michigan State. A division rival. (which division are we in again? Can't we just have a grassroots campaign to rename them even if the Big Ten calls them Leaders and Legends? With blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., we can't get that done? I digress.) The Spartans seemed to click on all cylinders last year and they still have the tools to come into Lincoln and play the Huskers straight up. Northwestern would worry me if the game were in Evanston. Iowa is rebuilding and Michigan is doing the same, but more so. Minnesota is...well.... Minnesota. Michigan State is the game we need to have if we plan on going to Indianapolis.
*Which, by the way, I have no problem with.
I think there are four candidate games: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa. Fresno State and Washington deserve some mention as our first peeks into how Nebraska has rebounded from the end of 2010.
Ricky makes a great point that if Nebraska wants to get to Indianapolis, the Huskers must win the division, and frankly, Sparty scares me more than the Wegians at first glance. But frankly, I don't think Nebraska's focus is on just getting to Indianapolis. Nebraska made it to the Big XII Championship game the previous two seasons, so just getting back to a conference championship game (albeit in a new conference) isn't such a big deal.
Instead, I'll argue that Ohio State* is the most significant/important game. Wisconsin may be the first Big Ten game, and on the road. But Wisconsin lost a lot from last season. Ohio State is the team with the most talent and the team they must overcome (possibly twice) to be in the spotlight in December. But then there is that asterisk, as it cuts both ways. As it stands today, the attention on this game is going to be huge. Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressell (as well as DeVier Posey, Daniel Herron and Mike Adams) will be coming off their suspensions, and it's the first Big Ten game in Lincoln. Right now, this game has the look of ESPN GameDay in the morning and ABC PrimeTime that night. The nation will be watching, and that makes this game the key factor.
But that asterisk cuts the other way. Jim Tressel is going to be fired by Ohio State (or resign/retire in disgrace). I don't know when, or by whom. But there's no way the SweaterVest retains his job once everything emerges from what is happening at Ohio State... He may make it back to the sideline this season, but he'll be "interim" at best. Once the NCAA is done with Ohio State, they will have no choice but to fire him. It may take a year or more, but he'll be gone. The only question is who else will be removed as well. If you are afraid that you can't fire Jim Tressel, then you'll be gone as well.
And if all this happens before Ohio State comes to Lincoln, then all bets are off.
Will Grubb, Head Podcaster
I'm going with Ohio State. Besides being Pryor and Tressell's first game back it is the first Big Ten game in Lincoln and the buzz is going to be similar to Texas last year. For fans to really buy into this team for next season they will need to see a strong win in Lincoln against Ohio State. If the Huskers loose it will leave many thinking that it will take the Huskers a couple of years to settle in before competing for a Big Ten Title.
I'll go with the Ohio State game as most important too, but not for the Tressel/suspension/first Big Ten home game hoopla that Mike mentioned. Instead, I think it's most important because it's the one game that will almost certainly have a huge impact on the Huskers' Big Ten title chances. The Wisconsin game will have a big-game feel as the Huskers' first encounter with the B1G, but it's not going to make or break the Huskers' season. But the Wisconsin and Ohio State games combined could do just that.
If Nebraska loses to Wisconsin, that Ohio State game will become the Huskers' attempt not to dig themselves into an 0-2 hole, which could end up requiring the Huskers to sweep their division into order to get a spot in the B1G Championship - and that puts a lot of pressure on them for the rest of the season. A win in the Ohio State game after a Wisconsin loss, and they're still on track after playing possibly the toughest two teams they'll face all year.
If Nebraska beats Wisconsin, the Ohio State game is just as big. Wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State would put Nebraska firmly in the driver's seat for the B1G West title game spot, and would likely even establish them as the team to beat in the conference overall. It would also vault them into the edges of the national title conversation (too soon for my tastes, but always better than the alternative). A loss wouldn't be devastating, but a win would be massive.
I agree that a division game could end up being bigger in the long run, but I have no idea who - Iowa, Michigan State, or heck, even Northwestern could all emerge as Nebraska's top rival in the B1G West. But we know Ohio State's the class of the Big Ten, and we know that no matter what, it'll be a key game in shaping the Brewers' Big Ten chances.
I'm going with Minnesota. Why? Because I live in Minnesota and Nebraska's move to the Big Ten changes everything. For the past 20 years, I've been able to go around being the biggest Husker homer in the land. It didn't matter to the natives; Nebraska wasn't beating up on their school so they didn't care all that much. They were just as happy joining me making fun of places like Missouri and Colorado.
Minnesotans may have resolved themselves to losing to Nebraska already, but believe me, one loss to the Gophers, and their walleye-lovin' passive-aggressive asses will be all over me and other Nebraskans like me.
I have to believe I'm not alone in that there are other Husker fans living in Big Ten areas (Imagine all them Husker alums in Iowa and losing to those Hawkeyes. Egad!) that may just now be realizing what a significant change this brings for all of us.
As far as the "most important game" goes with regards to the success of the season, I'm going to go with Wisconsin. I've finished all of the opponent previews I write for this year's edition of Cornhusker Kickoff, and it's pretty clear what the Badgers are going to do in 2011. They have to find a suitable replacement for quarterback Scott Tolzien, but they have two backs, Montee Ball and James White, that are pretty darned good. They're going to run the ball as much as possible and hope to hit some play-action passes. That may sound like Wisconsin every year, but it's amplified by the fact of a first-year starter at quarterback.
Last year's Blackshirt defense was suspect against the run. That should change this season as Bo Pelini alters his defensive scheme and playing more linebackers than Nebraska did in the Big 12. Big Ten offenses are more focused on execution than they are about deception, and part of that execution includes bludgeoning other teams until they submit, a concept that older Nebraska fans should be familiar with.
The key here is - are our linebackers up for that kind of challenge? The easy answer is a kool-aid laden scoff that I'm even asking the question. Reality is - our linebackers (other than Lavonte David) didn't play all that much last season. Will Compton missed part of the season with a foot injury, while Sean Fisher missed the entire season with a broken leg. On top of that, they're going to have to spend this offseason adding some bulk that doesn't slow them down.
Where will we see the benefits of all that hard work? Against Wisconsin. How the linebackers perform in that game will tell us a lot about what's going to happen the rest of the season. If Nebraska can't do a good job of stopping the run in that game, it won't be a good sign for our chances to win the Big Ten title.