Ask, and you shall receive, Bret Bielema.
At this week’s SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Fla., Bielema (currently the head coach at Arkansas, formerly the leader at Wisconsin) launched a personal campaign for the SEC-Big Ten Challenge — an annual event that would hypothetically and logistically cover two September Saturdays and 14 yearly matchups between the high-profile conferences.
Obviously, Bielema’s grand plan remains in the ‘dream’ stage for now; but it’s certainly an interesting proposal, especially in this consequence-free age of the College Football Playoff (more on that later).
Here’s our pitch: SEC Country has brainstormed 14 apples-to-apples clashes for this fall … as if the SEC-Big Ten Challenge were actually set for the 2016 and ’17 seasons.
In all, we’re talking about seven games per weekend, with the Big Ten Network and SEC Network airing two games apiece (12 noon and 7 p.m. slots). ESPN, ABC and CBS would subsequently fill out the dance card each Saturday, drawing primetime outings and presumably the most attractive matchups.
And as mentioned above, for this hypothetical exercise, the back end of the home-and-home scheduling would take place in 2017. Citing one example, Michigan would travel to Alabama this fall … and the Crimson Tide would then travel to Ann Arbor next year.
MICHIGAN @ ALABAMA
It’s our obligation to kick-start this SEC-Big Ten Challenge with an absolute home run, pitting Nick Saban vs. Jim Harbaugh. They are college football’s kings of social-media attention right now … and frankly, the voting’s not even close.
Technically, these wildly successful leaders have never faced one another as head coaches. But that’s immaterial for now, given the recent barbs exchanged between the stars, highlighted by Harbaugh’s blistering retort against Saban, just a few hours after the Alabama coach generally railed against satellite camps and the new “Wild, Wild West” atmosphere.
It also helps that Michigan will likely open the season as the Big Ten’s highest-ranked team … even though the Wolverines have three daunting road trips on the docket (Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State).
Let’s be clear here: If Michigan was truly opening the season at Alabama, the defending national champs would likely be double-digit favorites, in the eyes of Vegas. The Wolverines simply aren’t up to the Crimson Tide’s level of dominance.
LSU @ OHIO STATE
For my money, LSU and Ohio State represent the favorites to win the SEC and Big Ten this fall.
Also, in a College Football Playoff world — where the CFP committee only rewards conference champions — the loser of this September clash wouldn’t be in any grave danger of missing the semifinals (New Year’s Eve).
In fact, this is why Bielema merits great praise: There are no definitive “losers” within an SEC-Big Ten Challenge. Consequently, strength-of-schedule bumps would apply for nearly every matchup … and winning teams would merely collect bonus points for the road ahead.
MICHIGAN STATE @ UGA
This pairing works on numerous levels:
- Since 2008, MSU and UGA have both posted five campaigns of double-digit victories. In that span, the programs have combined for 11 bowl wins.
- For the decade, the Spartans (three) and Dawgs (two) have produced five top-10 finishes.
- A large base of Michigan State alums reside in metro Atlanta (easy drive to Athens).
- UGA, which hasn’t been inside the state of Michigan since 1965 (road victory over U-M), has never played at Michigan State (2017).
- Michigan State and UGA have the talent and resources to annually compete for College Football Playoff berths. However, the programs are typically overshadowed, hype-wise, by multiple teams from their respective leagues. For MSU … it’s Michigan and Ohio State; and for UGA … it’s Alabama, LSU and usually Florida.
OLE MISS @ IOWA
Consequently, there aren’t many no-brainer options when seeking out a natural first foe for Ole Miss.
When in doubt, though, ride the matchup of senior quarterbacks — pitting Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly (vying to become the first SEC QB in history to pass for 4,000 yards in consecutive seasons) against Iowa’s C.J. Beathard (2,809 yards passing, 23 total TDs last year).
That alone should be enough ‘juice’ for the TV networks, touting programs that both reached ‘New Year’s Six’ bowls last season.
PENN STATE @ FLORIDA
This would have made for a great home-and-home series during the 1980s and 1990s, when the Nittany Lions and Gators were dominating college football.
It still makes for good theater in the present day, with Penn State transitioning from a drop-back passer (Christian Hackenberg) to a dual-threat quarterback (likely Tommy Stevens) … and Florida conversely moving from a dual-threat passer (Treon Harris) to a classic pocket QB (likely Luke Del Rio).
We’re also talking about two of college football’s most powerful brands, appeasing TV networks (always a good thing).
TEXAS A&M @ WISCONSIN
Truth be told, Texas A&M wouldn’t be a favorable matchup for any Big Ten school this fall, including Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State.
The star-laden Aggies (featuring defensive end Myles Garrett, receiver Christian Kirk, quarterback Trevor Knight, defensive end Daeshon Hall, receiver Josh Reynolds) are viable national title contenders and could easily remain in the top 10 throughout the season — regardless of the Alabama (road) and LSU encounters (home).
As for Wisconsin, the Badgers (81st in scoring last season) will surely show improvement in Year 2 of the Paul Chryst era. But not even the supreme home field advantage of Camp Randall Stadium would be enough to subdue Texas A&M for full quarters. As stated above, the Aggies are legit contenders for the SEC West crown.
TENNESSEE @ NORTHWESTERN
Yes, Tennessee’s 45-6 shellacking of Northwestern from last season’s Outback Bowl remains a fresh memory for both fan bases.
However, for the sake of ‘revenge’ entertainment, it’s fun to sanction a quick-turnaround rematch here … especially with this hypothetical game taking place on Northwestern’s thick and slow home turf.
And if you don’t think that matters, check out Northwestern’s home upset of Stanford from last September. The Cardinals accounted for only six points and 240 total yards in the season-opening defeat … before averaging 40.2 points over their next 13 games (against top-notch competition).
That aside, Tennessee would be prohibitive Vegas favorites to handle Northwestern this fall. The Volunteers, who suffered gut-wrenching losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama last season, are primed to win the SEC East and should remain a top-10 fixture throughout the year.
It also helps to have the SEC’s best returning backfield in quarterback Joshua Dobbs (2,291 yards passing, 27 TDs in 2015), tailback Jalen Hurd (1,478 total yards, 14 TDs) and running back Alvin Kamara (989 total yards, 10 TDs).
MARYLAND @ KENTUCKY
I love the offensive potential of this matchup, so much that an over-under number of 75 would spark a lot of bets — on both sides — among the Vegas crowd.
Here’s another thing to appreciate: Kentucky’s Mark Stoops stands as one of the SEC’s best recruiters (six 4-star recruits in 2014, led by QB Drew Barker, defensive tackle Matt Elam, tailback Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams) … and new Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin had a sterling national reputation for closing the deal as an assistant with Florida (2010-14) and Michigan (2015).
NEBRASKA @ AUBURN
Doesn’t this seem like a non-conference matchup that should occur every year?
Nebraska and Auburn both have tremendously loyal fan bases, play in amazing stadiums and possess illustrious histories when running the football (Heisman Trophy winners Mike Rozier and Bo Jackson, above, during the 1980s).
Both schools also boast a pair of dual-threat legacy quarterbacks who have collected national championships in recent years — with Tommie Frazier rolling for back-to-back titles (1994-95) and Cam Newton pulling off the Heisman/BCS championship double play in 2010.
VANDERBILT @ INDIANA
The days of Vanderbilt (124th nationally in scoring last year) being stagnant or anemic on offense are likely over, given the maturation of quarterback Kyle Shurmur (4-star recruit in 2014; productive as a freshman), junior running back Ralph Webb (1,340 total yards, 7 TDs last year) and junior receiver Trent Sherfield (candidate for 75-plus catches, 1,000 yards). Also, the Commodores’ talented defense would be keenly tested by an Indiana offense that has averaged 33 points per game since 2012.
Put it all together, and this region-friendly matchup (only 268 miles separating the campuses) would be an entertaining noon-hour appetizer for Big Ten and SEC fans, in anticipation of the major showdowns later in the viewing day.
MINNESOTA @ ARKANSAS
Just about any Big Ten matchup would have worked for Arkansas, given the presence of Coach Bielema (68-24 at Wisconsin from 2006-12) — our muse for the SEC-Big Ten Challenge.
The Minnesota pairing raises one obvious question, though: Why not Wisconsin for Bielema, who brought great success to the Badgers?
Simply put, for this event to have staying power beyond the first two years … we’ll need to keep a few high-profile clashes in the back pocket.
MISSISSIPPI STATE @ PURDUE
There aren’t many obvious ties connecting the two programs.
Mississippi State has experienced unparalleled success under head coach Dan Mullen (50 victories this decade), whereas Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell (6-30 overall with the Boilermakers) surely wouldn’t survive a fourth consecutive campaign of three or fewer wins.
However, there’s one thing to celebrate: Both schools will be committing to young arms at quarterback this fall, namely Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald (strong-armed successor to Dak Prescott) and Purdue’s David Blough (14 total TDs as a freshman).
Plus, according to my research, Mississippi State and Purdue have never met on the football field.
RUTGERS @ SOUTH CAROLINA
It takes a special coach to consistently win at Rutgers and South Carolina, even though both schools are housed in fertile recruiting areas. The reasoning for that: Powerhouse programs from the Big Ten, SEC and ACC routinely poach elite-level prep talent from New Jersey and South Carolina.
Plus, the legacies of Greg Schiano (68 victories at Rutgers) and Steve Spurrier (three straight 11-win seasons from 2010-12 at South Carolina) still loom large with Scarlet Knights and Gamecocks fans, respectively, adding to the degree of difficulty for new head coaches Chris Ash (Rutgers) and Will Muschamp (South Carolina).
MISSOURI @ ILLINOIS
We’re scraping the bottom of the barrel here, acknowledging that Missouri and/or Illinois could finish dead-last in the SEC and Big Ten respectively.
Which brings us to the following rule of thumb: When in doubt with potentially dormant matchups … always sell relative “hate,” history and geography.
Geography: Missouri and Illinois are separated by only 270 miles.
History: The two schools have met 18 times since 1975. For this century, Missouri and Illinois held the six “Braggin’ Rights” showdowns at the Edward Jones Dome (currently known as the “Dome At America’s Center”), in nearby St. Louis.
Hate: The loathing between the programs may cut both ways, but it’s been a one-side affair since 1978, with Mizzou holding a 12-3 advantage in the last 15 meetings — including a sweep of the last six games.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.