- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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We're just two days away from the 2012 college football season, and it's time to check out the top Big Ten games to watch this fall, in chronological order.
Here are 12 contests you don't want to miss ...
Boise State at Michigan State: Although Michigan is the Big Ten's highest-rated team entering the season, Michigan State is getting more love as the league favorite. The Spartans get a chance to make a statement against a Boise State team that has built its reputation on winning games like these.
Michigan vs. Alabama (at Arlington, Texas): No regular-season game can shape the Big Ten's national perception more than this one, as Michigan takes on the defending national champ at JerryWorld. After an 11-win season in its first year under Brady Hoke, Michigan looks to take the next step and re-establish itself as a national power. Quarterback Denard Robinson has been very good in September throughout his career, and he can make a push for the Heisman Trophy with a big game against Bama.
Michigan at Notre Dame: The teams' past three meetings have had plenty of drama, thanks in large part to Robinson, who engineered Michigan's historic comeback under the lights last year in Ann Arbor. Robinson attempts to complete a career of tormenting the Irish in another night game at Notre Dame Stadium. Both teams play brutal schedules this fall, but Notre Dame, as the home team, really needs to end its slide against the Maize and Blue.
Wisconsin at Nebraska: Wisconsin rudely welcomed Nebraska to the Big Ten last fall with a 48-17 walloping in Madison. The Huskers try to avenge the loss as they open Big Ten play at Memorial Stadium. This is a big one for Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who threw three interceptions against the Badgers in 2011. The game also pits the league's top two running backs in Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead.
Penn State at Illinois: This game wouldn't have made the list six weeks ago. That was before the NCAA hammered Penn State with sanctions and Illinois coach Tim Beckman sent eight assistant coaches to Happy Valley to try to poach Lions players (he landed one in offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki). It's safe to say Beckman won't be receiving a Christmas card from Bill O'Brien. The Big Ten opener in Champaign has gotten a lot more interesting as two similar teams dealing with change face off.
Nebraska at Ohio State: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini returns to his alma mater for a critical cross-division game. The Huskers need to prove they can win in a hostile Big Ten venue, while Ohio State plays its league home opener under Urban Meyer. If you enjoy athletic quarterbacks, be sure to tune in as Martinez matches up with Ohio State's Braxton Miller, who flustered the Huskers last season before leaving the game with an ankle injury.
Michigan State at Michigan: This could be the game of the year in the Big Ten as the league's two highest-rated teams in the preseason square off. It's a rivalry game and a contest that could shape the race in the Legends Division. Last year's spicy contest in East Lansing only thickens the plot, and all eyes will be on Michigan State's Will Gholston and Michigan's Taylor Lewan as they reunite. The Spartans aim for their first-ever five-game win streak against the Wolverines.
Michigan State at Wisconsin: Blockbuster Saturday in the Big Ten begins with a rematch of the 2011 league title game. These teams brought us plenty of drama in 2011, and could be on course for a rematch in Indianapolis. The game features two outstanding running backs in Ball and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, as well as two quarterbacks -- Wisconsin's Danny O'Brien and Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell -- with something to prove. The Badgers have dropped just one home game to Michigan State since 1991.
Michigan at Nebraska: Another pivotal Legends Division showdown takes place under the lights at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. Although both teams face tests before this game, they should both be in the division race. Martinez and Robinson are two of the league's most exciting offensive players. Nebraska tries to avenge last year's blowout loss in Ann Arbor against a Michigan team that will be accustomed to hostile environments.
Nebraska at Michigan State: The final matchup between Legends Division frontrunners takes place in East Lansing. It completes a tortuous stretch for Michigan State (Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska), and marks another chance for Nebraska to prove itself on the road in Big Ten play. The Huskers dominated last year's contest, but Michigan State hasn't lost a home game since the 2009 season.
Ohio State at Wisconsin: The Buckeyes-Badgers rivalry should be the top Leaders Division matchup for years to come, and while Ohio State's bowl ban takes away some luster from this year's class, no one has forgotten the post-signing day spat between Bret Bielema and Meyer. There's no love lost between these two programs and their coaches, and though Ohio State can't win the division this year, it can shape the race with a victory in Madison, where Wisconsin has been dominant under Bielema.
Michigan at Ohio State: Hoke and Meyer meet for the first time in The Game, which should pit two good teams for the first time since the 2007 season. Michigan could be in the mix for the Legends Division title and possibly more, while Ohio State knows its season will end against the hated Wolverines. The Robinson-Miller matchup adds intrigue, and both teams should be strong on the defensive side. The unique circumstances surrounding the game make it a must-see event.
5dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy
6dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy