Best foot forward
It's the Big Ten vs. the World on Saturday. So far this season, the World hasn't been very kind.
Badmouthing from all angles. Low rankings among the BCS conferences. A general lack of respect.
But Jim Delany's conference has a chance to do something about its national reputation. Across the country.
There are oodles of challenges for the Big Ten on Saturday, starting at the top. Two-time BCS title-game participant Ohio State visits No. 1 Southern Cal. The matchup has been talked about for months, starting not long after LSU beat the Buckeyes in January's title game.
"We want everyone around the country to know that the Big Ten is for real," Illinois defensive tackle David Lindquist said. "Just because of some of the bowl performances in the past few years, people are starting to think the Big Ten's not what it used to be."
Ohio State likely will be without Heisman Trophy candidate Beanie Wells, who injured his foot in the opener against Youngstown State. The sophomore tailback is listed as doubtful by coach Jim Tressel, though he traveled with the team.
Wells or no Wells, the expectations are great for Tressel's team, which was considered one of the preseason favorites to play in the BCS title game. Besides a string of returning stars from 2007, the roster includes quarterback Terrelle Pryor, considered the prize of the 2008 recruiting class.
Because the game is at 7 p.m., Illinois coach Ron Zook figures many of his players will tune in to see Pryor and the rest of the Buckeyes.
"That's one of the great things about having an 11 o'clock game, it's going to give us an opportunity to see some of that," Zook said.
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams plans to be in front of a TV.
"I've been looking forward to that matchup all year," Williams said. "I anticipate a great game. I anticipate guys flying around, beating up on each other. It's going to be pretty fun to watch."
So, who is Williams rooting for?
"I'm all for the Big Ten," Williams said. "I would love to see the Big Ten win that game. I'm also a USC fan."
Generally, the Illini root for their conference rivals in nonleague games. The exception comes when friends are involved.
During his recruitment, Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn developed a friendship with Southern Cal receiver Vidal Hazelton. That influences his rooting interest.
"I'm going to go with SC," Benn said. "I've got buddies there."
But Benn can picture the Buckeyes winning.
"They can go out to Southern Cal and make that statement," Benn said. "Playing in the Coliseum, it's going to be big."
Ohio State-Southern Cal is one of five marquee games in the Big Ten on Saturday. The only other one involving ranked teams is No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 21 Fresno State. The WAC's Bulldogs are looking to follow Hawaii and Boise State in earning a BCS berth. Pat Hill's team already has a win at Rutgers.
Other top games in the Big Ten are traditional rivals Iowa State at Iowa, No. 16 Oregon at Purdue and Michigan at Notre Dame. The five games are spread across four television windows, meaning you can watch the Big Ten vs. the World from 11 a.m. until early Sunday.
"You always want to see your Big Ten opponents play well out of conference," Zook said. "It does have a lot to do with what people think about the Big Ten Conference."
"We've got a bunch of good teams out there," Williams said. "We've got to go out there and produce. The only way we can get the reputation of the Big Ten of having a strong conference is to win games."
The Big Ten is 3-2 against BCS schools, but two of the wins came against perennial doormats Duke and Syracuse. Penn State owns the other victory against the BCS, pounding Oregon State 45-14 Saturday in the most impressive performance by a Big Ten school this season.
The losses to the BCS schools came at California (Michigan State) and against Missouri in St. Louis (Illinois).
The Big Ten is 18-3 overall, with the third loss Michigan's season opener against Mountain West contender Utah. Of the 18 wins, six came against I-AA schools. Other Big Ten victims include Western Kentucky, Florida International, Eastern Michigan, Akron, Marshall and Ohio. Not exactly college football powers.
Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley has worked in the Big Ten, ACC and SEC. He said there isn't a big difference between the power conferences.
Of course, Locksley will root for the league that employs him.
"I definitely like to see the conference do well for strength-of-scheduling purposes, for bowl games down the line and bragging rights among the conference teams," Locksley said.