Every conference can claim to have a gauntlet to run through to emerge a conference champion, but this year may prove to be one of the most competitive seasons the Big Ten has seen in years. Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin will enter the 2017 season as some of the top favorites in the conference, but none of those teams will be able to navigate through the season without some competitive games to be concerned about.
Here are the top 10 upset alerts facing Big Ten teams this season.
10. Northwestern over Nebraska, Nov. 4 Northwestern has a bit of a history pulling upsets on Nebraska, and the Wildcats could very well do it once more in 2017. In early November, with the Big Ten West coming down to the finish line, Northwestern could realistically play itself right into the mix by leaving Lincoln with a win, and the loss could set Nebraska too far back with little time to catch up in the division race.
9. Michigan State over Michigan, Oct. 7 Was last year a fluke season for the Michigan State Spartans? The power seemingly has been restored in the state of Michigan with the Wolverines rising back to the top of the ladder in the Great Lake State while the Spartans have fallen back to the pack, but tread carefully if you are going to doubt Michigan State this season. The Spartans should be expected to play better this fall and a game in Ann Arbor will be a good opportunity to deliver a message to the rest of the Big Ten in early October.
8. Indiana over Wisconsin, Nov. 4
The Badgers figure to be the obvious pick in the Big Ten West, but could Wisconsin be tripped up by Indiana in the first weekend of November? The Badgers’ trip to Bloomington comes a week after playing Illinois on the road and just before hosting Iowa and Michigan in key games down the stretch. This has the recipe for a trap game written all over it if the Hoosiers can find an offensive rhythm this season.
7. Maryland over Texas, Sep. 2 The season opener in Austin, Texas, will be all about the debut of Tom Herman with the Texas Longhorns. Don't be shocked if Maryland finds a way to spoil the atmosphere and score a noticeable win for the Big Ten in Big 12 country. Maryland is widely regarded as a Big Ten team building something, and DJ Durkin and his staff may be able to come up with the right game plan to take advantage of a Texas program still trying to rebuild and establish itself as a Big 12 threat.
6. Maryland over Michigan, Nov. 11 Here comes Maryland once again! This time, DJ Durkin scores a win against his former boss, Jim Harbaugh. Maryland hosts the Wolverines in the middle of November, a week before Michigan plays at Wisconsin. Trap game? Absolutely. Michigan also will be coming off a potentially tough game against Minnesota, while Maryland will be playing Rutgers in Yankee Stadium the previous week.
5. Michigan State over Penn State, Nov. 4 Once again, watch out for the Spartans. Penn State should be mindful of the dangers that Michigan State could provide, but what makes this game extra dicey is the timing. The Nittany Lions will be coming off two straight games against Michigan at home and Ohio State on the road when they make this trip to East Lansing. Michigan State tussled with Penn State for a half last year in State College, and the Spartans could end up being a more difficult hurdle than some expect this fall.
4. Minnesota over Wisconsin, Nov. 25 Minnesota has not defeated the Badgers since 2003 and they have done so just twice since 1995. So maybe the Gophers are due for a win? If there is one game on Minnesota's schedule that P.J. Fleck should absolutely be circling for his new program, it is this one. Wisconsin will be coming off back-to-back games against Iowa and Michigan, while Minnesota will have just played Nebraska and Northwestern. The Big Ten West could potentially even be on the line for the winner of this game. The Gophers will be itching to lay their hands on Paul Bunyan's Ax, and they just might get to do that while throwing a huge wrinkle in Wisconsin's Big Ten championship plans.
3. BYU over Wisconsin, Sep. 16
A trip to Provo, Utah, is never an easy one to make, so credit Wisconsin for agreeing to play a road game against the independent Cougars. The game may have no impact on the Big Ten championship race, but a loss at BYU would put an early dent in Wisconsin's hopes of making the College Football Playoff. The Badgers will need to be ready for a physically demanding game and must find ways to crack the Cougars’ defense. Failure to do so will send Wisconsin home with a loss heading into Big Ten play.
2. Northwestern over Penn State, Oct. 7 Penn State's offense may be the best in the Big Ten this season, but a road trip to Evanston, Illinois, heading into a bye week could put the Nittany Lions on high upset alert. A battle of the Big Ten's top two running backs (Saquon Barkley and Justin Jackson) will take the spotlight, but Northwestern's secondary will have to make some plays to slow down Penn State's passing game. Trace McSorley will put the ball up for grabs at times, and if the Wildcats can manage to come down with a couple of interceptions, they might just score one of the top upsets of the year. It also should be pointed out that after this game the Nittany Lions have a bye to prepare for Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State in the following weeks.
1. Michigan over Ohio State, Nov. 25 First, a disclaimer. By now you will notice that the possibility of Penn State beating Ohio State has not been included in this rundown. The reason for that is because the Nittany Lions winning in Columbus, Ohio, this October would be a pivotal result in the Big Ten season, but given the preseason rankings and the expectations for both teams, a Penn State victory didn't feel like an "upset" worthy of this type of consideration. Michigan beating the Buckeyes, on the other hand, carries a bit more weight in 2017.
The Wolverines should be a better team at the end of the season than they will be at the start, just because there are so many starters that need to be replaced and it may take a little bit of time to have all of the roles ironed out. So when the Ohio State Buckeyes arrive in Ann Arbor to close out the regular season, Michigan should be ready for this rivalry game. As many have predicted, the Buckeyes could very well be undefeated entering their regular season finale, with a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game either wrapped up or on the line and a spot in the College Football Playoff within reach. A victory by the Wolverines would be huge for Jim Harbaugh, and could create chaos for the Big Ten with regard to the playoff, especially if a few of the other upset possibilities listed here come true.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.