It feels odd to write this column this week. I've been covering college football for a few years now, and I can't recall any other time in which the games coming up on the weekend seemed so... utterly insignificant. In the wake of the chaos that has occurred at Penn State, writing up previews of the match-ups in the conference seems to be the definition of an exercise in triviality.
But, as horrific as the scandal has been in State College, I still have a column to write. If you are interested in further information about the Penn State news, I urge you to head on over to the SB Nation Stream, which aggregates all of the latest updates coming out of Happy Valley. For now, it's on to the rest of the conference.
As I write this, it's also come out that OSU will be levied with a "failure to monitor" charge stemming from the latest allegations of improprieties in their football program. The ultimate effects of the failure to monitor charge won't be known until mid-December at the earliest, but suffice it to say this is not good news for the Buckeye football program.
We're entering one of the more important weeks in this latter part of the Big Ten season. After this weekend's games, we'll hopefully finally have a good idea of the pecking order in the conference, and the teams most likely headed to Indianapolis. Though Nebraska's loss to Northwestern this past week made MSU the heavy favorite out of its division, we've still got a few weeks left to go. Here are the current standings:
Big Ten Conference Standings
(updated 11.6.2011 at 1:37 AM CDT)
|Penn St. Nittany Lions||5||0||8||1|
|Ohio St. Buckeyes||3||2||6||3|
|Illinois Fighting Illini||2||3||6||3|
|Michigan St. Spartans||4||1||7||2|
|Minnesota Golden Gophers||1||4||2||7|
Week eleven features match-ups that will affect the top of the standings in both the Legends and Leaders divisions. Nebraska and Penn State could give an insight into whether either of those teams will make a run at Indianapolis, while Michigan State has to find a way to win at Iowa. The Spartans haven't won in Kinnick since 1989. Neither Wisconsin nor Ohio State should have much trouble this weekend, though either game could ultimately be a trap.
Rice at Northwestern (11:00 A.M., CDT, Big Ten Network)
After their surprising road win at Nebraska, the Northwestern Wildcats will see if they can somehow salvage their season and find bowl eligibility. With four wins, the Wildcats must find two wins in their next three games to have a chance of not staying home in the post season. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, their last game is against Michigan State. While an upset against the Spartans is certainly not out of the question, the easiest road would be wins against Rice and, next week, Minnesota. The ‘Cats should have little trouble with Rice - the Owls are 3-6, and somehow manage to have a defense worse than Northwestern's, surrendering 37.6 points per game on average. Northwestern is currently a 16 point favorite in this game. While I thought the performance against Nebraska was impressive, and while Rice isn't a good football team, I think I take the points on this one. I don't have enough confidence in the Wildcat defense to think that they will definitely win by more than two touchdowns.
Current Line: Northwestern, a 16 point favorite
Pick: Northwestern to win, not covering
No. 19 Nebraska at No. 12 Penn State (11:00 A.M., CDT, ESPN / ESPN3)
This game will undoubtedly be one of the most watched games in the country this weekend, both due to the events occurring in State Collge and the implications for the Big Ten title race. Nebraska needs a win here to try to catch up to MSU - as they're currently one conference loss behind the Spartans (though they own the tiebreaker with their 24-3 victory over MSU, should it come down to a head-to-head tie). Penn State, meanwhile, is heading into a stretch where they take on Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Win here and they move one step closer to the championship game. Lose and all of a sudden the Buckeyes and the Badgers start breathing a little bit easier.
So who comes out on top? I favor Nebraska in this one for the upset. Yeah, part of that is the distraction factor here, but mostly it's because I think Penn State has an iffy offense at best, which has been camouflaged by the fact that the Nittany Lions have really yet to play anyone difficult. Now, maybe I'm wrong and Penn State is actually as good as its 8-1 record, but I'm not buying it. Nebraska outranks PSU in nearly every metric - the only one they don't' is passing yardage, which isn't exactly the backbone of either offense this year. I think Nebraska recovers from the shock in Lincoln and knocks Penn State one step back in their drive to Indy.
Current Line: Nebraska, a 3.5 point favorite.
Pick: Nebraska to win, covering.
No. 17 Michigan State at Iowa (11:00 A.M., CDT, ESPN2 / ESPN3)
Ah... this game will be interesting. What we have here is a situation that should give anyone engaging in a weekly pick'em pause. Michigan State is a better football team than the Iowa Hawkeyes this year. Though Iowa managed to handle Denard Robinson and the Wolverines last weekend, this is still the same team that lost to Minnesota. And yet, Michigan State hasn't won at Iowa since 1989. Now, if there's any year for Michigan State to beat the Hawkeyes, it would seem to be this one. But didn't we say that last year when they went to play Iowa and got curbstomped 37-6? Yeah, I thought so. I think Iowa, for all the ugliness of this season, is on a bit of an upswing. Though they lost the yardage battle to the Michigan, the managed to stop Robinson's offense when it counted, forcing punts and turnovers in order to get their own offense back on the field.
And the inconsistency of the Spartans makes me nervous. How can a team go from hanging with Wisconsin one weekend to putting up only 3 points on Nebraska the next? I just don't know what to believe about MSU, but I'm thinking Iowa goes 2-0 against the Mitten State this year.
Current Line: Michigan State, a 3 point favorite
Pick: Iowa to win.
Ohio State at Purdue (11:00 A.M., CDT, Big Ten Network)
This is a game that should be easy for Ohio State. Really. Should be easy. But did you see them against Indiana? The score says they won by two touchdowns, but much of that game was a lot closer than the final result. Braxton Miller threw for only 55 yards and one interception against a defense that gave up 261 yards and three TDs to Dan Persa and the Wildcats. Boom Herron had a big day with 141 yards and a TD against the Hoosiers, and the Buckeyes got turnovers when it counted, but it was far from an easy win.
Now, that doesn't mean that I think Purdue will have an easy time at home against the Buckeyes. Far from it. Though Purdue managed to hang with Wisconsin last week initially, it wasn't long before it became clear that the Boilermakers could do nothing to stop the power run game of the Badgers. Montee Ball put up 223 yards on Purdue - can Boom Herron do something similar? If he can, I don't think Purdue has a prayer against OSU, regardless of how Miller plays. The line right now is pretty conservative, so I'm okay with picking OSU to cover, but I admit that an upset or an eked out Buckeye victory would not really surprise me all that much.
Current Line: Ohio State, a 7 point favorite
Pick: Ohio State, covering
No. 18 Wisconsin at Minnesota (2:30 P.M., CDT, Big Ten Network)
Another game that should be an easy victory. Some might say that this is a trap game for Wisconsin - had Wisconsin not lost to MSU and OSU, I might agree. But, the Badgers know that they need to win out to have a shot at the Big Ten championship game that once seemed inevitable. That focus should lead to another victory over the Gophers.
I think there is something to the idea that Minnesota was due at least one surprise victory this year, but I think it came against Iowa. I mean, Minnesota and Purdue are tied for next to last in the conference against the run, giving up an average of 191.1 rush yards per game. Montee Ball put up 223 on Purdue. Do you think the Gophers really have a chance of stopping him? I didn't think so.
Current Line: Wisconsin, a 27 point favorite
Pick: Wisconsin, covering
No. 24 Michigan at Illinois (2:30 P.M., CDT, ESPN/ABC/ESPN3)
This game is perhaps the hardest to predict this weekend. Michigan looked disjointed against Iowa last weekend, while the flying Zookers over at Illinois have been on an epic downward spiral. Since getting to 6-0, the Illini have dropped three straight, including very winnable games at Penn State and Purdue.
The defense for Illinois has been largely okay even in the losses, giving up just 17, 21, and 10 points in each defeat. It's really the offense that has seen the wheels come off. Scheelhaase had 63 passing yards and a TD against Penn State, no passing TDs against Purdue, and one TD and two INTs against Ohio State.
Meanwhile, Michigan appears to be one of those teams that just has an outsized amount of trouble on the road. From their initially close game at Northwestern, to their losses to MSU and Iowa, the Wolverines just don't seem to play as well outside of the Big House. This seems to be due to a discrepancy in rushing yards, for some reason. In home games this year, the Maize ‘n Blue have put up 302.4 yards / game on average on the ground, while they're currently sitting at just 129.3 / game on the road. They pass for more yardage on the road, but that's most likely a result of teams forcing Denard Robinson to beat them through the air. Did I mention that Illinois is number one in the conference against the run? I really would not be surprised to see yet another upset go on here.
Current Line: Michigan, a 1 point favorite
Pick: Illinois to win