Big Ten

Purdue putting Michigan on upset alert? Week 4 Big Ten previews and picks

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USA TODAY

Purdue putting Michigan on upset alert? Week 4 Big Ten previews and picks

Big Ten play is starting with an unexpected bang.

Yeah, Ohio State and Indiana tussled at the end of August, but now we’re really getting into conference play and who thought we’d be so excited about Michigan-Purdue and Penn State-Iowa?

Give plenty of credit where credit is due, to Jeff Brohm and Kirk Ferentz for getting some surprising results out of their teams early on this season. The Boilers have arguably been the biggest story of the Big Ten through three weeks, capping an intriguing non-conference slate with a 35-3 pounding of Mizzou last weekend, suddenly setting up an upset possibility for big, bad Michigan. Meanwhile, Iowa has looked as good with new quarterback Nathan Stanley as it did with C.J. Beathard, even if the competition hasn’t been world-beaters. Now a matchup with a top-five Penn State team is being talked about as a potential shootout.

I say bring it on! It could be a real fun weekend in the Big Ten, and you can get previews and picks for every game below.

All games played on Saturday, Sept. 23.

UNLV at No. 10 Ohio State, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

Another good opportunity for the Buckeyes to keep the good feelings going after last week’s course-correcting win over Army. J.T. Barrett, J.K. Dobbins and all of the initialed and non-initialed Ohio State players should have ample opportunity to score points against a UNLV team that allowed 43 in a loss to Howard earlier this month.

The pick: Ohio State

UCF at Maryland, 2 p.m., FS1

Last week felt a little empty without the high-octane Terps on the college football calendar. Maryland has scored 114 points in two games this season. Meanwhile, UCF hasn’t played since Aug. 31, its last two games cancelled due to the recent hurricane that swept through Florida. The Knights put up some points in that game, though, scoring 61 against Florida International. Maybe we’re in for a shootout?

The pick: Maryland

Rutgers at Nebraska, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Huskers are in a dire situation all of a sudden, with athletics director Shawn Eichorst fired from his post earlier this week. That cranks up the heat on Mike Riley’s already mighty-hot hot seat. Bottom line is Nebraska is in need of a win, and there’s no better conference foe to get that win against than Rutgers. While a Huskers win usually seems like a safe bet against the Big Ten’s worst program — and a team that gave Eastern Michigan its first Power Five win ever two weeks back — that defense has been horrendous against the likes of Arkansas State, and Tanner Lee couldn’t keep the ball out of the hands of Northern Illinois’ defense last week. There’s no good pick here, but if Nebraska loses, things will go from real, real bad to even worse for that program.

The pick: Nebraska

Georgia Southern at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Hoosiers are back in action after last week’s game was cancelled due to the hurricane. After the partially good showing against Ohio State and a predictable win over Virginia, Indiana should score an easy one this weekend against Georgia Southern. The Eagles have scored just 19 points in their two games this season, including a 22-12 loss to FCS foe New Hampshire. Blech.

The pick: Indiana

No. 8 Michigan at Purdue, 3 p.m., FOX

This one went from afterthought to much anticipated real quick. Thank the Boilermakers, who went into an SEC stadium last weekend and came away with a dominating 35-3 victory, making this look like a much different program under Jeff Brohm than the one we’ve seen for the past half decade or so. The offense will get deserved hype for its high power. Purdue’s scored 79 points in the last two games. But a defense that kept MIzzou out of the end zone could have a similar effect on a Michigan offense that has struggled mightily so far this season. Taking away all of Wilton Speight’s pass-catchers was going to obviously have an effect, but that side of the ball hasn’t been able to reload as easily as the defense and Speight & Co. look stuck in the mud. The Wolverines definitely have the ability to slow down the Boilers, but can they score any points themselves? While Michigan fans will surely be freaking out if this is a close game — something they might want to get used to this season if the first three performances are any indication — a close one wouldn’t be at all out of the question, which in and of itself should reflect wonderfully on Brohm. That being said, the best unit on the field is the Wolverines’ defense. And remember that David Blough and Elijah Sindelar teamed up to throw three picks in Purdue's season-opening loss to Louisville.

The pick: Michigan

No. 4 Penn State at Iowa, 6:30 p.m., ABC

Here’s another one that might have seemed like blowout material just a few weeks back but since has gained a lot of intrigue. Iowa has been pretty darn impressive through three weeks, 3-0 and riding high thanks to the play of new quarterback Nathan Stanley, who’s thrown 10 touchdown passes compared to just one interception in three games. Akrum Wadley’s been expectedly great, too, and that defense has shone in its two home games, holding Wyoming and North Texas to a combined 17 points. Of course, I’m conveniently leaving out the 44-41 shootout win over Iowa State, a phenomenally entertaining game in which the offense looked great but in which the defense didn’t. And now arguably the most explosive offense in college football comes to town. Penn State has predictably beaten up on its first three opponents, with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley looking like the Heisman candidates they are. While the Hawkeyes deserve credit for making this one closer than anyone could have thought, the Nittany Lions’ offense seems like too much to handle. For just about any defense.

The pick: Penn State

Notre Dame at Michigan State, 7 p.m., FOX

These two teams played just last season before teaming to go 7-17 in a pair of real disappointing campaigns. Notre Dame has shown it can dominate on the ground and it did just that against a Boston College team that typically has one of the better defenses in the country. That didn’t show last week, though, as the Irish racked up 515 rushing yards. Michigan State’s rush defense numbers are good through two games, but with those wins coming against MAC teams, who knows? Notre Dame has at least played Georgia, albeit with poor results, but Michigan State has done very little to give any indication of what kind of football team it is this season. This seems a complete toss up to me, but I’ll go with the team that’s pounded weak competition vs. the team that’s soundly beaten weak competition.

The pick: Notre Dame

See how they stack up: Week 8 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 8 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 8 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Alabama (8-0)

Of course the Tide continue to roll, this weekend rolling over an increasingly hapless Tennessee team to the tune of 45-7. No, the schedule doesn’t look any tougher than it did last week.

2. Penn State (7-0)

Hello, Penn State. We knew these Nittany Lions had an explosive offense, but the 42-13 beatdown they put on Michigan and its nation-best defense was incredible. Talk about revenge for last year.

3. TCU (7-0)

A 43-0 smackdown of Kansas? That’s to be expected. But the Frogs are still in the driver’s seat in the Big 12, with two road trips against top-25 teams — Iowa State and Oklahoma — coming in the next three games.

4. Georgia (7-0)

No game for the Dawgs this weekend, but how good is that win at Notre Dame looking now that the Irish are looking like one of the country’s top teams? That’ll get the Dawgs barking.

5. Wisconsin (7-0)

The Badgers had no trouble in their 25-point cruise-control win over Maryland. Poor Jonathan Taylor has to live in a world where Saquon Barkley exists, taking attention away from his fantastic freshman year.

6. Miami (6-0)

The Canes haven’t been making things look easy, but they’re still undefeated — and surprisingly the best team in a thought-to-be-loaded ACC — after sweating out giant-killing Syracuse.

7. Notre Dame (6-1)

The Irish are really, really good, you guys, as evidenced in their 49-14 throttling of USC on Saturday. Josh Adams carved up the Trojans for 191 yards and three touchdowns, another guy who unfortunately lives in the same world as Saquon Barkley.

8. Ohio State (6-1)

The Buckeyes sat back and watched as their game against Penn State this coming Saturday became a showdown of epic proportions. Quietly, no team is scoring more points than Ohio State and its 47.3 per-week average.

9. Clemson (6-1)

With a bye following that upset loss at Syracuse, here’s a rarity for you: Clemson will enter next weekend’s game without a win in three weeks!

10. Virginia Tech (6-1)

Playing North Carolina these days is like stamping the free space on a bingo card, but Virginia Tech will take the style points that came with a 59-7 crushing of a win.

11. Oklahoma (6-1)

The game of the week was the Sooners’ comeback win in the Little Apple, a classic Big 12 shootout against Kansas State. Baker Mayfield can still ball, and Oklahoma’s only a win over TCU away from being back atop the conference.

12. Michigan State (6-1)

It doesn’t seem that Michigan State is capable of winning any way but ugly, winning this weekend despite having just three points with six minutes left. But Sparty’s 6-1 with its only loss to a dominant Notre Dame team.

13. Oklahoma State (6-1)

Mason Rudolph and the Okie State offense lost their mojo this weekend in Austin but sweated out an entertaining-enough overtime win over Texas. The Cowboys need a statement win of some kind, and they’ll have an opportunity next weekend at West Virginia.

14. West Virginia (5-2)

Allowing 23 fourth-quarter points to Baylor is not a good thing to do. But West Virginia won behind Will Grier and David Sills. Sills has an insane 15 touchdown catches through seven games, eyeing the NCAA record.

15. Washington (6-1)

Who knows what the Pac-12 holds on any given Saturday. Washington didn’t play this weekend, and it’s nearly impossible to predict what it’ll do against any team left on its schedule. Pac-12 insanity ftw!

16. Washington State (7-1)

Wazzu showed up after that upset loss to Cal, blanking Colorado by a 28-0 score on The Palouse. Luke Falk has more touchdown throws than Pac-12 NFL Draft darlings Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen.

17. Stanford (5-2)

No game for the Cardinal after blasting Oregon the weekend prior. Expect another blasting next weekend against terrible Oregon State. Even with no game this week. Bryce Love is still the nation’s top rusher by more than 230 yards.

18. Auburn (6-2)

The Tigers can still run and ran all over Arkansas, with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson combining for 153 yards and four rushing touchdowns.

19. South Florida (7-0)

Another game, another 30-plus-point showing by the Bulls’ offense. USF racked up 378 rushing yards — 378! — against Tulane. The USF-UCF I-4 Lighting Bowl or whatever the heck they call it needs to happen yesterday.

20. Central Florida (6-0)

Speaking of UCF, an easy-enough 31-21 victory over a good Navy team showed its the Knights and the Bulls then everyone else in the Group of Five. Bring on the I-4 Lightning Bowl!

21. North Carolina State (6-1)

NC State is for real, nobody’s questioning that thanks to wins over Florida State and Louisville. But next weekend brings the test of all tests, a trip to Notre Dame Stadium against a red-hot Irish team.

22. LSU (6-2)

If only this LSU team could’ve been the one to show up against Mississippi State and Troy. Saturday brought a 40-24 beatdown of Ole Miss. The Bayou Bengals are playing real well right now, but this is a three-month season, guys.

23. Memphis (6-1)

Memphis knocked off another Group of Five big boy in Houston. Good for them. Sadly the Tigers aren’t as good as USF or UCF so … 

24. Iowa State (5-2)

For the second time in three weeks, Iowa State knocked off a good Big 12 team and now has the distinction of being a good Big 12 team itself. Clones haven’t been this big a deal since that sheep.

25. Louisville (5-3)

Thanks to James Blackman’s dumbfounding fumble, Louisville avoided a disastrous comeback loss to Florida State. Lamar Jackson is still really good, though, so you’d like to think the Cardinals are still a threat to beat anyone.

Others receiving votes:

Texas A&M (5-2)

For all the negative attention over that Week 1 blown game against UCLA — and the calls for Kevin Sumlin’s job that came with it — the only loss the Aggies have had since was to Alabama.

USC (6-2)

Getting trounced by Notre Dame proved what we already kinda knew: that USC ain’t the preseason national title contender it was cracked up to be. The Trojans’ loss also probably knocked the Pac-12 out of the Playoff. Oops.

Arizona (5-2)

Did you know that Arizona is secretly good? The Cats have five wins, in which they’ve averaged 52.4 points. That’s a lot of points!

Arizona State (4-3)

The Devils have had a penchant for beating teams they shouldn’t beat this season, and they did it again Saturday with a win over Utah. They’re 3-1 in their last four with wins over Oregon, Washington and Utah and the lone loss coming to Stanford.

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

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USA TODAY

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.