Big Ten

Week 10 Big Ten previews: Dominant defenses take center stage

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Week 10 Big Ten previews: Dominant defenses take center stage

They say defense wins championships.

Well, if that's the case, the Big Ten has a pretty good shot of boasting the national champ, right?

The conference is packed with elite defenses, with six of college football's top 20 in scoring defense residing in the Big Ten: No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 2 Michigan, No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 Iowa, No. 15 Penn State and No. 18 Northwestern. Those six teams all have top-20 total defenses, as well.

So should we expect a lot of points this weekend? Probably not for the teams going up against those defenses.

There is one head-to-head showdown between those teams, as Northwestern hosts Penn State, but mostly those defenses will have an opportunity to boost those numbers and feed on opposing offenses that haven't won a lot of games this season.

Here's a look at Week 10 in the Big Ten. As always, all games Saturday and all times Central.

Penn State at No. 21 Northwestern, 11 a.m., ESPN U

It’s been a rejuvenating past few weeks for Christian Hackenberg, who’s moved from an early season disappointment into that first-round guy all the NFL scouts are so excited about. In his past six games, Hackenberg has thrown for 1,415 yards and 12 touchdowns. Most importantly, though, he’s had no interceptions. That’s a big deal for a guy plagued by turnovers last season.

Northwestern, though, counters with its excellent defense. The Cats still rank in the top 20 in both total defense and scoring defense despite efforts that haven’t been quite as suffocating as they were earlier in the season. And the best aspect of that defense: stopping the pass. The Cats rank sixth in the country in passing defense, allowing an average 164.8 yards through the air per game.

The pick: Northwestern

[MORE BIG TEN: Which Big Ten contender has best chance to make College Football Playoff?]

Illinois at Purdue, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

Purdue is coming off that huge win over Nebraska — a victory that might be the main reason Darrell Hazell will be back for a fourth season in 2016 — and is looking to continue the momentum. David Blough was great in that win, pitching a quartet of touchdown passes. Illinois’ defense, especially against the pass, is considerably better than Nebraska’s, however. Meaning it’ll be a different kind of day.

And the Illini hope it’ll be a different kind of day running the ball than their last three games. In three straight losses, Illinois has totaled just 138 rushing yards. But things are looking up this week. Not only is starting running back Josh Ferguson back from a three-game layoff, but the Boilermakers are the Big Ten’s worst team at defending the run, allowing 183 rushing yards per game.

The pick: Illinois

[MORE BIG TEN: Good news for Illini: Josh Ferguson listed as 'probable']

No. 9 Iowa at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., ESPN

The Hawkeyes don’t face much in the way of a challenge to its undefeated status from now until a potential showdown in the Big Ten title game. Indiana is the first of four straight games against teams with a combined 13-20 record. And while things have been great on the offensive side, it’s the defense that’s driving this team. Iowa ranks sixth in the country in total defense, allowing 287.6 total yards per game.

This road trip to Indiana, though, could be the biggest remaining threat to a perfect regular season. The Hoosiers are mighty effective on the offensive side of the ball, leading the Big Ten with 467.6 offensive yards per game. Their conference-best passing offense is one of the top 25 in the country. But Nate Sudfeld has been a bit turnover happy of late, throwing three picks in his last two games, and Iowa’s defense leads the league with 12 interceptions.

The pick: Iowa

[MORE BIG TEN: Buckeyes No. 3, five Big Ten teams in first College Football Playoff rankings]

Wisconsin at Maryland, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

For the second straight season, Dave Aranda’s defense is simply dominating for Wisconsin. One of the best in the country, the Badgers’ defense has held its last three opponents to just 30 points and just two offensive touchdowns. And now the offense has a boost, too, in the form of Corey Clement, who returned to action last weekend with three touchdowns in a win over Rutgers.

That’s all not great for Maryland, which not only is one of the least productive offensive teams in the conference but also one of the worst teams at defending the run. The Terps’ turnover train rolls on, too, unfortunately. Perry Hills pitched three more interceptions in last weekend’s loss to Iowa, including an 88-yard pick six. Make it 23 picks by Maryland quarterbacks this season. Yeesh.

The pick: Wisconsin

[MORE BIG TEN: Report: Darrell Hazell will be back as Purdue head coach in 2016]

Rutgers at No. 17 Michigan, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Wolverines’ three-game stretch of invulnerability is most certainly over after the wild loss to Michigan State and the near loss last weekend against Minnesota. But Michigan’s defense is still playing at a high level. Jim Harbaugh’s team ranks No. 2 in the country in both total defense and scoring defense, first in the conference in the former.

That’s obviously bad news for Rutgers, which is having trouble hitting the end zone in any fashion other than a pass to Leonte Carroo. The banged-up star wideout missed last weekend’s game, and the offense didn’t score a touchdown against Wisconsin’s amazing defense. Carroo should be back vs. the Wolverines, a team that’s allowed just four touchdown passes this season.

The pick: Michigan

[MORE BIG TEN: Could Mike Riley be on the hot seat after just one year with Huskers?]

No. 7 Michigan State at Nebraska, 6 p.m., ESPN

The Huskers are reeling, and a date with a top-10 team isn’t the best thing for a team looking to avoid its seventh loss of the season. It sounds like Tommy Armstrong should be back in action after missing last week’s loss to Purdue with a “turf-toe deal,” but there are plenty of other injuries on this team. Most troubling, though, is the continued lack of success defending the pass. The Huskers are one of the country’s worst in that category.

And that’s a big problem considering Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook is playing lights out of late, even working his way into a bit of Heisman conversation. Cook leads the Big Ten with 2,070 passing yards, and 1,093 of them have come in the last three games alone. He should feast against the atrocious Nebraska pass defense.

The pick: Michigan State

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Spartans gear right here]

Minnesota at No. 3 Ohio State, 7 p.m., ABC

All eyes will again be on the quarterback position for the Buckeyes, who will be without the suspended J.T. Barrett. It means Cardale Jones will be back in the starting spot after a week away. But Ohio State won the season’s first seven games with Jones starting — and Ezekiel Elliott will still be playing — so there probably won’t be too huge a drop off.

And while the Gophers played one of their best games of the season last weekend against Michigan, they still couldn’t pull out a win. The good news was quarterback Mitch Leidner leading a productive offensive attack against one of the country’s best defenses. Ohio State’s defense is pretty darn good, too. Will it be a repeat performance or back to the season norm and an offense that couldn’t do much? At No. 3 Ohio State, the better bet is the latter.

The pick: Ohio State

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.