Big Ten

Week 4 Big Ten previews: Spartans, Badgers clash as Big Ten play gets underway

michigan-state-linebackers-0922.png

Week 4 Big Ten previews: Spartans, Badgers clash as Big Ten play gets underway

The first week of Big Ten play is here, and it is opening with quite the bang.

No. 11 Wisconsin heads to East Lansing to take on No. 8 Michigan State, one heck of an opener to the conference season.

Both teams have stellar defenses and playmakers on the offensive side of the ball — and sights on a trip to Indy and perhaps a place in the College Football Playoff.

But first thing's first: this game in Week 4.

Here's a look at all the Big Ten football taking place on this fine September weekend. All games will be played on Saturday, Sept. 24, and all times are Central.

Colorado State at Minnesota, 11 a.m., ESPN U

The Gophers have found some success on the offensive side of the ball through their first two games, and that looks like something that could continue this weekend against the Rams. Minnesota’s scoring surge against Indiana State might have seemed due to the fact that Indiana State is an FCS team. But Colorado State didn’t exactly put up much of a fight in its other game against a Power Five opponent this season, falling in a 44-7 blowout loss to Colorado in Week 1. Good news for the Gophers?

Nevada at Purdue, 11 a.m., ESPNEWS

The Wolf Pack haven’t been terribly menacing on defense this season, one of only two FBS teams to still not have a sack as Week 4 dawns. That could be good news for David Blough, who despite having a horrendous five interceptions the last time he and the Boilermakers took the field has been putting up positive numbers, too, currently leading the Big Ten with 323 passing yards per game through just two contests. Will that be enough, though, to get Purdue a win? Darrell Hazell is 1-9 in non-conference games against FBS opponents.

Iowa at Rutgers, 11 a.m., ESPN 2

A date with Rutgers is just what the doctor ordered for Iowa following that upsetting loss to North Dakota State. While the Bison pack more of a punch than their FCS status would lead one to believe, that was still a game the Hawkeyes should’ve won. They were crushed on both sides of the running game in that one, yielding 239 yards and gaining just 34 yards on the ground. That can’t happen again, and fortunately for Iowa it probably won’t against Rutgers — but the Scarlet Knights do surprisingly rank third in the Big Ten with 229.3 rush yards per game.

Meanwhile, Rutgers needs to stop falling behind early in games if it wants to have any chance of winning some games during conference play in Chris Ash’s first season. While Janarion Grant is a weapon that can strike at any time, the kind of early deficits faced against Howard and New Mexico won’t be able to be erased against the likes of Iowa and the Big Ten’s other powers. Look no further than Rutgers’ Week 1 blowout loss to Washington for evidence of that.

No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 8 Michigan State, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

The Badgers’ defense has been out of this world through three games, not a surprise after the way that unit has played in recent seasons. Wisconsin ranks first in the Big Ten and 13th nationally with just 261 yards allowed per game, and that includes a game that featured one of the country’s top running backs in LSU’s Leonard Fournette. But the questions for the Badgers come on offense, where a quarterback switch is in the works with Alex Hornibrook replacing Bart Houston as the starting quarterback. Plus, three of the team’s running backs were listed as questionable earlier this week, including star Corey Clement.

All that uncertainty for Wisconsin’s offense should provide an edge for the Michigan State defense, which showed what it could do against a more explosive offense when it shut down Notre Dame for eight straight drives last weekend. Will the Spartans be able to score 36 straight points like it did in that game this time around? That’s unlikely given the quality of the Badgers’ defense. But Tyler O’Connor is proving mighty capable at quarterback, and he has an emerging weapon in the passing game in freshman receiver Donnie Corley.

Penn State at No. 4 Michigan, 2:30 p.m., ABC

Remember when Penn State’s defense got thrashed against Pitt? Yeah, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that happen again this weekend against Michigan. The Wolverines might not have the rushing attack that the Panthers do, but they have been mighty effective in the passing game, with Wilton Speight using his arsenal of Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson to his advantage. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett is the only Big Ten quarterback with more touchdown passes than Speight. The Lions rank toward the bottom of the conference, allowing almost four touchdowns’ worth of points a game, while the Wolverines are at the top, averaging a whopping 53 points a game.

The combination of Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley have looked fine for Penn State on offense, but that side of the ball also belongs to Michigan, which has given up just 45 points on the season, or 15 points a game. Throw in Jabrill Peppers as a difference-maker in all phases — he was both the Co-Defensive Player of the Week and the Special Teams Player of the Week in the Big Ten — and Michigan seems to have a big edge in this one.

Wake Forest at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

One of the Power Five’s perennial punching bags, the Demon Deacons have flipped that script through three games, 3-0 with a conference win already over Duke. And while the competition hasn’t been amazing by any stretch, Wake has allowed just 38 points on the season, making it one of the top-12 scoring defenses in the country. Indiana’s defense has been surprisingly effective this season, too, in its two wins, only allowing 33 points in two games. The question is whether — or maybe just when — Richard Lagow can unlock the Hoosiers’ annually explosive offense. He had a couple home run balls in the win over Ball State.

No. 20 Nebraska at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Huskers are coming off that huge win over Oregon in which the offense looked as good as it did in the previous two games but the defense came up big for Nebraska, too. Tommy Armstrong is one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, if not the country, and he proved it with four total touchdowns last weekend including that clutch 34-yard scamper for the game-winning score. It’s easy to envision him shredding the Northwestern defense, a unit that not only hasn’t played up to the at-times dominating standard it set a season ago but is dealing with injuries that have completely changed the shape of the secondary. But those young defensive backs haven’t shrunk from the challenge, either, playing well in last week’s win over Duke.

One would maybe initially doubt that Clayton Thorson could replicate the 320-yard, three-touchdown performance he had against Duke, and the Nebraska defense would be the main reason why. The Huskers have seven picks on the season, only three FBS teams have more, and Thorson still threw two interceptions last weekend during his big game. But don’t sleep on the Cats’ passing attack completely. Wide receiver Austin Carr leads the Big Ten with 18 catches and 283 yards after last weekend’s monster game in which he hauled in six catches for 135 yards and a touchdown. Finally a big-play receiver at Northwestern? That could change things dramatically, as running back Justin Jackson has been the target of opposing defenses, though he still has 260 rushing yards in three games, second most in the conference.

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

1121_baker_mayfield.jpg
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

1114_miami_hurricanes.jpg
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.