It's only the first day of October, but we're already talking about games that will have huge impacts on the race in the Big Ten West.
In the first true week of conference play — a lone Penn State-Rutgers game hardly counts as a "week" — two clashes between the sudden litany of West contenders could carve out who the true contenders in this division are right from the get go and what the race will look like the rest of the season.
Undefeated Northwestern hosts 3-1 Minnesota, both battling injury woes and both boasting less-than-effective offenses but also owners of two of the conference's top defenses.
And undefeated Iowa hosts 3-1 Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes riding high offensively and the Badgers playing stellar defense the past three weeks.
The division race is wide open — it's probably a tad to early to count out Nebraska, also — and things are getting started in exceptional fashion.
Here's a look this weekend's games. All games on Saturday, and all times are Central.
Army at Penn State, 11 a.m., ESPN U
Penn State finally got a good game from Christian Hackenberg in 2015, with the junior quarterback nearly throwing for 300 yards and throwing three touchdown passes in the Lions’ 37-21 win over San Diego State last weekend. It was a big day for the offense, in general, with 400 total yards. Injuries to running backs Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch were and remain concerning. In true modern-day head coach fashion, James Franklin wouldn’t say anything about those injuries other than the fact they’re not season-ending. Losing Barkley would be a pretty big deal, considering he’s been the driving offensive force for the last three weeks, even scoring the game’s opening touchdown last weekend before his injury-induced exit. But with Army coming to town, it shouldn’t make much difference. The Black Knights are 0-3 and have lost those games to Fordham, Connecticut and Wake Forest. Not exactly three “quality” defeats.
The pick: Penn State
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No. 22 Michigan at Maryland, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Michigan’s rolling. Maryland’s scuffling. Kinda one-sided, ain’t it?
The Wolverines are playing some sensational football right now, fresh off their 31-0 throttling of BYU. The defense is leading the way, ranking second in the country with 203.8 total yards allowed per game, a ridiculous number. And the Michigan running game seems to be back after a few years of dormancy. Top back De’Veon Smith is a little banged-up after last week, but the rest of the Michigan stable of ball-carriers has ran well, too. The Wolverines rank fifth in the Big Ten in rushing. And Jake Rudock is coming off his best game as the Michigan quarterback, too, so everything's coming up maize and blue.
Not so much for the Terps, who have a dilemma at quarterback that is taking headlines away from what has been an abysmal defense. Caleb Rowe remains the starter under center despite his nine interceptions in the last three games, four alone coming in last week’s blowout loss to West Virginia. Perry Hills, the opening-day starter, has been bumped to third on the depth chart, and Rowe got yanked last week mid-game in favor of Daxx Garman, who could be waiting in the on-deck circle if things go poorly Saturday. But the Wolverines’ offense should be drooling over the sight of this Maryland defense, which in two losses to Bowling Green and West Virginia has allowed a whopping 93 combined points.
The pick: Michigan
Purdue at No. 2 Michigan State, 11 a.m., ESPN 2
David Blough’s second start pits him against a defense that’s been among the country’s best in recent seasons, though that’s not exactly the case this season for the Spartans. The Michigan State pass defense has been routinely exploited, starting young players with limited experience. Mark Dantonio is dealing with injuries in the secondary, as well as some ineffective play. The good news on that side of the ball for the Spartans is that the pass rush has still been pretty darn great, and star defensive end Shilique Calhoun is coming off a terrific game against Central Michigan (three tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a blocked field goal). Good luck to the freshman Blough in evading Calhoun.
Meanwhile, Connor Cook and the MIchigan State offense — which produced just 17 points deep into last week’s win over Central Michigan before two late TDs made it a 20-point margin — go up against a Purdue defense that, well, has allowed some big days. Most recently was the hurting Matt Johnson and the Bowling Green offense put on last weekend, with the Falcons producing 539 total yards, 402 through the air. Cook, supposed to be one of the country's best quarterbacks, could use a big day: His nine touchdowns rank second in the Big Ten, but his 838 yards rank just sixth. Expect him to light up the Boilermakers, who have allowed a combined 127 points in their three losses.
The pick: Michigan State
Minnesota at No. 16 Northwestern, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Who’s ready for some defense? Who’s ready for not a lot of offense? That’s what’s expected when the Cats and Gophers clash in what looks like a really important matchup when it comes to the fate of the Big Ten West. Northwestern’s defense still leads the country in third-down defense (opponents are 11-for-59) and despite allowing the most damage it’s allowed all season against Ball State, still ranks in the top 10 in the country in scoring defense (8.8 points per game), passing defense (137.8 yards per game) and red-zone defense. It ranks just outside the top 10 in total defense (266 yards per game). Pair all those brilliant numbers with the at times tragic lack of offensive production by Minnesota, and that side of things looks to be squarely in the Cats’ favor.
But the flip side also belongs to the defense, making this matchup an interesting one. Minnesota’s defense has been pretty terrific, too, not putting up the top-of-the-line numbers Northwestern has but looking great nonetheless. The Gophers held then-No. 2 TCU pretty well in check throughout their season-opening loss to the Horned Frogs. And despite grim performances on the offensive side of the ball, the defense did a bang-up job in wins over Colorado State and Kent State. And with Northwestern’s offense still finding its legs under freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson — who turned the ball over thrice last week — the Minnesota defense could again excel. Problem is it’s going through a bad rash of injuries. And Cats running back Justin Jackson is fresh off a career-high rushing performance and looking as good as ever.
The pick: Northwestern
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Iowa at No. 19 Wisconsin, 11 a.m., ESPN
We’ve still got a lot to learn about these two teams, but this game should provide us with a lot of answers. Wisconsin has been a complete mystery, getting (perhaps expectedly) trounced in the season-opener by Alabama before blowing out Miami (Ohio), Troy and Hawaii. Throw in the absence of star running back Corey Clement — who will miss at least the next month — and there’s so much unknown about exactly how good these Badgers are. The positives, though, come from the defense, which after getting rolled by the Tide ranks in the top five in the country in scoring defense and in the top 20 in total defense. Plus, redshirt freshman running back Taiwan Deal is coming off a huge game and could pick up the slack with Clement sidelined.
Iowa, too, has been left mysterious thanks to its schedule. The Hawkeyes are an impressive 4-0, but those wins have come over the less-than-impressive group of Illinois State, Iowa State, Pitt and North Texas. Still, Iowa looks like a legitimate Big Ten West contender due to what through four weeks has been the conference’s best offense. C.J. Beathard is proving the right pick at quarterback, his 157.8 quarterback rating leading the conference. He’s just a shade under 1,000 passing yards, and last week he engineered a 62-point scoring output — in conjunction with Jordan Canzeri’s record-matching four-touchdown day — something that couldn’t have been imagined last season. The Iowa offense vs. the Wisconsin defense should be quite a show.
The pick: Iowa
No. 1 Ohio State at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN 2
Raise your hand if you had this game as the first battle of undefeated teams in Big Ten play this season. Nobody? Well, Indiana deserves a good deal of credit for its 4-0 start, its first in 25 years. The wins haven’t always been pretty and haven’t come against very good teams, but they’re wins and they count just as much toward the program’s first bowl appearance in eight years as any other games do. Nate Sudfeld has looked terrific, leading the conference and ranking 16th in the country with 1,143 passing yards. Even more impressive, though, has been UAB import Jordan Howard, who leads the country with 675 rush yards through four games. But those big numbers will likely slide this weekend, what with Ohio State’s “Silver Bullets” the sixth-best defense in the nation, allowing just 253.3 yards per game.
Meanwhile, Cardale Jones could finally have the monster game he’s yet to post since winning the national championship in January. Listed as the Buckeyes’ sole starting quarterback for the first time this season, Jones should respond from a rocky start against an Indiana pass defense that ranks second-to-last in the country, allowing opponents to throw for an average of 360.5 yards each week. Jones bounced back from that ugly performance against Northern Illinois with a good but not perfect day against Western Michigan. A date with the Indiana defense could mean an explosive afternoon for Jones and the Buckeyes’ offense.
The pick: Ohio State
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Nebraska at Illinois, 3 p.m., Big Ten Network
The Illini have struggled two weeks in a row following their 2-0 start. Crushed at North Carolina, Illinois returned home to barely pull out a victory against Middle Tennessee State, needing a late 51-yard field goal and needing the Blue Raiders to miss their game-winning field-goal attempt as time expired. The Illinois offense was out of sync for the second straight week, Wes Lunt and his receivers not on the same page as a lot of passes were dropped and Lunt threw for a nothing-special 238 yards. The team-up effort rushing the ball between Josh Ferguson and Ke’Shawn Vaughn was a bright spot at times, as the duo accounted for 163 yards and a touchdown.
But if the Illini want success, they should look for it through the air, as Nebraska’s pass defense has been downright atrocious through four games, every one of which featured a 300-yard passer against the Huskers. Nebraska ranks dead last in all of the FBS allowing an average of 379.5 pass yards per game. And all those yards have meant a pair of close losses and one narrow escape for Mike Riley’s team. There was the Hail Mary defeat against BYU, a road defeat at Miami and last week’s win over Southern Miss, which turned from blowout to nailbiter thanks to a late passing surge by the Golden Eagles. The Illini don’t look great right now, but the Huskers’ defense could provide an opportunity for an upset.
Thankfully for Nebraska, it has Tommy Armstrong at quarterback. Arguably the best QB in the conference this season through four weeks, he should have a field day against an Illinois defense that allowed 308 total yards and three touchdown throws to North Carolina’s dual-threat signal-caller, Marquise Williams, two weeks ago.
The pick: Nebraska