Big Ten

Week 6 Big Ten previews: Northwestern, Michigan in top-20 clash

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Week 6 Big Ten previews: Northwestern, Michigan in top-20 clash

Neither Northwestern nor Michigan made a bowl game a season ago. This year, though, their matchup is a battle of two top-20 teams.

Behind a pair of the nation’s best defenses, the Cats and Wolverines meet Saturday in Ann Arbor in not just the best game on the Big Ten slate but perhaps the best game on the national slate, as well.

Last year’s meeting was an ugly affair, a 10-9 win for Michigan in Evanston in which both teams struggled so mightily that the game came down to an atrocious failed two-point conversion attempt.

This season’s game might also end in a low score, but it will be because of two insanely good defenses rather than teams that can’t get out of their own way. Will the Cats move to 6-0? Or will Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines emerge 5-1 and a sudden contender for a conference championship?

Here’s a look at that clash and the rest of this week’s Big Ten schedule. All games on Saturday, and all times Central:

Maryland at No. 1 Ohio State, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

The Terps are in a total nosedive, and this might be the last game Randy Edsall coaches for Maryland. Multiple Thursday reports indicated that Edsall is likely to be fired, with one saying it could come as soon as after Saturday’s game. While you don’t wish job loss upon anybody, Maryland has been bad so far in 2015, ranking 95th in the FBS in scoring defense (31.8 points per game) and 99th in scoring offense (23.6 points per game). And that’s not mentioning the quarterback chaos, with any one of Caleb Rowe, Daxx Garman or Perry Hills getting the start this week following another interception-filled game form Rowe last week.

The Buckeyes, meanwhile, could really use a breakout game, and hosting the conference’s worst-performing team provides an opportunity for just that. It’s not to say that things didn’t go well the last two weeks. Ohio State has scored a combined 72 points in wins over Western Michigan and Indiana. Ezekiel Elliott rushed for a career-high 274 yards and three touchdowns last week. But the Hoosiers came within fourth-and-goal of tying things in the final minute, much too close for comfort for the defending champs. The Buckeyes need to soothe panicking fans and observers with a blowout, and this week, they should get one.

The pick: Ohio State

[MORE BIG TEN: Reports: Terps expected to fire Randy Edsall]

Indiana at Penn State, 11 a.m., ESPN

That Hoosiers loss to the aforementioned Buckeyes might have been a loss, but it was about as quality as a loss can get. Indiana remains just two wins away from bowl eligibility. The problem this week, though, will be the injuries to the team’s best offensive players. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard remain game-time decisions after both left last week’s contest and didn’t return. Their backups played well, with Zander Diamont and Devine Redding combining for three touchdown runs. But if Indiana is going to get those two more wins, it’ll need Sudfeld and Howard.

Penn State is dealing with its own injuries to offensive stars. Running backs Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch missed last week’s game, turning an offense that finally found its spark back into one that struggled to create separation against a weaker opponent. Army nearly caught Penn State by the end of that game, and it can be in part chalked up to Barkley’s absence. The true freshman had four touchdowns in his previous three games before sitting out last week. The Lions’ defense has again been strong, but either Christian Hackenberg needs to figure things out or Barkley needs to get back on the field in a hurry.

The pick: Penn State

[MORE BIG TEN: Penn State alum Keegan-Michael Key leads team meeting as James Franklin]

Illinois at No. 22 Iowa, 11 a.m., ESPN 2

The Hawkeyes have looked stellar through five weeks, all of which ended with an Iowa victory. Last week, the Hawkeyes’ previously potent offense scored just 10 points but came away with a win over the rival Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Up against the excellent Wisconsin defense, Iowa’s offense wasn’t as prolific as it was through its first four games. But the defense played exceptionally well, something we weren’t aware it could do against a good team, keeping the Badgers out of the end zone, forcing four Joel Stave turnovers and getting great performances from Drew Ott and Desmond King. A strong offense, a strong defense, and Iowa’s looking like one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten West.

The Illini had their own huge win last weekend, beating Nebraska with a game-winning touchdown drive in the game’s final minute. The offense played poorly through much of the game, but when it needed to, it came up with gargantuan plays, with Wes Lunt pitching a 50-yard pass on that drive to set up a game-winning touchdown toss to Geronimo Allison with 10 seconds left. But the victory was totally fueled by a sensational defensive effort. A defense that’s been scorched over the past two seasons ranks in the top 25 in the country in scoring and held previous Big Ten leading passer Tommy Armstrong to 10 completions for 105 yards last week. Both teams have played well this season, but Iowa has the offense-defense combination to stay undefeated.

The pick: Iowa

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini's Josh Ferguson 'very, very doubtful' for game vs. Hawkeyes]

No. 13 Northwestern at No. 18 Michigan, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The game of the week pits the country’s top two scoring defenses against one another. Northwestern is No. 1, allowing seven points a game. Michigan is No. 2, allowing 7.6 points a game. The Cats are coming off a sensational shutout performance over Minnesota, limiting that floundering offense to nothing on the scoreboard, creating turnovers and scoring a defensive touchdown. Meanwhile, the Wolverines haven’t allowed a point in eight quarters, posting back-to-back shutout wins over BYU and Maryland. Northwestern probably has more playmakers — with guys like Anthony Walker, Dean Lowry and Matt Harris, among others, off to great starts — but both squads play outstanding team defense, the key in smothering opponents the way they have.

So it’ll come down to which offense can do, well, anything against these incredible defenses. Michigan has had more success in that department, with Jake Rudock finding his footing at quarterback after an interception-heavy start. De’Veon Smith’s health will certainly be key, as he missed last week’s game. That’s not to say there aren’t other playmakers in the Michigan backfield, but Smith has been the best this season. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is still a freshman, and it shows at times, though Pat Fitzgerald called last week’s game Thorson’s most consistent of the year. Justin Jackson is the conference’s third leading rusher right now, averaging 127.2 yards per game. That’s terrific, and it shows how old school this game could end up being: defense and running the ball to win.

It’s been heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss for Northwestern in this series for the past few years with late Hail Marys, sliding last-second field goals and that missed two-point conversion burying the Cats in almost unbelievable fashion. And while Harbaugh has his Wolverines playing extremely well, Northwestern’s defense has just looked out of this world.

The pick: Northwestern

[MORE BIG TEN: After surgeries, infection, ICU stay, Matt Frazier finally back to football]

Wisconsin at Nebraska, 2:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN 2

The Badgers certainly had their issues in the 10-6 loss to the Hawkeyes, and it’s certainly a game Wisconsin could’ve won if not for the Joel Stave turnovers, all four of them. But the Badgers managed to still look impressive in that loss, despite not scoring a touchdown. Wisconsin’s defense is the backbone of this year’s team, and it’s playing extremely well, the No. 4 scoring defense in the country. It prevented Iowa, which had scored a ton of points in four previous wins, from doing much damage on the scoreboard and created its own turnovers. Injuries are crippling the offense right now, with Corey Clement sidelined, Alex Erickson concussed and Austin Traylor now out. It puts a lot of pressure on Stave’s shoulders, though against a Nebraska defense that can’t stop shooting itself in the foot, he seems in line for a bounce-back game.

About that Nebraska defense. Another unbelievable last-second loss for the Huskers last week at Illinois. It would seem at first blush like fluke after fluke, but there’s plenty wrong about this team right now. From a pass defense that can’t get it together — it snapped its string of 300-yard days but gave up a monster completion at the worse possible moment against the Illini — to Tommy Armstrong and his inaccurate passing to Mike Riley and some concerning coaching decisions. The Huskers can’t get out of their own way right now, and against a defense as elite as the Badgers’ that’s a problem.

The pick: Wisconsin

[MORE BIG TEN: Badgers' top wideout Alex Erickson going through concussion protocol]

Minnesota at Purdue, 2:30 p.m., ESPN U

The Big Ten has plenty of teams with problems. We’ve already discussed Maryland and Nebraska. And then there’s Rutgers, in its own category. But Minnesota certainly belongs on that list. The Gophers’ offense has been the worst offense of any Power 5 conference team when it comes to scoring points, and only Hawaii ranks below Minnesota in the entire FBS in that department. It’s the players who aren’t on the field who are having the biggest impact, though, with the Gophers unable to figure out what to do without NFL’ers David Cobb and Maxx Williams. Plus, the team will be without eight starters (on both sides of the ball) this weekend against Purdue. After a 27-0 blowout loss to Northwestern sent the Gophers to 3-2, could things get worse before they get better?

It’s possible. And it’s because Purdue is coming off a near upset of Michigan State. The Spartans deserve ample blame for nearly blowing a three-touchdown halftime lead, but give the Boilers some credit, too. David Blough has certainly been better than Austin Appleby, and Markell Jones could be the answer in the backfield. Purdue is just 1-4 and can’t be elevated from bottom-feeder status until it wins some more games. But there’s perhaps some promise where there was none before. Or perhaps last week was just a fluke. It’s Purdue, so who knows?

The pick: Purdue

[MORE BIG TEN: 'Nothing is really going right' for Gophers offense, but is QB change coming?]

No. 4 Michigan State at Rutgers, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Spartans were bumped from No. 2 to No. 4 after a win last week, but it’s an understandable move when you consider the near loss to Purdue. Michigan State hasn’t exactly been playing like a College Football Playoff contender since that big Week 2 win over Oregon, but it is winning and is still undefeated, which really in the end is all that matters. Injuries are piling up for the Spartans, both along the offensive line and in the defensive backfield, and that’s major cause for concern, considering the team’s been relatively injury free during its past two runs to big-time bowl wins. Thankfully, this weekend provides an opportunity to score some style points, as Rutgers is in complete disarray.

The Scarlet Knights are coming off a bye week and get top receiver Leonte Carroo back from his suspension after an assault charge against him was dropped. But will that be enough for the Knights to challenge the Spartans? It’s doubtful. Even though Connor Cook has looked anything but one of the country’s best quarterbacks this season, he should be able to feast against a Rutgers defense that allowed a total of 65 points in losses to Penn State and Washington State.

The pick: Michigan 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.