Big Ten

Week 7 Big Ten previews: Stakes high for Spartans, Wolverines


Week 7 Big Ten previews: Stakes high for Spartans, Wolverines

Michigan State. Michigan. Two top-12 teams. The Paul Bunyan Trophy.

College football doesn't get much better than this, and this weekend's top matchup is one that could have major implications on the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines are playing as well as any team in the country and have already earned a spot in some's playoff discussions. The Spartans are still undefeated and in need of backing up their status as a preseason contender.

Plus, there's the whole rivalry thing. Don't know if you've heard, but that's kind of a big deal.

And it's not the only top-20 game on the schedule this week, as Iowa and Northwestern meet in Evanston as the two top teams in the Big Ten West.

It's a big week, so here's a look at all the games. As always, all games on Saturday and all times are Central.

No. 17 Iowa at No. 20 Northwestern, 11 a.m., ABC/ESPN 2

It’s not the No. 1 most anticipated battle on the Big Ten docket this weekend, but it’s a top-20 showdown nonetheless. Northwestern is looking for redemption after that ugly 38-0 loss at Michigan last weekend. The Cats continue struggle on offense — what about that final score gave that away? — and things won’t be easier now that receiver Austin Carr is out. He’s tied for first on the team with a pair of touchdown catches. Justin Jackson and the run game will look to get back on track after totaling just 38 yards against the Wolverines’ impressive defense. Expect a bounce-back performance by the typically dominant Northwestern defense. Last week wasn’t good, but two of Michigan’s touchdowns came with the Cats’ defense on the sideline.

This week presents a challenge for that defense, though, as undefeated Iowa has had one of the conference’s more productive offenses this season. Running back Jordan Canzeri rushed for 256 yards on a school-record 43 carries last weekend in a 29-20 win over Illinois. Quarterback C.J. Beathard was beat up in that game, and lingering injuries have caused reason for concern this week, but he’s still the QB who has turned this Hawkeyes offense around, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns. The Iowa offense has been good, but the Northwestern defense has been amazing — we’re counting last week as an anomaly until proven otherwise — still ranking in the top 10 in the country in both scoring defense and total defense.

The pick: Northwestern

[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern loses cornerback Matt Harris for 'foreseeable future']

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

The Badgers are living on the edge so far during the conference season. After a narrow 10-6 loss to Iowa to open things, Wisconsin needed a last-second field goal to edge Nebraska, 23-21, last weekend. The Badgers unexpectedly trailed during that game against a struggling bunch of Huskers. Joel Stave threw for 322 yards against a generally abysmal Nebraska pass defense, but he needed 50 passing attempts to do it. Taiwan Deal is now dealing with his own injuries, potentially thinning the running back ranks further with Corey Clement still sidelined.

Thankfully for Wisconsin, though, a date with Purdue cures all ills. That’s what we learned last weekend, anyway, when the previously functionless Minnesota offense dropped a whole mess of points on the Boilermakers. Purdue surrendered at least 40 points for the third time this season in that 41-13 thumping. And David Blough threw three interceptions, upping his season total to five in three games. That’s a bad sign against a dominant Badger defense, which ranks 12th in the country, allowing just 285 yards a game.

The pick: Wisconsin

[MORE BIG TEN: Drew Ott out for season with torn ACL, C.J. Beathard expected to play]

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

Both teams have had recent impressive losses. Indiana took top-ranked Ohio State to the final seconds, failing to tie a one-possession game on fourth and goal in the final minute. Rutgers lost just last weekend to top-10 Michigan State, the Spartans scoring a touchdown to move ahead in the final minute. So we know both teams are capable of putting on good performances.

Rutgers got a huge boost from the return of star wideout Leonte Carroo, who caught three touchdown passes against Michigan State. He returned from a suspension and has only played in three games (and he was suspended the first half of one, meaning he’s only played 10 quarters) but leads the conference with six touchdown catches. Against an Indiana defense that’s usually easily shredded by opposing passing attacks, Carroo could be in store for another big day.

Most of Indiana’s success will be based on whether its stars return. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard were both knocked out of that game against the Buckeyes two weeks ago, and they both sat out last weekend’s 29-7 loss at Penn State. Their absence was glaring, as the terrific Penn State defense shut down a usually productive offense to the tune of 234 total yards. And backup quarterback Zander Diamont was injured in that game, meaning it could be third stringer Danny Cameron under center for the Hoosiers. The outcome of this one really hinges on whether Sudfeld and Howard play.

The pick: If Sudfeld and Howard play, it’s Indiana. If not, it’s Rutgers.

[MORE BIG TEN: Hoosiers could start third-string quarterback if Nate Sudfeld still not ready to go]

No. 7 Michigan State at No. 12 Michigan, 2:30 p.m., ESPN

College football’s game of the week pits the red-hot Wolverines against the eye-test-failing — but still-undefeated — Spartans. It’s a battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy that hasn’t seen this high of stakes in years. And it’s mighty exciting.

Michigan has played as well as anyone in the country in recent weeks, on a spectacular three-game shutout streak with blankings of BYU, Maryland and Northwestern. Outside of that Week 1 loss to a Utah team that’s now ranked fourth in the country, Michigan has outscored its other five opponents by a combined 160-14 score. Goodness. The Wolverines’ defense is the country’s finest, leading the FBS in scoring defense (6.3 points per game) and ranking second in total defense (181.3 yards per game). Michigan dropped 38 points on a Northwestern team that was allowing little more than a touchdown a game entering last week’s game, with one touchdown a 96-yard kickoff return and the other an interception return. The Wolverines are quite simply firing on all cylinders.

Michigan State, meanwhile, boasts something Michigan doesn’t: a perfect record. That’s probably the only advantage the Spartans have, though, as they have not looked like a College Football Playoff contender in recent weeks. Michigan State staved off a Purdue comeback and beat the bottom-feeding Boilers just 24-21, then followed that up with a 31-24 win over Rutgers that required a game-winning touchdown in the game’s final minute. Not exactly resume-building wins over two of the conference’s worst teams. Connor Cook has looked mostly average, and the Sparty offensive line and defense are banged up beyond belief, seemingly losing a starter every week. It all seems like a perfect storm brewing for Michigan to snatch the Paul Bunyan Trophy back after Michigan State has won six of the last seven meetings.

The pick: Michigan

[MORE BIG TEN: Jim Harbaugh channels inner Rafiki and quotes 'The Lion King']

Nebraska at Minnesota, 2:30 p.m., ESPN 2

It’s OK if we agree that no one has any idea what to expect from this game, right?

Things aren’t going well for Nebraska, with all four of its losses coming in the final seconds of games. That might seem like just bad luck on the surface. But Tommy Armstrong has struggled to be accurate with his passing, second to last among qualified Big Ten quarterbacks with a 52.4 completion percentage. The Huskers’ defense has been consistently scorched, giving up at least 300 passing yards to opponents in five of six games this season, and they lost the game in which they didn’t thanks in part to two huge pass plays at game’s end. Then there have been the at times questionable coaching decisions. It all piles up to a Nebraska team that is not playing very well in addition to suffering routine bouts of bad luck.

Minnesota is coming off a 41-13 blowout win over Purdue, but that game looks like the outlier to end all outliers, as before that contest the Gophers were one of the lowest-scoring teams in college football. Even after that outburst, only two Power 5 teams — Kansas and Missouri — are scoring fewer points per game than Minnesota. The Gophers’ defense has been good but injured, a team-wide concern that left eight starters out of last week’s game. Surely, the Gophers won’t be able to score with the ease they did against the Boilermakers when it comes to this week’s game. But that doesn’t mean a loss, as the Huskers have plenty of problems of their own.

The pick: Minnesota

[MORE BIG TEN: Spartans' Mark Dantonio wants no part of question about South Carolina job]

Penn State at No. 1 Ohio State, 7 p.m., ABC

The Buckeyes have seemed to figure out their early season offensive woes, as they’ve dropped a total of 121 points in their last three games. In fact, the offensive struggles might be just a tad overblown considering Ohio State has scored at least 34 points in all but one of its games. The solution to Urban Meyer’s quarterbacking dilemma might have also arrived in last weekend’s 49-28 win over Maryland, using Cardale Jones to get the offense to the red zone and using J.T. Barrett to get into the end zone. Worked like a charm against the Terps. Oh, and more 100-yard days for Ezekiel Elliott are never bad things, either. We might look back at the end of the season — or maybe now — and wonder why we were ever worried.

The Nittany Lions could have really made this a big weekend had they not stubbed their toe in the season-opener against Temple. It remains Penn State’s lone loss, meaning this could have been a clash of two 6-0 teams and maybe the third top-20 matchup on the Big Ten schedule this week. But alas. Penn State, though it hasn’t faced much in the way of tough competition, has one of the best defenses in the country. The Lions rank 10th in the FBS in total defense (275.7 yards per game) and 11th in scoring defense (14.3 points per game). Just like last season, the Penn State defense could be very effective against the Ohio State offense. But it’s the other side of the ball that’s a bit less favorable. Not only does Ohio State also boast a top-20 defense but the Penn State offensive line is again pretty porous. Christian Hackenberg has been sacked 19 times through six games. Only three teams in college football have allowed more.

The pick: Ohio State

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


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


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.