Big Ten

Week 8 Big Ten previews: Can Illini give Badgers a run?

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Week 8 Big Ten previews: Can Illini give Badgers a run?

The Big Ten is looking really, really good with four teams ranked in the AP poll’s top 15.

Two of those teams are off this week — No. 12 Iowa and No. 15 Michigan have byes — but for the other two, No. 1 Ohio State and No. 7 Michigan State, this week is a perfect opportunity to keep the undefeated seasons going. The Buckeyes visit Rutgers, while the Spartans host Indiana, not exactly teams that seem primed for major upsets.

Out in the Big Ten West, though, there are a couple teams who travel with something to prove. Can Northwestern bounce back after two straight losses? Can Wisconsin finally have a big game that shows it belongs in the West title discussion? Or will undefeated Iowa spend its bye week basking in its status as division favorite?

Here’s a look at this week in the Big Ten. As always, all games are Saturday and all times are Central.

Northwestern at Nebraska, 11 a.m., ESPN 2

The Wildcats are in desperate need of a bounce-back performance following two blowout losses that brought their undefeated season to a screeching halt. After boasting the best defense in the country through five weeks, allowing just seven points a game, the Cats have been outscored, 78-10, over the past two weeks. The Northwestern offense has continued to struggle behind freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, who turned the ball over three times last week, and the running game has vanished, totaling just 89 yards in the last two games.

Nebraska has had trouble stopping opposing offenses, but unfortunately for Northwestern, that’s been limited to the air attack. The Huskers have the worst pass defense in the Big Ten, allowing 341.7 yards through the air a game. But that doesn’t do much for the Cats, who have the conference’s worst pass offense (141.1 yards per game). Similarly, Nebraska has an advantage in defending Northwestern’s offensive strength, with the Huskers ranking third in the conference in rush defense, one of three teams allowing an average of fewer than 100 yards a game, the other two being the teams the Cats just lost to, Michigan and Iowa.

The pick: Nebraska

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten Power Rankings: One play changes everything]

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

At the beginning of the season, a blowout in favor of Wisconsin would’ve been everyone’s projection, but not so fast.

The Badgers have not been very impressive, particularly on offense, since the beginning of Big Ten play. In a loss to Iowa, they scored a total of six points on two field goals and quarterback Joel Stave turned the ball over four times. They barely beat a reeling Nebraska team on a last-second field goal after kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed two kicks earlier in the game. And last week they beat Purdue, 24-7, which isn’t exactly an impressive feat. While Wisconsin certainly has a terrific defense that currently ranks seventh in the country in total defense, without Corey Clement — who might or might not return this week — the offense isn’t doing anywhere near enough to suggest the Badgers capable of blowing out any Big Ten team not named Purdue.

The Illini also spark some hope by their own actions, themselves boasting a defense worth praising. Illinois ranks 30th in the country in total defense, a somewhat amazing feat given the way that unit has been demolished by just about everyone in each of the past two seasons. But Illinois has yet to face a running back as talented as Clement, who could make his return this weekend after a several-week layoff while recovering from sports hernia surgery. His insertion into the Badgers lineup could change everything. But make no mistake, for a game that looked pretty one-sided a couple months ago, this could be a really tight one.

The pick: Illinois

[MORE BIG TEN: Mike Dudek unlikely to return to Illini this season]

Penn State at Maryland, 2:30 p.m., ESPN

It’s the Terps’ first game since the firing of Randy Edsall, and there’s little idea what to expect from them. Surely the quarterback situation hasn’t magically fixed itself just because the head coach who couldn’t seem to make a decision is now gone. But while three different QBs have played for Maryland so far this season, none have played very well, so it wasn’t just indecision that plagued the position. The Terps found some success there in their last game, as Perry Hills rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns, but he also completed just 10 passes and threw two interceptions as Maryland lost by three touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Terps have the No. 110 defense in the FBS and the second worst in the Big Ten.

Penn State, on the other hand, does have a terrific defense and shouldn’t find it difficult to stop a turnover-prone Maryland offense. The Nittany Lions rank 16th in the country, allowing an average of just under 300 total yards a game. All eyes will be on the other side of the ball, though, to see if freshman running back Saquon Barkley can tear up Maryland the way he has most opponents he’s seen so far in 2015. He’s really only had four games of action, but he’s already established himself as one of the Big Ten’s best backs. Last week he rushed for 194 yards against No. 1 Ohio State. That after 115- and 195-yard days against Buffalo and Rutgers, respectively, earlier in the year. He’s a star in the making, and he ought to run all over the Terps.

The pick: Penn State

[MORE BIG TEN: Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi rips Penn State for some reason]

Indiana at No. 7 Michigan State, 2:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN 2

On the heels of one of the most unbelievable endings in college football history last week, will the Spartans be re-energized as the season marches on? It’s not to say they haven’t been motivated, of course they have. But for a 7-0 team, the eye test doesn’t end with them looking like a College Football Playoff contender. That insane ending to beat Michigan followed narrow escapes against Purdue and Rutgers, two of the conference’s worst teams. Winning ugly is fine if you keep winning, but that trend of barely winning leads many to believe the Spartans will lose eventually. But a win like last week’s could also serve as a spark to suddenly start beating up on teams again. Connor Cook had a great day against a tremendous Michigan defense, and he looked arguably the best he’s looked all season.

The problem, though, continues to be a banged-up defense. The unit certainly rose to the occasion against the Wolverines, holding them to just 230 total yards, a sensational effort. Indiana, though, has more firepower. Nate Sudfeld returned last week after an injury absence and ignited the Hoosiers’ offense to the tune of 52 points through three quarters. Sudfeld threw for 464 yards and four touchdowns in that game. But Indiana also lost that game, getting outscored, 22-0, in the fourth quarter as Rutgers made a huge comeback. Can Michigan State’s defense, riddled with injuries, withstand that offensive onslaught?

The pick: Michigan State

[MORE BIG TEN: Spartans 'legend' Jalen Watts-Jackson back in East Lansing after hip surgery]

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

It’s J.T. Barrett time, finally. Even if you weren’t one of the ones calling for Barrett to win the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback job back in August, you had to at least be a bit surprised that he didn’t get it. Well, seven weeks in — with Ohio State a perfect 7-0 — Urban Meyer has made his QB switch. Barrett will start this week as Cardale Jones takes a backseat. Meyer said Barrett earned the job with production, and that’s certainly the truth, as the redshirt sophomore has accounted for seven total touchdowns over the past two weeks. Last week, he lit up Penn State with four touchdowns on a national stage, a game where he only attempted four passes. Regardless of who’s under center, notice that the Ohio State offense is putting up points like gangbusters lately. Between Barrett and running back Ezekiel Elliott, the Buckeyes might be back to being unstoppable.

Rutgers, however, could be in quite the pickle if star wideout Leonte Carroo doesn’t play. He was banged up in that big comeback win over Indiana last weekend, and he’s currently questionable for Saturday’s game. He’s played in just four games this season, three of them being three-touchdown days for the star pass-catcher. Carroo was obviously a big part of the win over Indiana, and without him, Rutgers might have even less of a chance of hanging with the No. 1 team in the country. Yes, Chris Laviano and Robert Martin and the Rutgers defense were all excellent in staging that big-time comeback, but that was against Indiana. Ohio State is not Indiana.

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.