Despite Michigan State’s big win last weekend, things aren’t quite determined yet in the Big Ten East.
The Spartans have to win this weekend against Penn State to clinch the division crown and a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. If they don’t, the new No. 5 team in the College Football Playoff rankings won’t be competing for a conference title. That pleasure would instead go to the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game.
Iowa, meanwhile, already has a spot in the Big Ten title game, but the Hawkeyes need to win Friday against Nebraska if they want to stay on track for a spot in the Playoff. Because a one-loss Iowa team might have a pretty difficult time making the final four.
Enough drama for you? It ought to be a fun final week of the regular season.
Here’s a look at this weekend’s games. All games Saturday except Iowa-Nebraska, which comes Friday afternoon. All times still Central.
No. 4 Iowa at Nebraska, 2:30 p.m. Friday, ABC
The Hawkeyes haven’t lost yet, and they surely don’t intend to lose now with so much on the line. Yeah, Iowa already has a spot in the Big Ten title game clinched. But if it wants to stay in contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it really can’t lose a game. So the stakes are in fact quite high in the regular-season finale.
The Hawkeyes should definitely be wary of the Huskers, who have already ended one Big Ten team’s undefeated season and won two in a row after suffering that embarrassing defeat against Purdue. Nebraska needs a win to get bowl eligible, but this game comes against a team that’s maybe impressed more than any other in the conference.
This game could actually be a pretty high-scoring affair, these two teams ranking in the top four in the conference in scoring offense, averaging more than 33 points a game. But there’s a distinct advantage in Iowa’s 16th-ranked-nationally defense. Nebraska ranks 81st.
The pick: Iowa
[MORE BIG TEN: Hawkeyes up to No. 4, Spartans up to No. 5 in Playoff rankings]
No. 8 Ohio State at No. 10 Michigan, 11 a.m., ABC
The first edition of The Game featuring Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh as opposing head coaches pits two top-10 teams against one another. Now, Michigan State will have to lose in order for the stakes to get really interesting — a spot in the Big Ten title game would be on the line if the Spartans go down. But this game’s played before that one, so it’ll just have to be a good, old-fashioned Ohio State-Michigan rivalry game with New Year’s Six bowl implications.
The Buckeyes failed last week in their first big test of the year, looking horrendous offensively in gaining just 132 yards against a Michigan State defense that has been exploited numerous times this season. Ezekiel Elliott’s small workload didn’t help, as one of the best backs in the country gained just 33 yards on the ground.
The Wolverines should have liked what they saw, as their conference-best defense could easily shut the Buckeyes down the same way the Spartans did. Michigan’s still allowing an average of just 263.1 yards per game, second in the country, and doing a tremendous job stopping the run.
The pick: Michigan
Indiana at Purdue, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
The Bucket game actually has some real meaning this season, as Indiana needs a win to reach a bowl game. The Hoosiers started 4-0 but lost their next six games. They got one of the requisite wins last week in a comeback demolition of Maryland. They need another Saturday to make the program’s first bowl since 2007 and just the second since 1994.
One thing’s nearly guaranteed: Purdue’s defense will not be able to handle Indiana’s offense. The Hoosiers have had great success against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State this season, and the bottom-feeding Boilers won’t be able to slow down what those teams couldn’t. Nate Sudfeld and Jordan Howard are good bets for big days.
But, there’s another near guarantee: Indiana’s defense won’t be able to stop much, either. The Hoosiers have a habit of making even the most inept offenses look all-world, turning every game into a wild shootout. Indiana’s offense is significantly better than Purdue’s, but the Boilers have a 55-point game under their belts this season.
The pick: Indiana
Maryland at Rutgers, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
There’s really nothing to get excited about in this game. Maryland will be playing its final game of the Mike Locksley Era. Rutgers could be playing its final game of the Kyle Flood Era. Neither team can capture bowl eligibility, and the only thing in question is whether the Terps can avoid going winless in Big Ten play.
The Knights can finish with a 5-7 record with a win, and that wouldn’t be too far off from what was projected in the preseason. Leonte Carroo will be playing in his final game at Rutgers, and despite missing four games and catching just 32 passes this season, he’s the conference leader in touchdown catches. He’ll go for double digits in that department Saturday.
Can Maryland’s quarterbacks avoid throwing 30 interceptions this season? They’re already at 28, and they’ll finish with the national lead in that category unless UCF or Hawaii throws eight picks this weekend.
Like I said, not a game to get super excited about.
The pick: Rutgers
Penn State at No. 5 Michigan State, 2:30 p.m., ESPN
This is a big one for Michigan State, as it has the inside track to the Big Ten title game. Win this weekend, and the Spartans are in. Win that one, and it’s off to the College Football Playoff. But it starts with a win over the Lions this weekend, something that won’t be too easy, and a loss means no shot at a conference title or a Playoff spot.
What Michigan State team will we see? Will it be the one that played expert defensively last weekend in a win over Ohio State, holding the talent-packed Buckeyes to just 132 yards? Or will it be the one that was shredded for nearly 500 yards by Nebraska? Penn State has its playmakers, but if the Spartans’ defense can do what it did last week, then the ticket to the title game is as good as punched. If not, this could be the biggest drop yet in Michigan State’s roller-coaster season.
Penn State definitely has the capability to earn a win here, but success against good defenses hasn’t been easy. The Lions were snuffed out by Michigan and Ohio State. So a lot will depend on the type of game Michigan State’s defense turns in. But Christian Hackenberg and especially Saquon Barkley can definitely make things happen. Barkley is just 96 yards away from a 1,000-yard freshman year.
The pick: Michigan State
[MORE BIG TEN: Connor Cook looks to again be a game-time decision for Spartans]
Wisconsin at Minnesota, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
The Gophers’ offense has shown a lot of growth as the season has gone on. The unit couldn’t produce any points early in the season, but Minnesota has totaled 65 points in its last two games against two good defenses in Iowa and Illinois.
Wisconsin, of course, has an elite defense, leading the country in scoring defense by allowing just 12.4 points per game. Last weekend was a wacky one, as the Badgers probably deserved to lose a game in which they turned the ball over five times, but they also probably deserved to win a game that saw three touchdowns wiped off the board.
Minnesota needs a win to go to a bowl game, but Wisconsin’s defense is just too good. While the Badgers can’t seem to do much of anything offensively of late and the Gophers are trending upward in that area, the Badgers’ defense should win the day — and keep the Axe.
The pick: Wisconsin
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Northwestern gear right here]
No. 16 Northwestern at Illinois, 2:30 p.m., ESPN U
Illinois needs a win to go to a bowl game, and while it was previously thought that maybe a postseason appearance for the second consecutive season could take the interim tag off head coach Bill Cubit, that might happen regardless after reports this week indicated the Illini could give him a two-year deal.
Northwestern, meanwhile, could win its 10th game of the season this weekend. It would be just the fourth time in program history that’s happened. A win this week plus a win in the bowl game would be the first 11-win season in program history.
The Cats are excellent on defense, and against the at-times completely inept Illini offense, it should dominate. But Northwestern hasn’t been too terrific on offense this season either, and a good Illinois defense could have some serious success in stopping Clayton Thorson and Co. The key: Justin Jackson. Even against Wisconsin’s sterling defense a week ago, the Northwestern sophomore went over 100 yards. If Jackson can do that against the Illini, the Cats should find themselves with double digit wins and that delightful trophy of Abe Lincoln’s hat.
The pick: Northwestern