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
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
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.
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
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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
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