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
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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
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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
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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
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