A so-called “trap” game can be many things to many people in college football.
For me, it’s a simple acknowledgment that players and coaches are not robots. Over the course of a 12-game regular season, it’s human nature for over-sized young adults and hyper-intense coaches to treat certain points of a schedule with varying degrees of energy and focus.
And that’s what makes the game so amazing to cover. There are few guarantees on football Saturdays, especially among programs of similar stature.
Taking a page out of the Admiral Ackbar playbook and identifying the 10 most intriguing trap games on the Big Ten schedule, lets Cue the obligatory ‘Star Wars’ clip from Admiral Ackbar.
For this exercise, we’re not promising upsets across the board. But don’t be surprised if a handful of Big Ten shockers derive from this 10-pack of games.
TRAP: at Penn State (Nov. 5)
- The reigning Big Ten West champs have a viable chance at sweeping all five road games this season at Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State and Illinois). However, the 900-mile-plus voyage to Happy Valley, Pa. will likely be the most treacherous of the lot for the Hawkeyes.
- I have Iowa going undefeated for all of September and October. If that’s the case, it would be pure human nature for Hawkeyes players and coaches to look slightly past Penn State and squarely at their prime-time showdown with Michigan – likely a top-5 team come November – the following Saturday.
- Yes, Penn State will break in a new quarterback this fall after Christian Hackenberg’s early departure to the NFL. But assuming full health, sophomore Trace McSorley (a highly touted dual-threat QB out of high school) could have as many as eight starts under his belt leading up to Iowa’s much-anticipated arrival.
- The Nittany Lions, 14-12 under head coach James Franklin in his first two seasons, should be sky-high for three home games this year – Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State. Also helping Penn State’s cause, the mountains of western Pennsylvania may be subject to wintry weather in early November.
- Penn State could have the conference’s best all-purpose – and all-weather– running back in sophomore Saquon Barkley, who is a candidate for 1,600 yards rushing. He posted five games of 100-plus rushing yards as a freshman, with eight touchdowns.
2. MICHIGAN STATE
TRAP: vs. BYU (Oct. 8)
- This fall, Michigan State is the only Big Ten team with a non-conference game in October or November. The reason? It’s a major consequence of Alabama pulling out of a home-and-home series a few years ago, forcing the Spartans to remake their 2016 and 2017 schedules on the fly.
- If BYU were slated to visit East Lansing in September, one could expect maximum effort, intensity and focus from the Spartans. However, there could be a letdown effect at play here in October, given how Michigan State will already be two games into conference action. It’s all part of the famous saying from the late, great Beano Cook: It’s not who you play, but when you play ’em.
- BYU could have the nation’s most interesting quarterback controversy this season, with sophomore Tanner Mangum (3,377 yards passing, 25 TDs as a freshman) and senior Taysom Hill (career numbers: 5,818 total yards, 55 TDs) contending for starter’s reps. In a hypothetical world, both passers have the talent and experience to start at maybe seven Big Ten programs in 2016.
TRAP: vs. Illinois (Nov. 12)
- It’s likely that neither Wisconsin nor Illinois will threaten for the Big Ten West title this fall, but this matchup still warrants “trap” mention in one regard: By a long shot, Wisconsin has the conference’s most difficult schedule in 2016 – which launches with a neutral-field showdown against LSU, a popular pick to win the national title, and then features an incredible September-October gauntlet of six consecutive outings against the Big Ten’s elite teams, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern. Of those seven games mentioned, only two – Ohio State and Nebraska – take place at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium.
- After Northwestern, the Badgers draw an Illinois squad that’s breaking in a new head coach in Lovie Smith but already has enough star-potential on offense in quarterback Wes Lunt, tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn and receiver Malik Turner to be dangerous on any given Saturday. That’s especially true if Wisconsin doesn’t bring max-effort to this so-called breather game.
4. PENN STATE
TRAP: vs. Temple (Sept. 17)
- Temple may have a long-standing rivalry with Penn State, but the Owls’ place in this year’s schedule absolutely screams letdown – sandwiched between prominent road trips to Pittsburgh (Sept. 10) and Michigan (Sept. 24).
- Penn State vs. Temple has been a one-sided affair through the years, with the Nittany Lions owning a 38-1-1 record since 1941. Complacency could be a factor.
- On the flip side, Penn State will be seeking revenge for last year’s 17-point drubbing at the hands of Temple, which sacked QB Christian Hackenberg 10 times and limited the anemic Nittany Lions to nine first downs and 183 total yards.
TRAP: vs. Northwestern (Sept. 24)
- Since entering the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska has earned a solid reputation for aggressive non-conference scheduling, taking on the likes of Washington, Fresno State, UCLA, Miami and BYU during that span. But the Cornhuskers’ coup de grace might involve the upcoming home-and-home against Oregon, with the Ducks invading Lincoln on Sept. 17 and then hosting the Huskers next year.
- Consequently, Nebraska may be ripe for a sluggish performance in the Big Ten opener. There might also be some culture shock with style of play, factoring in Oregon’s preference for playing at a break-neck pace and Northwestern’s methodical penchant for running the ball and controlling the clock.
- Northwestern and Nebraska have oddly been in sync over the last five years. The Cornhuskers own a 3-2 advantage during the span, with four outings decided by three or fewer points. Simply put, the more emotionally charged team will likely prevail this year.
TRAP: vs. Indiana (Nov. 19)
- This won’t be the first time Indiana appears as a “trap” opponent, but it’s certainly the most high-profile game involving the Hoosiers. Come mid-November, Michigan should have an excellent understanding of its place – good or bad – in the Big Ten East standings, with treacherous trips to Michigan State and Iowa already in the rear-view mirror. As such, the Wolverines will either be riding high from a season-saving win at Iowa the week before or they’ll be prime candidates for a letdown effort against Indiana.
- Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh may be the college football version of the Energizer Bunny (above video) and a master motivator, but getting up for a potential second-tier outing against the Hoosiers could be difficult, especially with Ohio State on the immediate horizon. Conversely, if Michigan should be sitting at 9-1 or 10-0 at this time, the Indiana game – aka Senior Day for the Wolverines – would have extra meaning for all parties involved. It’s a fascinating spectrum of emotions to ponder. It’s also another component of Michigan’s Indianapolis-or-bust expectations as Big Ten East champs for the season ahead.
TRAP: @ UCF (Sept. 17)
- Let’s start with the obvious. Maryland might be rebuilding in Big Ten circles, but the Terrapins are light years ahead of the Golden Knights, who went 0-12 last year and dropped their final nine outings by an average margin of 28.8 points.
- The Maryland coaches will undoubtedly maximize their recruiting time in Florida during September, with back-to-back games inside the Sunshine State against Florida International and UCF. However, the Florida swing could be a tough mental adjustment for the Terrapins players, especially with an early bye coming the following week.
- Last year, the quarterbacking tandem of Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe combined for 14 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions. As such, there’s no guarantee the Terps will be absolutely settled at this slot once the season launches.
8. OHIO STATE
TRAP: vs. Northwestern (Oct. 29)
- Ohio State has a tough but balanced schedule this season, meaning there aren’t many obvious opportunities for shenanigans against lesser-light opponents. That said, Northwestern sits perfectly nestled between an extended road swing to Wisconsin and Penn State and a prime-time home clash with Nebraska on Nov. 5.
- From a history standpoint, Northwestern has dropped its last five meetings against Ohio State by an average margin of 36.2 points. But unless the Wildcats visit Columbus at 6-1 or 7-0, the Buckeyes could easily be flat for this not-so-sexy crossover game.
TRAP: vs. Colorado State (Sept. 24)
- Colorado State should be seething for this matchup, seeking revenge from last year’s home loss to Minnesota (23-20).
- In the last 10 years, Minnesota has incurred surprising home defeats to Syracuse, North Dakota State, New Mexico State, South Dakota, Northern Illinois, Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic. In that vein, it would shock no one if the Golden Gophers fall to a Colorado State team that returns 14 starters – including four offensive linemen, tailback Dalyn Dawkins (1,045 total yards last year) and emerging quarterback Nick Stevens (2,678 yards passing, 24 TDs).
- Colorado State represents the final non-conference outing on Minnesota’s schedule. After that, the Gophers open Big Ten play with prominent meetings at Penn State and at home against Iowa.
TRAP: vs. Indiana (Oct. 22)
- Have you seen Northwestern’s brutal October slate? They have three brutal trips to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State, with only one home outing during the month against Indiana. We’re talking about a classic sandwich game here, with the Hoosiers visiting Evanston immediately before and after the Wildcats trek to East Lansing and Columbus.
- Adding to the presumed-victory pressure, it’s also Northwestern’s homecoming game for the season. Ugh.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.