There will be no exaggerated hubris with this piece. Picking upsets is no easy game.
I’m not expecting to go a perfect 5-for-5 in predicting the Big Ten’s most landmark upsets for the 2016 season. Heck, even 4-for-5 seems like a pipe dream, considering how the top-heavy conference placed four programs in the top 12 last year (Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan).
It’s hard to topple the league’s elite teams – even at home.
However, batting 3-for-5 for this whimsical exercise seems like a doable feat, given the appealing crossover matchups. It also helps that certain upset picks double as trap games, which can never be discounted when trying to predict – with notable accuracy – the weekly mindset of emotionally charged, easily distracted young adults at the college level.
1. PENN STATE OVER IOWA (NOV. 5)
There are plenty of reasons to celebrate Iowa’s fall prospects:
- The Hawkeyes return at least 14 starters from last year’s Big Ten West champs (12-2 overall).
- The rushing tandem of LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley – who combined for 1,240 total yards, 16 touchdowns primarily as backups in 2015 – could match the pound-for-pound success of last season’s power trio (headlined by Jordan Canzeri).
- Iowa will undoubtedly be favored for all five road games (Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State, Illinois).
- The Hawkeyes could be the Big Ten’s last undefeated squad, staying perfect through September and October.
- And if everything goes well according to Iowa fans, the Hawkeyes and Wolverines will carry dueling 8-0 records into their Nov. 12 showdown in Iowa City. Within that idyllic rationale, both schools would easily boast top-5 rankings. They might even be No. 1 and No. 2 in the country… similar to the epic 1985 showdown between Iowa and Michigan.
But alas, Penn State will likely serve as a great (and perhaps grave) distraction for Iowa, in the days leading up to Michigan’s titanic visit. In the business, it’s known as an Admiral Ackbar-style trap game.
The Nittany Lions, who were only 7-6 last year, should be sky-high for their final three home outings against Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State. The mountains of western Pennsylvania may also be subject to wintry weather in early November, aiding Penn State’s cause for a seasonal shocker.
In other words, for one grand day, it might not matter that Penn State has a new quarterback, presumably Trace McSorley). It might not matter that tailback Saquon Barkley (1,237 total yards, 8 TDs last year) has yet to become a household name throughout the Midwest markets, even though he’s got the early numbers. Just like it won’t matter how third-year head coach James Franklin has only won 14 of 26 games as Penn State’s energetic leader.
One glorious upset can change the whole narrative.
2. NORTHWESTERN OVER MICHIGAN STATE (OCT. 15)
This one has trouble written all over it for the Spartans, the reigning Big Ten champions.
Of the five times Northwestern has traveled to Michigan State this century, the Wildcats own a 3-2 record and a composite-score advantage of 195-155.
As a counter, of the five times MSU has visited Northwestern since 2000, the Spartans boast a 4-1 lead and a composite-score advantage of 200-135. That’s quite an extraordinary difference for programs with similar philosophies for style of play.
Well, this year’s bout takes place in East Lansing; and it also comes at a tricky time for the Spartans.
Come mid-October, Michigan State should have a better understanding of its youthful defensive line, high-upside secondary and relative uncertainty at the quarterback spot with presumed starter Tyler O’Connor. However, MSU will also be in that fever-pitch stage of preparing for Michigan (Oct. 29) and Ohio State (Nov. 19) – especially after a crucial non-conference home date with BYU the previous week (Oct. 8).
Adding to the upset consternation, Michigan State’s defense has never faced Northwestern tailback Justin Jackson (two-year averages: 1,303 rushing yards, 8 TDs). In his last 17 games dating back to 2014, the junior holds rock-solid averages of 108.4 rushing yards and 0.6 TDs per outing. Plus, the Wildcats – who ranked 12th nationally in scoring defense last year – still have all-everything linebacker Anthony Walker (19 tackles for loss in 2015) wreaking havoc on the field.
3. NEBRASKA OVER OREGON (SEPT. 17)
Should this really qualify as an upset?
Yes, Oregon still resembles a top-15 program, thanks to a large base of gifted athletes and a powder-keg offensive attack (ranked fifth nationally last year). But the Ducks currently don’t possess that old aura of invincibility with opposing teams.
For example, when Oregon reeled off six consecutive wins last season in Pac-12 play, the average margin of victory was only 10 points. This lack of big-time separation can be attributed to a middling defense.
In 2015, the Oregon defense surrendered 30-plus points seven times, highlighted by the 62-20 home thumping at the hands of Utah.
As for Nebraska, it’s safe to say Husker Nation has been awaiting Oregon for a few years, knowing this could be a major boon for the school’s national profile prior to the launch of Big Ten play.
It also helps that Nebraska has an experienced commander running the offense in quarterback Tommy Armstrong. It’s a similar situation to how Michigan State had senior quarterback Connor Cook for its September shakedown of Oregon last year.
Here’s one key to victory: If Nebraska tailback Terrell Newby can stay within 30 total yards of Oregon’s Royce Freeman (2,186 total yards, 19 TDs last season), the Huskers should have enough offensive balance to earn the signature home win.
4. INDIANA OVER NEBRASKA (OCT. 15)
Last week, we detailed a Buy Or Sell piece on Indiana, speculating as to whether the Hoosiers could repeat their conference titles with scoring offense and total offense.
Our confidence level for both categories remains reasonably high, even with IU losing two crucial pieces from last year, quarterback Nate Sudfeld (most prolific passer in school history) and tailback Jordan Howard (1,319 total yards, 10 TDs).
The upbeat rationale: The Hoosiers still have a potential Big Ten rushing champ in Devine Redding (1,012 yards rushing, 9 TDs as a sophomore), a boatload of returning talent at the receiver slots (including Simmie Cobbs Jr. – 60 catches/1,035 yards/4 TDs) and one of the conference’s most experienced offensive lines.
Which brings us to finding a viable upset candidate.
When perusing Indiana’s schedule, it’s hard to envision a shocking road result against Ohio State (Oct. 8) or Michigan (Nov. 19). That leaves two high-profile home clashes with Michigan State (Oct. 1) and Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers were the Big Ten’s most enigmatic club last season. They suffering gut-wrenching losses to BYU (last-second Hail Mary TD), Miami, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue, while also toppling eventual champion Michigan State. Nebraska, the hardest team in the league to figure out, could be vulnerable for that trip to Bloomington.
ABC/ESPN has already picked up Nebraska-Indiana for its 3:30 p.m. ET window, meaning all eyes will be on the Hoosiers that October day in their dual quest for a legitimate upset and the first winning campaign under head coach Kevin Wilson.
5. PURDUE OVER WISCONSIN (NOV. 19)
Purdue has been the butt of many Big Ten jokes over the last three seasons, collecting just six victories during that span.
However, the worm slowly began to turn last year when the Boilermakers amassed 55 points in their crazy upset of Nebraska – the same Cornhuskers who upended No. 6 Michigan State the following week.
For that signature performance versus Nebraska, freshman QB David Blough accounted for 356 total yards (274 passing) and five touchdowns. Freshman tailback Markell Jones notched 143 total yards and two TDs for Purdue, and receiver DeAngelo Yancey caught five balls for 111 yards and two scores. And they’ll all be back for 2016, which should, at the very least, frighten opposing defenses within the conference.
(There’s pessimism toward Purdue on the other side of the ball, but hey, baby steps to relevance.)
The bottom line is that Purdue should prevail in at least two of its non-conference appetizers (Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Nevada); and for the conference home slate, Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern and Wisconsin should all be on high alert.
In other words … someone’s going down, just like Nebraska did last year.
This optimism runs in concert with the blue-chip stocks for Blough (1,574 yards passing, 14 TDs last year) and Jones (1,114 total yards, 11 TDs last year), who are trending up these days. Way up!
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.