Each week, Land of 10 will check some of the top story lines, matchups and players to watch in The Forecast. Big games, potential upsets, important questions, this is the place for all of that looking ahead to the weekend in the Big Ten.
After years of dealing with narratives about teams in the conference being too slow, or lacking elite skill players or enough dominant linemen, these are pretty heady days for the Big Ten.
No other Power Five conference can match the Big Ten’s non-conference resume. There are wins against big, brand schools like Notre Dame, LSU, Oklahoma and Oregon. The only preseason conference title contender with a loss is Iowa, and losing to North Dakota State carries less stigma in 2016 than dropping a game to about 75 percent of the FBS schools in the country.
The Big Ten East has made an early case for being the toughest division in the country. It is the only division with three teams in the top 12 of the Associated Press poll, and its teams have road wins at Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State are all College Football Playoff contenders.
There’s an argument that the East is just very top heavy, but Maryland looks much improved with a new coaching staff and Penn State at least looks better on offense. The division is 17-2, and all seven teams have a positive point differential. Michigan is No. 1 in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings, though his analytics-based model does not like Michigan State’s work (No. 30) so far.
Conference play begins this week for eight teams, and the awkward dance of balancing strength at the top vs. parity and depth begins. If the top five or six teams record high win totals and avoid upsets, does that make them strong or the rest of the conference week?
There’s been reason for Big Ten pride in the first three weeks, but there will be plenty of snark slung in the SEC’s direction Saturday if not one, but two, former Purdue quarterbacks start for top tier SEC teams: LSU and Florida.
Here we go:
The B1G One
No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 8 Michigan State
These two programs are so similar, from their accomplishments on the field during the past few decades to their philosophies about how football should be played to there still being a hint of uncertainty about their worthiness of such a high ranking in 2016.
Wisconsin beat LSU, a popular national champion selection, to open the season, but the Tigers quarterback’s play was wretched and that has somehow diminished (to some) the Badgers having beaten a team with one of the five best collections of talent in college football. Michigan State beat Notre Dame on the road, but Notre Dame lost to Texas and Texas lost to Cal and Cal is going to allow 500 points this season (and still go 7-6).
Both teams have had a dud – Michigan State against FCS foe Furman and Wisconsin against Georgia State, which didn’t have a football team when John Clay won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2009 – but both also have a victory against a preseason top-10 opponent.
Wisconsin still hasn’t figured out the quarterback situation. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook was strong in relief last week and helped rescue the Badgers from ignominy. If he starts, he’d be the first freshman to do so at quarterback this season in the conference. The SEC has three true freshmen starting games right now, and the only other Power Five conference that hasn’t had one start is the Pac-12, but redshirt freshman Sam Darnold has been named the starter for Southern Cal this weekend.
Nebraska (minus-8) at Northwestern
The Cornhuskers should absolutely be 7-0 when they arrive in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 29. The next four games are Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue.
That said, this just feels like a prime spot for Pat Fitzgerald to do his thing with the Wildcats. Northwestern looked like the season was on the brink of disaster, but then Clayton Thorson threw for 320 yards and three touchdowns and the Wildcats knocked off Duke. Nebraska comes to Evanston, Ill., after an emotional win against Oregon. If Tommy Armstrong has one of his inconsistent days and the Cornhuskers can’t get the running game going … yeah, this could absolutely be a 17-13 kind of game.
Make or Break
Nevada at Purdue
The Boilermakers are 1-1, but the game against Cincinnati wasn’t particularly close. Nevada got rocked by Notre Dame and barely beat FCS foe Cal Poly before a lopsided win against Buffalo. This does not look like a vintage Wolfpack team, and a loss here could really portend doom for Darrell Hazell and the Boilermakers.
Purdue’s schedule sets up poorly for a team hoping to scrape six wins. All of the bottom-tier conference games are on the road, and most of the toughest teams come to West Lafayette, Ind. Former Penn State running back Akeel Lynch is expected to be back from a concussion for Nevada, but he only had five carries in one-plus games before he got hurt.
While it is fun for other Big Ten fans to rip the SEC for starting two Purdue quarterbacks, Boilermakers fans will be very grumpy if those ex-Purdue guys are playing well and winning and the home team is not.
Best Individual Matchup
Penn State RB Saquon Barkley vs. Michigan Do-Everything Jabrill Peppers
The best defensive player Barkley has faced this season is Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead, and Barkley ran through him like a scout-team sacrificial lamb during one highlight-reel run against the Panthers. Peppers might be the best defensive player in the country. Not only will Barkley be tasked with trying to juke his way around Peppers when he has the ball, the star running back is almost certainly going to see No. 5 charging at him while he’s helping out on pass protection and Peppers is blitzing from a previously unknown location.
Potential Players of the Week
Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern
Oregon compiled 336 yards rushing and more than seven yards per carry. Jackson’s start has been pretty average, but he could grind out a pretty big day if Northwestern can stay on the field and slow the game’s pace with a steady diet of handoffs to him.
Markell Jones, RB, Purdue
Nevada is 124th in the nation against the run, yielding nearly 285 yards per game and more than 5.6 per carry. Jones has 192 yards in two games, and he could double that.
Matt VandeBerg, WR, Iowa
Rutgers got lit up by Washington quarterback Jake Browning in the opener, and now C.J. Beathard and the Hawkeyes are coming to Piscataway, N.J., upset after having lost to North Dakota State. VandeBerg has 15 catches in three games and could go for half that many and a couple of touchdowns.
Who finishes the game at quarterback for Wisconsin?
Unless this game is an unexpected rout, who plays quarterback for the Badgers in the first quarter might not matter as much as who is in the huddle during the fourth. Bart Houston started this past week, but Alex Hornibrook collected the save out. The Badgers might be short a running back or two, and they are definitely going to need some help from the passing game to keep Michigan State’s fearsome front seven from dominating.
What impact will the returns of Jourdan Lewis and Taco Charlton have for Michigan?
The Wolverines’ defense looked shaky last week before Colorado quarterback Sefu Liufau was injured. Lewis is one of the top cornerbacks in the nation and Charlton is a disrupter at defensive end. If they settle in right away, it could be a long day for Penn State’s offense.
Will ugly criminal situations affect Indiana or Minnesota?
Indiana’s backup kicker, Aaron Del Grosso, was reportedly arrested Thursday and charged with criminal trespassing and public intoxication, but things got worse Friday when freshman running back Kiante Enis was arrested on two counts of child molestation and kicked off the team.
Minnesota had last weekend off, and the Gophers have not played since reports that police were investigating an alleged sexual assault and four players have been connected to the case. Minnesota had suspended four players for its previous game, and the Associated Press confirmed those are the players named in the police report, but it did not disclose their roles in the case.
The Hoosiers play Wake Forest at home, while the Gophers play host to Colorado State in Minneapolis.
Will Iowa kick the ball to Janarion Grant?
Grant now has eight career touchdowns on special teams after New Mexico inexplicably just kept booting the ball to him. He set up a field goal with another return, and even threw a touchdown pass. The Hawkeyes should be able to grind out plenty of offense against the Scarlet Knights, and don’t need to let Grant run around and excite everyone in the stadium – and maybe keep Rutgers in the game – when they can simply kick the ball away from him. Like into the stands, if necessary.
Which Ohio State defensive back will score a touchdown this week?
Just kidding, the Buckeyes have the weekend off. That defense is scary, though, and the secondary has scored four touchdowns in three games. Ohio State’s opponents have scored two touchdowns on offense in three games.