Each week, Land of 10 will check out 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 the Big Ten sat out most of the high-profile showdowns in Week 1, save for Wisconsin striking down an SEC power, and a pretty ho-hum Week 2, it’s time for the conference to spend a weekend with most of the nation observing and taking stock.
Three of the biggest games in college football this Saturday involve Big Ten teams, with two of them on the road against historically premier programs. Ohio State and Michigan State will try to fortify their playoff resumes with games at Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Nebraska could score a big boost for the Big Ten brand by knocking off Oregon at home.
A couple of other potential title contenders face interesting tests. North Dakota State has had plenty of success against middling FBS opponents, but Iowa might be a weight class or two too much for the Bison. Colorado has scored 100 points in two games, so maybe Michigan’s defense won’t dismantle the Buffaloes. Side note: Howard has played Maryland and Rutgers, so the conference can at least say no one schedules teams with buffalo mascots in 2016 like the Big Ten.
Further back in the pack, Penn State and Northwestern face must-win contests. Illinois and Rutgers have to deal with quality Group of Five opponents. Maryland is a win at Central Florida away from a 3-0 start to the DJ Durkin era and more people at least thinking, “Hey, Maryland is 3-0. Maybe the Terps can be interesting this season.”
Here we go:
The B1G one(s)
No. 12 Michigan State at No. 18 Notre Dame
This is an elimination game for the Fighting Irish. It’s going to be tough for any two-loss team to get into the College Football Playoff, but particularly for Notre Dame because the schedule doesn’t look super strong after two weeks. It’s possible Stanford is the only Top 25-type team Notre Dame plays after this, unless Navy plays at that level with a backup quarterback, or Miami surprises with new coach Mark Richt.
People don’t know a whole lot about the Spartans yet, which makes this game almost like a season opener for them. They did not smash an FCS opponent in Week 1, beating Furman by 15 in unspectacular fashion. National title contenders aren’t supposed to be up by one score in the fourth quarter in that situation.
Michigan State then had an early bye week, so maybe the Spartans fortified some areas of need and will look like a different team. Or the weird, disjointed start to the season will leave them less sharp than needed against Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is short in the secondary because of attrition, so this could be a big Saturday night for the Michigan State receiving corps. The Irish are not short at quarterback, and DeShone Kizer might rival J.T. Barrett as the best one Mark Dantonio’s defense faces this season.
Michigan State has lost three straight to Notre Dame, and hasn’t won in South Bend, Ind., since 2007. This could be Tyler O’Conner’s breakout moment, or Notre Dame’s platform to remain relevant in the championship chase.
No. 3 Ohio State at No. 14 Oklahoma
The story lines here are pretty similar. Ohio State is relatively untested. Oklahoma is experienced, expected to contend for a national title and already smarting from an upset defeat in Week 1.
Barrett is the headliner for the Buckeyes, but this is the first chance for people to see players like Curtis Samuel, Mike Weber, Sam Hubbard and Malik Hooker in lead roles in what Urban Meyer called “one of them prize fights.” The Buckeyes defense in particular has been very impressive, but will face a new challenge from the Sooners.
Ohio State’s defensive backs have scored as many touchdowns (three) as 11 FBS teams. While Oklahoma has a potentially elite offense, the wide receiver corps is a bit of a uncertainty with Sterling Shepard in the NFL. Sophomore Mark Andrews could be the next big-play guy for the Sooners.
Just like Notre Dame, the chances of Oklahoma returning to the College Football Playoff are probably slim or less if the Sooners do not end the Buckeyes’ 18-game road winning streak, which is the longest in the nation.
North Dakota State (no line) at No. 13 Iowa
The Bison have won five straight games against FBS opponents, and five straight FCS national championships. They are an incredible story, and Carson Wentz’s NFL draft experience added a new level of awareness for the program.
All of that said, the Bison have not faced a team like Iowa during this streak. Kansas State did win seven games during the regular season and a bowl game in 2013, but the other four teams won four games or less. It could be a fascinating matchup between two teams that have pretty similar philosophies.
Make or break, Part I
Duke at Northwestern
If the winless Wildcats can’t find a way to defeat the Blue Devils, the path to another bowl game gets very steep and rocky. Duke has won 27 games in the past three seasons, and spent time in the AP Top 25 poll in three straight campaigns for the first time since 1960-62.
The Blue Devils also lost to Wake Forest by 10 points last week. Both teams need to figure some things out on offense. Duke had 37 rushing yards against Wake Forest. Northwestern ran for 86 yards on 31 attempts against an FCS school last week.
Make or break, Part II
Temple at Penn State
The Owls won 10 games in 2015, including a 27-10 sackfest against Penn State. They also beat nine-win Memphis and lost by four at Notre Dame. It was the first win against the Nittany Lions in 32 tries. This Owls team has already lost to Army.
Penn State rallied last week, but still lost to another in-state rival, Pitt. Two losses in a row to in-state teams is a problem. Three in a row would be an unmitigated disaster.
Best individual matchup
Ohio State OL Pat Elflein vs. Oklahoma DT Charles Walker
Elflein is considered one of the top interior lineman prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft, according to WalterFootball.com. Well, Walker is a top-five defensive tackle for the 2017 draft at this point. If Elflein and Co. can keep Walker in check and get Mike Weber some running lanes in the middle of that Oklahoma defense, the Sooners could have a long night trying to contain all of the explosive players trying to run the ball on the perimeter as well.
Potential players of the week
Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Temple had 10 sacks against Penn State last season, but the Owls lost the Bednarik and Nagurski Award winner, Tyler Matakevich, from the middle of that defense. Barkley had five touchdowns against Pitt, and had three or four short runs where he made an amazing play just to avoid a loss or minimal gain. This could be his first monster game, yardage-wise, of the season.
Taiwan Deal, Wisconsin
Corey Clement is questionable to play against Georgia State with an ankle injury. The Badgers shouldn’t need him. Georgia State is last in the nation in rushing defense, and has allowed nearly 400 yards per game on the ground. Deal and Dare Ogunbowale could both have huge games.
Janarion Grant, Rutgers
Grant is seventh in the nation in all-purpose yards per game at 204.0. He leads the team in rushing, receiving and kick returns, but teams have punted away from him so far. New Mexico’s Teriyon Gipson is eighth in the nation at 202.5 per game, but his status for Saturday is uncertain. Gipson was reportedly arrested in January and kept that information from coach Bob Davie and his staff until very recently. Given that he might be suspended, putting these two do-it-all players in the best matchup category didn’t seem like a good idea.
Could the Big Ten have four, or even five, teams in the top 10 of the polls next week?
The conference currently has five teams in the top 13. If No. 10 Louisville loses to No. 2 Florida State, or the Cardinals rout the Seminoles, that opens up one spot. No. 7 Stanford did not look that great against Kansas State, and Southern Cal has plenty to prove after getting demolished by Alabama in Week 1.
If two top-10 teams lose, or let’s say Washington doesn’t look very impressive against an FCS team (Portland State), there could be some movement into the top 10. Michigan State has a prime-time chance to prove itself, and beating Notre Dame by more than Texas did could be enough to pass the No. 11-ranked Longhorns. Getting Iowa past Texas might be a stretch, but a big win over a new name brand like North Dakota State combined with a tough game for the Longhorns at California might do it.
Will Michigan finally be challenged?
While Central Florida did a lot of hitting against Michigan, the Wolverines did a lot of scoring. After two weeks, Michigan and Ohio State are both in the top five in the nation in scoring offense, and in the top 10 in scoring defense.
The Buckeyes have an appointment in Norman, Okla. Colorado is no Oklahoma, but the Buffaloes have scored 100 points against Colorado State and Idaho State. They probably aren’t going to be able to run the ball against Michigan, but maybe quarterback Sefo Liufau can keep the Wolverines from playing backups for most of the second half.
Can Nebraska score enough to keep pace with Oregon?
The Ducks were shaky on defense last season, and decided ex-Michigan coach Brady Hoke was the man to fix the issues. Oregon has allowed 54 points to UC Davis and Virginia, but 41 of them have come after the Ducks led the two games 33-7 and 30-6.
Nebraska’s offense ran for nearly 300 yards against Fresno State and then threw for more than 400 against Wyoming. If the Cornhuskers can find some balance, they can outscore the dynamic Ducks.
Will Western Michigan move into first place in the Big Ten West?
Four teams have won a game against the West seven this season, but the Broncos have a chance to do so for a second time at Illinois. The Illini did get within a score in the fourth quarter against North Carolina, but yielded 17 straight points after that.
P.J. Fleck’s season-long audition for a Power 5 head coaching position in 2017 would get a major boost with a second Big Ten win. It would also lead to a lot of jokes about Western Michigan being Chicago’s true college football team in 2016, and Fleck having as many Big Ten wins in the past three seasons as Purdue.
What if Maryland also routs Central Florida?
The Terps looked better against Howard than Rutgers did the following week. Then they definitely one-upped Indiana’s Week 1 performance against Florida International. For the third straight week, they play a team that has another Big Ten opponent on the schedule.
Maryland doesn’t need to beat UCF by 37 points to prove it could play with a team like Michigan later in the season, but being able to run the ball better than the Wolverines did or stop the run a little better could be a positive sign and show the ceiling for this team might be a little higher than most pundits thought before the season began.