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.
The B1G One
No. 8 Wisconsin at No. 4 Michigan
Wisconsin entered 2016 with one of the toughest schedules in the nation, but the Badgers are on the verge of something the program has never done. After upsetting LSU in the opener and throttling Michigan State this past week, Wisconsin could already have three wins against teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll at the time of the game if the Badgers go to the Big House and knock off the Wolverines.
The Badgers hadn’t defeated two top 10 teams since 1962, when Wisconsin beat No. 1 Northwestern and No. 5 Minnesota before losing to No. 1 Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin did beat three teams ranked in the top 11 in 1954, but this would be a first for the program.
This won’t be the last chance for Wisconsin, unless No. 2 Ohio State loses to Rutgers this weekend. The Badgers welcome the Buckeyes to Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 15. Four games against top-10 teams in the first half of the season is incredible, and the Badgers still have games against Iowa and Nebraska in the two weeks after the Buckeyes. The Cornhuskers could be in the top 10 by then if they keep winning.
If the Badgers win in Ann Arbor, the story changes from, “Hey, this team is better than people thought,” to, “Wow, this team is one more improbable win from being a top contender for a spot in the College Football Playoff.”
This is a big opportunity for the Wolverines as well. Michigan hasn’t beaten a top-10 team since 2008. Jim Harbaugh’s first 17 games have been a smashing success, but he did go 0-2 against top-10 teams in 2015. Michigan has been mighty impressive to this point, but Wisconsin’s defense is a massive step up in competition.
The Badgers are going to need to run the ball more effectively than they did against Michigan State to help freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook. They are also going to be without one of their top defensive players. The Wolverines running backs are probably going to have to absorb contact from a defender before they reach the secondary after the Penn State front seven offered little resistance this past weekend.
The winner solidifies the spot designated as “top challenger to Ohio State.” The loser is not eliminated from College Football Playoff contention, but it will probably need to beat the Buckeyes and hope someone else beats the winner as well.
Minnesota (+3) at Penn State
Northwestern (+13) at Iowa is also a possibility, but the Golden Gophers certainly look like the best bet among the underdogs this week. The oddsmakers basically see this game as a push on a neutral field.
Penn State is smarting from a thorough beatdown by Michigan. Minnesota has two wins against Oregon State and Colorado State that are probably going to end up looking better than either of Penn State’s to this point.
If the Gophers do win this game, it sets up a pretty big game at home against Iowa the following week and then a run of four very winnable games before a meeting with Nebraska in mid-November. If the Nittany Lions win, coach James Franklin won’t face another critical game for, oh, about seven days.
Make or Break
Minnesota at Penn State
When the athletic director has to tell reporters the football coach is not on the hot seat and the calendar still says September, that’s not a good sign for the state of the program. Penn State has played two games against Power 5 schools and only been competitive for about 30 percent of the eight quarters.
The Nittany Lions are currently last in the Big Ten in rushing offense despite having Saquon Barkley, who might be one of the five best running backs in the nation. They are also last in rushing defense, and the Gophers have a couple of guys who could really take advantage of that.
This is yet another not-quite-must-win for Franklin and his team. Winning here and next week against Maryland might calm some of the consternation in Happy Valley, at least for a couple of weeks.
Best Individual Matchup
Northwestern WR Austin Carr vs. Iowa CB Desmond King
The Wildcats haven’t had a player catch more than 55 passes since 2011, but Carr has become the go-to option in Northwestern’s passing game. He has a Big Ten-leading 26 catches in four games and back-to-back 100-yard efforts. If King can limit Carr, the Wildcats are going to really struggle to generate offense. If Carr can shake free for another big day, Northwestern’s defense could help spring an upset and help the Wildcats find a glimmer of hope after a meek start to the season.
Next Man Up
Iowa WR Jerminic Smith
Matt VandeBerg leads Iowa with 19 receptions, but he’s out with a broken foot. No other wideout has more than 7 catches in four games, but tight end George Kittle and the running backs can’t be the only options in the passing attack. Smith is a sophomore with 7 catches, but he has lacked consistency. Maybe Iowa can get by with 8-to-10 catches from Kittle and a bunch of swing passes to talented running backs, but Smith, Riley McCarron and others are going to have to keep defenses from playing nine or 10 players close to the line of scrimmage on every down.
Maryland RB Wes Brown
Brown was suspended for the first three games. He is the team’s leading returning rusher from 2015, but a bushel of backs have been productive in his absence. Maryland’s new fast-paced, run-first spread offense has looked great without Brown, and now he’s going to have to work his way into the rotation. Freshman Lorenzo Harrison has looked the best, but graduate transfer Trey Edmunds, sophomore Ty Johnson and fullback Kennth Goins have all had their moments. It’s a crowded backfield, but Brown could still end up being the team’s best option.
Rutgers WR Jawuan Harris
The Scarlet Knights begin life without Janarion Grant when they visit Ohio State. Grant did a little bit of everything for Rutgers, and it could need several players in different roles to help replace as much of his production as possible. Harris will probably become the No. 1 target in the passing game, and have the first crack at replacing Grant in the return game. One Rutgers player wants the team to get really creative, but how much of the trick plays and the Wildcat package remain in the game plan without Grant remains to be seen.
Is this another transition year for Michigan State?
The Spartans have won at least 11 games in five of the past six games, which is one of the sport’s more incredible runs of consistent excellence. In each of those five seasons, Michigan State had a future NFL quarterback in charge with two years of Kirk Cousins and three of Connor Cook.
There was a hiccup in the middle between those two quarterbacks. Michigan State went 7-6 in 2012 despite nearly 1,800 rushing yards from Le’Veon Bell. The Spartans do not appear to have an NFL-caliber quarterback available right now, or a Pro Bowl-level running back for that matter. The next couple of weeks could determine if everyone got too excited after a strong three quarters against a not-good Notre Dame team, or if Mark Dantonio and Co. can figure out how to keep pace with the two juggernauts in the East.
Is Iowa any good?
That seems a little harsh, but the Hawkeyes have flopped the past two weeks and are now without their No. 1 receiver. North Dakota State and Rutgers have run the ball effectively against Iowa, and the Scarlet Knights were inside the Hawkeyes’ 10-yard line twice without scoring points in a one-touchdown game.
Northwestern has played better, particularly on offense, the past two weeks. If the Hawkeyes still fashion themselves as a contender in the Big Ten West, they are going to need a better showing against the Wildcats.
Will the Hoosier State quarterbacks avoid turnovers?
Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow threw 5 interceptions in a loss to Wake Forest this past week. Purdue quarterback David Blough threw 5 two weeks ago against Cincinnati and has 7 in three games.
Lagow and Blough are first and second in the conference in passing yards per game, but neither quarterback is going to be very successful against Michigan State or Maryland if the turnover problems persist.
Will Nebraska avoid another dubious defeat?
Illinois finished 2015 with losses in six of eight games and scored 72 points in the seven contests that weren’t against Purdue. The other victory came against Nebraska, a 14-13 upset with the winning score in the final seconds.
The start of this season has gone very differently for the Cornhuskers. They need to take care of business and keep marching toward a showdown with Wisconsin at the end of October.
Which non-bowl team in 2015 looks like the best bet for a return to the postseason?
The answer is probably the winner of the Purdue-Maryland game, and especially if the Terps prevail. The Boilermakers could be 3-1, but finding three more wins on the schedule is far from a guarantee. Maryland would be 4-0 with a win and games left against Penn State, Minnesota, Rutgers and Indiana. Split those and that’s enough to go bowling. Rutgers’ chances took a big hit when Grant was lost for the season, and Illinois could be 1-3 after this weekend.