I continue to kick some severe ass in the Big Ten bloggers’ pick ‘em standings, but I admit that the games have been easy to pick so far. That changes this week as everyone but Purdue opens up conference play. About the only thing I can pick with 100% confidence is that Purdue will be all by itself in 6th place come Sunday morning. Most of the games have clear favorites, but I get the sense we’re in for one of the more interesting conference races in years since the Michigan-Ohio State game likely won’t decide the conference champion.
Purdue (2-1) at Notre Dame (2-1) 3:30pm NBC
If Purdue plays a perfect game, or even close to perfect, I think the Boilers will win in South Bend. That is far from a guarantee, however. We are still susceptible to short screen passes and that is what the Irish love to do. Last year we didn’t defend the deep ball well and now Golden Tate has emerged as a solid deep threat. Unlike our visits to Ann Arbor, I feel truly cursed in Notre Dame Stadium because of the sheer number of mistakes we make just to cost us the game. At least going to Michigan I know we’re going to play like crap and get destroyed.
In 1998 it was two late Drew Brees interceptions when we only needed to run out the clock. In 2000 it was special teams miscues that allowed us to get beaten by a third string QB that eventually became a tight end. In 2002 it was three turnovers returned for touchdowns, including two on consecutive plays. In 2006 it was failing to get points on five trips into Irish territory. When we came up with the rare perfect game we stomped the Irish 48-16 in 2004. That is still one of my favorite games I have ever watched, but I don’t expect it this year.
We will know early if Purdue is going to win if they keep Notre Dame’s running game under wraps and can defend the short pass. I have confidence in our secondary because we have been able to defend the deep ball fairly well so far. We also must commit to the running game with Kory Sheets. Notre Dame is vulnerable against the run, and Sheets proved last year he can run on them. Like 2004, we need to get a lead early and not let up. That being said, I still need to see it to believe it. Something will happen to give Notre Dame another "luck of the Irish" win over us. Notre Dame 21, Purdue 20
Michigan State (3-1) at Indiana (2-1) Noon, ESPN
Ball State’s MarQuale Lewis ran all over the Hoosiers last week. Can you imagine what Jevon Ringer is going to do? It was because of Lewis’ effort that Nate Davis had a very efficient game that turned into a blowout. The Ball State defense even pitched a second half shutout, so what is an experienced and talented Spartan defense going to do? It is amazing to see that after one game Indiana’s dream season is in serious trouble. Ball State is good, but they still vastly exposed and humiliated the Hoosiers last week.
Michigan State only needs to be concerned about wearing down a great back Ringer. Yes he’s at almost 700 yards and has 11 TD’s on the year already, but he also has an enormous number of carries. Michigan State probably wants to limit his carries at least somewhat over the next three weeks before a key Ohio State-Michigan-Wisconsin stretch beginning in mid-October. If Indiana comes out and rolls over like it did last year in East Lansing they will be in severe trouble the rest of the year. A loss means they would have to run the table at home (and Wisconsin would likely prevent that) while gathering one win at Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State, or Purdue just to guarantee a bowl game. Michigan State 34, Indiana 21
Northwestern (4-0) at Iowa (3-1) Noon ESPN Classic
This will be an interesting game in terms of Big Ten bowl positioning. Neither team will win the conference, but both will be fighting for one of the last three bowl spots. The only real test either team has faced was Iowa’s visit to Pittsburgh last week, which the Hawkeyes nearly passed. Northwestern’s offense hasn’t put up the numbers that some expected from them, but they are 4-0 for the first time in 46 years so I doubt their fans have much to complain about.
Iowa’s offense faces some similar struggles. It put up some big numbers against Maine and FIU, but was bailed out by the defense against Iowa State and couldn’t get moving for a game-winning score at Pittsburgh. Northwestern’s defense has been surprisingly stout by Wildcat standards, so that should provide an interesting test. Iowa probably needs this game more than Northwestern at the moment. Home games against Wisconsin and Penn State with road trips to Michigan State, Illinois, and even Indiana (a tough out for the Hawkeyes recently) would all be tough if Iowa loses this game. I do think the Hawkeyes can squeeze this one out at home though. Iowa 17, Northwestern 16
Minnesota (4-0) at #13 Ohio State (3-1) Noon Big Ten Network
Am I alone in thinking this game could potentially be a lot closer than expected? Minnesota’s offense has had some pretty good moments so far this year. Still, they remind me of Purdue the last two seasons. Yes, they’re unbeaten, but this is their first real test. Ohio State isn’t playing too well at the moment, but this could be a game like last year’s in West Lafayette when they simply asserted dominance based on overall talent.
This will also mark the long-awaited return of Chris Wells to the Ohio State lineup. I didn’t think one player would make a difference with the sheer amount of raw talent the Buckeyes possess, but we’ll find out if it truly does make a difference. It should also be interesting to see how things open up for Terrelle Pryor at quarterback with Wells beside him. I can think of a lot worse options for teams. Minnesota will probably hang around for a quarter or two, but if Wells is back at full strength the Buckeyes probably won’t be challenged. Ohio State 28, Minnesota 13
#9 Wisconsin (3-0) at Michigan (1-2) 3:30 ABC
This has the potential to get ugly. Both teams have had two weeks to prepare for this game. Michigan certainly needed the time more. If it is a matter of practice and repetition the Michigan offense should be much better this week. Still, opening against the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten is far from the best case scenario. What Michigan needs is a confidence-building win against a weaker opponent, not a top 10 team coming to town with dreams of something larger for its season. Michigan’s first four conference games are about as hard as it gets for anyone this year.
The Wisconsin defense has been lights out in the second half of games so far. They have given up just 17 points after halftime. If they lead at the half it is pretty much game over. Michigan will provide a sterner test than Akron or Marshall. They still have a ton of improvement to accomplish before I can pick them here though. Wisconsin 27, Michigan 10.
#22 Illinois (2-1) at #12 Penn State (4-0) 8pm ABC
Illinois needs to pull an upset here if it wants to return to a BCS bowl. Of course, I don’t think they deserved to go last year, but I’m sure the athletics departments of all 11 Big Ten Schools will thanks the Rose bowl committee for the extra payday their appearance produced. If Big Ten schools guarantee paydays for the Northern Colorados of the world its about time we got paid a little extra for one member to go take a beating. Illinois can silence a lot of questions by shocking the Nittany Lions.
Unfortunately, Penn State is the one team in the conference that has had absolutely no problems so far. They haven’t even fallen into the trap of playing down to their competition. A win this week likely means our next shot at a ranked team will come against a member of the top 10. I definitely want to keep an eye on this on to gauge our chances for next week, especially if we pull off the win in South Bend. Penn State is one of the few Big Ten teams left with a marginal shot at playing for the national championship. They will keep that shot alive, but Illinois proved last year they are not afraid to play in any venue. Penn State 27, Illinois 21.
National games of note:
#8 Alabama at #3 Georgia – This week’s SEC matchup of top 10 teams should be a pretty good one. Both teams are playing extremely well at the moment, so expect another close one like Last week’s Auburn-LSU game. This easily could be a preview of an SEC championship rematch, and even (if everything falls just right) round one of three between the two. Say it is a close game that Alabama loses. Both teams then run the table in a very tough conference and meet in the SEC championship where Alabama turns the tables and wins in a close one. If no one else is unbeaten you can bet there will be a lot of talk about a third game between he two. Georgia 17, Alabama 14
#24 TCU at #2 Oklahoma – this game ahs blowout potential. TCU already tripped up Oklahoma at home a few years ago when everyone was ready to hand them the national championship, so you can be the Sooners will not overlook this game again. Oklahoma 35, TCU 14
North Carolina at Miami (FL) – I was very impressed by the stomping the Canes put on Texas A&M last week. Next is a team that has given them all kinds of fits since they moved to the ACC. It is also a homecoming for Butch Davis, who is building a very good program at UNC. He was very responsible for Miami’s last national title, as he brought in many of the players on that dominant team. If Miami gets past this one, they are a serious threat to win the ACC. Miami 24, North Carolina 17.