Summer has officially passed and it's now fall, so that means each weekend the games heading forward will become more and more important. Of course that also means that conference play is starting to get under way, with four of today's seven games being conference showdowns while three teams wrap up their non-conference slate at home.
Conference Play Begins
It's not completely under way, but four of today's seven games will be conference games and we'll finally kick off the race to the Big Ten Title game. Opening things up early is Wisconsin and Michigan State, in what could have been a huge showdown if Wisconsin wouldn't have struggled heavily with Georgia State last week. That, mixed with LSU's struggles until going with former Purdue quarterback Danny Etling, has led people to sour a bit on Wisconsin. And of course Michigan State's beatdown of Notre Dame on the road, until almost blowing it in the end, makes it very hard to see a Wisconsin team void of offense being capable of heading into East Lansing and beating a Spartans team with a traditionally dominating defense.
Two of the other conference games include a potentially ugly match between Iowa and Rutgers, as well as Nebraska traveling to Northwestern for a night game on BTN. Sure, Iowa lost to a FCS school, but North Dakota State is actually pretty good. As for Rutgers, they were demolished in the opener and then came out flat in the first half at home against Howard and New Mexico. If that happens against Iowa they won't be able to come back from multiple touchdown deficits, so Rutgers is likely going to have some serious problems.
It also doesn't help that the most prominent thing involving Rutgers football right now is probably their Athletic Director throwing back a cold one prior to the New Mexico game:
In primetime is an interesting match between Nebraska and Northwestern. The Cornhuskers are looking to turn things back around and compete in the weaker West division. Beating Oregon last week was a good sign, even if Oregon has fell off a bit, and a win to open Big Ten play would be another step in the right direction. With Illinois, Indiana and Purdue up next, Nebraska could be undefeated at the end of October when they travel to Wisconsin. As for Northwestern, they did get in the win column against Duke, but another win on their home field is a necessity. Considering four of their next five games include Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin (all of which are on the road besides the Badgers), things could become especially dire in Evanston already...but a loss tonight would make any shot at a bowl game highly unlikely.
Michigan and Penn State Highlight the Day
Highlighting the day is Michigan and Penn State, with a lot of that being because of Wisconsin's inability to blow out Georgia State last week (dampening the appeal of a potential Spartan / Badger thriller). Michigan has been one of the top teams so far this season and while I'm not sure they're going to beat Michigan State or Ohio State this year, they should be fully capable of knocking off everyone else they draw this season. That includes a Penn State team that has been good, but not great, under James Franklin's tenure. There's been a lot of hype for Franklin and a lot of people view him as one of the top coaches in the nation, but the reality is he's done little at Penn State to truly justify the hype. Is it the end result of the sanctions levied against Penn State? Maybe, but Franklin is going to need to start winning big games sooner or later.
Franklin was incapable of doing that in the opener against Pittsburgh, losing by three against their in-state rival. Next up for Franklin is Michigan, followed by a home game against Ohio State in about a month. Penn State has enough talent to win quite a few games this year, but if Franklin goes 0-4 against Pitt, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State...it's going to be a difficult offseason for the Nittany Lions. The hype surrounding Franklin and his inability to win the big game creates a big storyline as now he'll have a chance to remedy this by knocking off one of the nation's top teams, who happen to be coached by one of the most popular (and polarizing) college figures in quite some time.
You can't completely rule out Penn State here since Michigan looked beatable against Colorado, benefiting from their opponent's inability to field a decent special teams unit. The Wolverines have shown a balanced attack and Wilton Speight has played well, completing 63.8% of his passes with a 8-1 TD/INT ratio, all while showcasing a dominating defense. This will be the biggest test so far for Michigan, but it's hard to see them faltering here at home this afternoon.
Must Win for Purdue
Purdue hasn't been good under Darrell Hazell and it was safe to say this season was a make or break season for the embattled head coach. That basically meant he needed to at least get the team to a bowl game and show steady improvement throughout the year. Is a bowl game technically possibly? Yeah, sure, especially since Purdue will have a number of weaker conference opponents on the schedule and avoid Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. However, a win at Cincinnati was important and now that they lost said game (in decisive fashion), that means today's game is a must win if Purdue has any hope of a bowl game and possibly saving their head coach's job.
We can talk about how Purdue has supposedly improved this year, but the opener didn't instill that much confidence and the Cincinnati game was more of the same from what Purdue fans have expected the last few seasons. It also doesn't help morale across the fan base when Purdue has been in the headlines quite a bit this week...for two of their former starting quarterbacks now starting in the SEC. Purdue's offense has been too hit or miss this season and now is dealing with a slew of injuries, all while the defense hasn't came even close to living up to the hype set by the coaching staff.
Purdue fans might find it amusing that their opponent has utilized three quarterbacks throughout the season, bringing back memories of a Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry trio, but the reality is Purdue will need to find a way to stop a Wolfpack rushing attack that is averaging 208.3 yards per game on 4.9 yards per carry. After getting torched for 262 yards on 46 carries against Cincinnati, that's a problem. At the end of the day Purdue's home field (and time-zone) advantage might be the difference, with Nevada having more than enough talent to win here. If Purdue loses again, it's going to be a very long fall once again in West Lafayette.
|12:00||BTN||Wisconsin at Michigan State||Michigan State 24 Wisconsin 16|
|ESPNU||Colorado State at Minnesota||Minnesota 31 Colorado State 13|
|ESPN News||Nevada at Purdue||Nevada 38 Purdue 30|
|ESPN2||Iowa at Rutgers||Iowa 31 Rutgers 10|
|03:30||BTN||Wake Forest at Indiana||Indiana 27 Wake Forest 21|
|ABC||Penn State at Michigan||Michigan 31 Penn State 17|
|07:30||BTN||Nebraska at Northwestern||Nebraska 23 Northwestern 13|
Last Week's Predictions: 7-4
Current Record: 27-7