4 Big Ten football teams with something to prove in Week 9
This had the potential to be a huge day in the Big Ten. It was one of those days that you circle when the schedule comes out. And the times wound up lining up perfectly, too.
Just think of what could’ve been: At noon ET, a potential Big Ten Championship preview between Ohio State and Wisconsin. At 3:30, a Top 25 showdown between Penn State and Michigan State. At 7:30, a Top 10 showdown between Michigan and Notre Dame. But since Wisconsin lost to Illinois, Michigan State still can’t play offense and Michigan has underachieved, this day hasn’t quite lived up to its billing.
That said, Week 9 is still a big one for all these teams. Here’s why these four teams have the most to prove:
1. Ohio State
This could be Ohio State’s first real game. The Buckeyes’ first seven have looked like glorified scrimmages, as they have not been tested.
But will that actually come to fruition? The Buckeyes are still favored by two touchdowns and are showing no signs of slippage. It’s in Columbus, and Ohio State should still win by double digits. Wisconsin’s loss at Illinois puts Ohio State in a no-win situation. Win and everyone will say that it’s no big deal because Wisconsin obviously isn’t that good; win ugly or lose, and everyone will compare it to Illinois.
It would be great to see Ohio State in a close game. How will Justin Fields react? He’s been incredible so far, but aside from Michigan State hanging around for a quarter, he hasn’t faced a ton of adversity because he’s been so dominant. Ohio State can’t roll everyone, right?
One side note: This isn’t to say Ohio State hasn’t played a tough schedule. Quite the contrary, actually. While the Buckeyes haven’t faced any uber-talented teams quite yet, five of their seven FBS opponents currently have winning records. That’s tied for the fourth-most in the country (Florida State, Colorado and Tulsa have played six). For comparison’s sake, Oklahoma and Minnesota have each played just one team that currently has a winning record. The Buckeyes have played the 12th toughest schedule in the country, according to TeamRankings.com. They haven’t faced any ranked squads so far (Wisconsin will be the first), but Cincinnati has quietly reeled off five straight wins since losing to Ohio State 42-0 in Week 2 and is now up to 18th in the latest AP poll.
So, this isn’t Ohio State’s fault that it hasn’t been tested. The Buckeyes have just been that good. We’ll see if that continues on Saturday.
Coming off that awful loss to Illinois, let’s see what Wisconsin is made of. The Badgers were humbled by one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, much to the chagrin of FOX, which is broadcasting this one. It’s still an enticing matchup, though, because the Badgers most definitely still control their own destiny (unlike Michigan).
How is this Wisconsin defense going to hold up? Statistically speaking, it was one of the best in recent history through six games. And it still is great, allowing a nation’s-best 193.9 total yards per game. But after giving up 24 points to Illinois, it now gets as balanced of an offensive as you’ll find in the country. Ohio State is third nationally in rushing yards per game (behind only Navy and Air Force) and fifth in total offense. Michigan State was able to limit Ohio State to 16 yards in the first quarter, but the Buckeyes still wound up with 34 points and 529 total yards. Ohio State has been held to below 350 yards in the regular season just three times in the last four years. If Wisconsin can hold the Buckeyes down, then yeah, I’d say it truly is one of the best defenses in recent history.
It’s also going to be interesting to watch Wisconsin’s offense against an Ohio State defense that may actually be the best in the country. I can’t imagine Wisconsin will be able to run the ball down Ohio State’s throat like teams have in recent years. This Buckeyes defense is too good to be a one-dimensional offense. Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan is going to have to make some plays and shake off that late interception from last week.
3. Penn State
Penn State is humming along, taking on any and all challengers. It rode a hot start to a win over Michigan, it won in hostile environments at Iowa and Maryland and it fended off one of the ACC’s best in Pitt. The Nittany Lions have three of the next four on the road, starting Saturday at Michigan State and continuing with No. 17 Minnesota and No. 3 Ohio State, sandwiched around an improved Indiana team.
Here’s what is concerning, despite an abundance of speed on both sides of the ball: The offense’s reliance on big plays. Penn State is eighth in the country in both plays from scrimmage of 50-plus yards and 40-plus yards. But the shorter the distance, the worse Penn State looks. It is 30th in the country in plays of 30-plus yards, and it is 44th in plays of 20-plus yards. But Penn State is just 86th in the country in plays of 10-plus yards. That, to me, says Penn State is a boom-or-bust offense.
Penn State was actually out-gained 417-283 by Michigan last Saturday. Come to think of it, Penn State is averaging just 322 yards per game in its three contests against teams with winning records (Pitt, Iowa and Michigan). For comparison’s sake, that’s 5.7 yards worse than Michigan’s yardage per game against winning teams and just two yards better than Michigan State against winning teams. Oh, and in Ohio State’s five games against teams with winning records, it is averaging a staggering 521.2 yards per game.
So, yeah, maybe it is a little OK to wonder about Penn State’s offense. It’s probably nit-picking, but let’s see what the Nittany Lions can do against a Michigan State defense that is one of the best in the conference.
We’re going to keep throwing out these stats until Jim Harbaugh proves that they aren’t relevant. Under Harbaugh, Michigan is 0-7 as an underdog and 1-10 against Top 10 teams. On Saturday at the Big House, No. 8 Notre Dame is favored by 1.
Here’s what I want to see from Michigan against Notre Dame: A good start. Last season against the Fighting Irish, the Wolverines trailed 21-3 in the second quarter before battling back. In four of its last five games against ranked opponents, Michigan has fallen behind by double digits by the third quarter. Sometimes, it fights its way back and makes it close. Other times, it doesn’t. Check out its recent starts in marquee games:
- No. 7 Penn State (L 28-21): Trailing 21-0 with 7:22 left in second quarter
- No. 14 Iowa (W 10-3)
- No. 13 Wisconsin (L 35-14): Trailing 35-0 with 5:13 left in third quarter
- No. 10 Florida (L 41-15): Trailing 20-10 with 8:06 left in the third quarter
- No. 10 Ohio State (L 62-39): Trailing 21-6 with 3:18 left in the second quarter
It’s hard to win big games when you’re constantly trying to dig out of a hole.
It should also be noted, Michigan is in a much different spot now. Even if it wins out, it will ultimately will not fulfill preseason expectations of winning the Big Ten and going to the College Football Playoff. The loss to Penn State means that even if Michigan beats Ohio State and Ohio State loses to Penn State (both of which are unlikely), Penn State would have to lose another game just to create a three-way tie at the top. Also, no team has made the CFP with two losses, so we can cross that one off too. Maybe the weight of expectations being lifted will be freeing, but that’s not what you sign up for when you play at Michigan.