B1G Primer Week 9: Northwestern's Playoff case is worth examining
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s B1G slate.
Game of the Week: No. 4 Ohio State (-20.5) vs. No. 14 Northwestern
The Big Ten title, of course. And maybe a trip to the College Football Playoff. For Ohio State (5-0), that is certain after the Buckeyes held at No. 4 in the final edition of the Tuesday night rankings. But what about Northwestern (6-1)? Do the Wildcats have a case if they beat Ohio State?
Climbing from 14 to 4 would be an unprecedented jump. In the 6 years of the CFP, the biggest leap into the top 4 on the final weekend is when Georgia went from 6 to 3 in 2017. Oklahoma also made the field last year after starting championship weekend at No. 6. The biggest jump in the final rankings during the CFP era was last year when Oregon went from 13 to 6. That 7-spot leap may be Northwestern’s ceiling.
But simply from a resume perspective, Northwestern would seem to have a shot. Beating Ohio State would arguably be the best win of any contender, unless Florida beats Alabama. (Sorry, but Notre Dame beating a Trevor Lawrence-less Clemson squad doesn’t count.) If Florida loses to Alabama, as expected, Texas A&M would have 1 quality win over a 3-loss team. Northwestern would have 2 high-caliber wins (over No. 16 Iowa and the Buckeyes). For whatever reason, the committee absolutely loves No. 6 Iowa State, which lost to Group of 5 squad Louisiana by 17 and also lost to No. 21 Oklahoma State. It will be interesting to see how high the Cyclones or No. 10 Oklahoma climb after the Big 12 Championship Game.
The problem for Northwestern will be its loss to Michigan State. The Spartans could finish 2-6.
The stat(s): 23.4 and 4
The “23.4” is Ohio State’s average margin of victory this season. The “4” is how many times Northwestern has failed to score that many points in a game this season. That’s the kind of mismatch we’re talking about here.
There has been just one B1G team to lose by 1 possession in Justin Fields’ 2 seasons as the starting QB: Indiana. And in that game, the Hoosiers picked off 3 of Fields’ passes. That’s Northwestern’s best hope on Saturday — take advantage of Ohio State’s rust from having played just once in 3 weeks. Northwestern is second in the Big Ten with 12 interceptions this season, so this isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Equally important, Northwestern can’t turn it over. The Wildcats are just 10th in the Big Ten with 12 turnovers. This is a beatable Ohio State secondary, if Northwestern can take care of the ball.
The big question: Does Ohio State need to win convincingly to get in the CFP?
That question, and Ohio State’s own self-perception, may determine how this game ultimately looks. If the Buckeyes convince themselves that this is like 2014 when they were on the bubble, then we may get a result like when they beat Wisconsin 59-0. But if they think they are in, maybe it’s more like 2019 when they started slow against Wisconsin before winning comfortably 34-21.
Theoretically, Ohio State should be over its own COVID issues and be near full strength for this one. And with so many pundits knocking the Buckeyes for their lack of games, the guess here is they come out like they have something to prove.
Ohio State 38, Northwestern 14
Nebraska (-6.5) at Rutgers
Never in a Nebraska fan’s wildest dreams would it have believed that Greg Schiano would have won more games in his first season at Rutgers (3-5) than Scott Frost would’ve won in Year 3 with the Cornhuskers (2-5). Nor would they have imagined that Rutgers would go to a bowl game in Schiano’s first season, while Nebraska won’t have made a bowl in any of Frost’s 3 seasons. But that’s the reality for Nebraska fans: Rutgers, with a win, is probably going to a bowl game. Nebraska, even though eligibility requirements are waived, is almost certainly not.
Will Rutgers QB Noah Vedral, a Nebraska transfer, get a chance against his former team? If the Scarlet Knights win with Vedral, who would’ve been the third-string QB for the Huskers this season, it would add insult to injury.
Rutgers 27, Nebraska 24
Minnesota at Wisconsin (-12)
Minnesota (3-3) and Wisconsin (2-3) have had complete opposite seasons. Minnesota struggled early but despite a COVID spike has won 3 of 4. Wisconsin started great despite a COVID spike, but it has since lost 3 straight. Believe it or not, a Badgers offense that looked unstoppable in averaging 47 points through 2 games has just 1 TD in its last 3 games.
Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, the nation’s No. 3 rusher in terms of yards per game (154.2), faces the nation’s third-ranked rushing defense that allows just 83.2 rushing yards per game. Iowa backs Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent combined for 157 yards on 24 carries last week against the Badgers, though that was a bit skewed by Goodson’s 80-yard TD run.
Minnesota 21, Wisconsin 20
Illinois at Penn State (-15)
Another case of 2 programs going in opposite directions. Penn State (3-5) has won 3 straight after a bad start, while Illinois (2-5) just fired head coach Lovie Smith.
Even after Penn State’s 39-point explosion against Michigan State last week, the Nittany Lions are still on track for their worst offensive season since 2015. Penn State is 3 years removed from when a 39-point game would’ve brought its scoring average down (it averaged 41.1 in 2017); now it’s a season-high. Look for the Nittany Lions to continue trying to work out the kinks with first-year offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
Penn State 38, Illinois 14
Michigan State at Maryland (-2.5)
Maryland, which will likely be without Taulia Tagovailoa due to him reportedly testing positive for COVID, showed promise early on this season, but the wackiness of 2020 made it near-impossible to sustain that momentum. Third-string QB Eric Najarian nearly led a comeback win against Rutgers, and he’ll likely get another chance this week. Backup QB Payton Thorne no longer appears to be the backup for Michigan State, as he threw for 325 yards and 3 TDs at Penn State.
Michigan State 27, Maryland 20
Week 8 record: 3-2 straight-up / 2-3 vs. spread
Season record: 24-22 straight-up / 19-27 vs. spread