One B1G thing for every Big Ten team in Week 12
A week from now, every Big Ten game will matter.
Whether it’s a Big Ten championship game berth, College Football Playoff hopes, bowl bids or a simple decades-long grudge at stake, there’s something for everyone in the season finales.
This week? Mostly about wishing you could skip ahead to next week.
There is one massive game that will knock the loser out of the CFP hunt — Michigan State at Ohio State. But big game does not equate to good game in the eyes of oddsmakers, who have set the Buckeyes as 18.5-point favorites. The betting public seems poised to push that closer to 20 by kickoff.
But maybe the week before The Week That Matters will pleasantly surprise us.
Here’s what we’ll be looking for from each Big Ten team.
Purdue — Will the defense rebound?
Purdue’s defense hasn’t had a performance like Saturday’s since being routed 63-14 by Auburn at the 2018 Music City Bowl. At least the Boilers won’t have to dwell on their 59-31 loss at Ohio State for an entire offseason.
Northwestern, which comes into the game dead last in the B1G in scoring, makes for an ideal opponent to regain the swagger.
Northwestern — Can the Cats contain David Bell again?
Northwestern was the only Purdue opponent to keep David Bell out of the end zone last season. Of course, that was with a defense that the Wildcats rode all the way to the Big Ten championship game. This version is ranked 13th in the conference in total defense.
Outlook: not so good.
Rutgers — Party like it’s 1988?
I slightly overstated my case in the preamble. There is one game this week that should be the most important on the schedule for one of the involved teams.
Penn State is the closest thing the Scarlet Knights have to a geographic rival in the Big Ten. After all, there’s no telling how many “Philadelphians” are using Aaron Rodgers-level subterfuge to avoid admitting they’re from Jersey.
This is no rivalry on the field, of course. Rutgers has won twice in 31 all-time meetings: 1918 and 1988. Ending Penn State’s current 14-game winning streak in the series would be a major tree for Greg Schiano to chop down.
Penn State — Can the season be salvaged?
The Nittany Lions opened 2020 by losing their first 5 games. They may finish 2021 by losing 6 of their last 7 games if they aren’t careful.
Neither that start nor this potential finish reflect well on James Franklin, who must be finding it increasingly difficult to book his ticket out of State College.
When the schedule came out, 8-4 felt like the worst-case scenario for this Penn State team. We’ve reached the point where it’s now the best.
Illinois — Does Bret Bielema have another upset up his sleeve?
Year 1 under Bret Bielema has been a wild ride for the Illini. With 2 games to go, they need a pair of wins to get bowl eligible, which is surely as much as anyone could have hoped for.
Can Bielema add Iowa to his list of ranked road upsets that includes Penn State and Minnesota? He was 3-2 against Kirk Ferentz and his alma mater at Wisconsin, so don’t rule it out.
Iowa — Is Alex Padilla still the guy?
Alex Padilla hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since taking over for the injured Spencer Petras. But everything’s relative. Padilla’s 189 yards per game against Northwestern and Minnesota is 30 yards higher than Petras’ average. And he’s yet to throw an interception.
Another good showing could end up giving Petras the Wally Pipp treatment.
Michigan — Do not peek at the schedule
Every attainable goal is still in front of Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines with a win over Maryland this week. And it would be pretty easy to overlook the Terps, because even Indiana scored 35 points on that defense.
But road games are always dangerous, even if the site is College Park. Maryland’s offense is explosive enough to make things goofy if it doesn’t turn the ball over.
Maryland — Are the Terps capable of beating anyone good?
The Terrapins enter this game with a 5-5 record, but there’s a lot of empty calories in those wins. The best wins on the schedule are against Illinois and West Virginia, each of whom are 4-6.
This is Mike Locksley’s opportunity for a signature win.
Nebraska — Actually play with house money
Scott Frost has nothing to lose at Wisconsin. His next year is guaranteed. Might he actually throw caution to the wind? Perhaps go for it on some fourth downs instead of attempting field goals that only have a 50% chance of making it between the uprights?
We shall find out Saturday.
Wisconsin — Can the offense keep cooking?
Who are these guys?
In their past 4 wins, the Badgers are averaging 422 yards per game. Wisconsin is capable of pulling an upset in the Big Ten championship game if it can keep this up. But that can’t happen if the Badgers don’t get there first.
As we’ve seen countless times this season, there’s no taking Nebraska lightly.
Minnesota — Keep rowing
The Golden Gophers are 0-2 since announcing PJ Fleck’s 7-year contract extension, which is a brilliant bit of finesse from his agent. Couldn’t have timed it better.
Thing is, Minnesota could still somehow back its way into the Big Ten championship game. The Gophers have to win out, and likely need Iowa to lose to Illinois and Nebraska. We didn’t say it was likely. Just possible.
But if the Gophers lose to Indiana? Woof. That’s a full-fledged disaster.
Indiana — Whatever
A win here would be nice. Pointless, but nice.
Better to save it for the Purdue game.
Michigan State — Keep Ohio State off the field
Michigan State’s defense is not good enough to slow down Ohio State. Sparty is allowing almost 70 passing yards per game more than any other Big Ten defense. Not an ideal formula for facing CJ Stroud and the best receiving corps in the country.
But the Spartans do have Kenneth Walker III. And he’s looking to win a Heisman Trophy. The bad news?
Ohio State’s actually pretty good against the run, allowing just 2.7 yards per carry in conference games. And Michigan State is last in the league in time of possession. So what’s needed to win this game is not in MSU’s natural DNA.
Ohio State — Minimize mistakes
The Buckeyes aren’t losing this game unless they aid and abet their own demise.
Penalties, turnovers, special teams miscues — avoid ’em and it’s on to Michigan for all the marbles. Make too many and Michigan State has more than enough talent to make the Bucks pay a heavy price.