After the worst non-conference run ever, the Big 10 finally gets a break with conference season beginning. Now all our hometown favorites get the benefit of playing other Big 10 schools. I can guaranteee at least five wins this weekend by Big 10 teams. Book It. Some say we’re in for a terrible two months, but I cant shake the fact thats it going to be an exciting, wide open race, with a lot of competitive, close game. Who cares if the rest of the country wont be watching? We’ve said a ton about the league already and will say a ton more before its all over. So lets not waste words or time, lets get right into the season debut of the Big 10 picks. As always, following these picks may be hazardous to your wallet. You are warned.
Minnesota at Iowa, noon, ESPN2. Lines, Iowa -7, O/U 45
I dared oddsmakers during the MGoPodcast to make Iowa the favorite in this Battle for The Pig. They followed suit and now its put your money where your mouth is time. The Gophers are a great bet to win this game straight up, so taking those seven points looks like a gift. I have a hard time seeing Iowa winning this game, let alone doing so by more than a touchdown.
Neither team has played a great schedule, but the Gophers have clearly been performing better through four games. Iowa’s James Vanderberg was touted as the best passing QB in the Big 10 in the offseason, but he’s only averaging 6.31 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, the Gophers have played both Marquis Gray and Max Shortell this year behind center and both are averaging more than 9 yards an attempt. Some may doubt Minnesota without the more dynamic runner in Gray behind center, but Shortell reads defenses pretty well, and I think he’ll have the same kind of passing success he’s had in the last six quarters when he goes up against Iowa in this one. Besides, is playing the Hawks even a step up in competition right now after playing Western Michigan and Syracuse? I dont think so.
The matchups seem to favor Minnesota in this one. The Gophers are getting better play from their QBs, their tailback Kirkwood is better than the Iowa running back du jour, their pass catching targets are a deeper unit, they’re better on the defensive line and overall on defense. Minnesota has won this game two years in a row when they werent as talented as Iowa, now that they’re a better team, we’re giving them a 7-point head start? Sign me up. Iowa might be 6-6 at best this year, while suddenly 6-6 looks like the floor for Minnesota. I hate playing against the Hawks at Kinnick Stadium, but I see this crowd turning on the home team a little if things go off course early. Iowa’s unimaginative coaching staff and offense settles for way to many field goals in the red zone. I love betting against solid favorites who trade seven points for three as often as Iowa does. Here’s another trend I like. In games decided by seven points or less, Minnesota is 5-3 SU, 6-2 ATS while Iowa is on a 4-8 SU, 2-9-1 ATS run. I expect the game to be close and look for those trajectories to continue. Bottomline, I’m always interested in the better playing team catching points. And, we’ve won two weeks in a row with the Gophers, and we’re not jumping off the bandwagon just yet. I dont know if I will be actually betting the other Big 10 games, but I will be booking Minnesota +7. We wont need those points, however. Gophers move to 5-0 with a 24-19 win and Iowa’s losing streak in trophy games extends to seven.
Penn State at Illinois, noon, ESPN. Lines, PSU -1, O/U 42
We need a prop bet on just how far back this Penn State-Illinois game will set back Big 10 football. I say at least sixty years. A year ago, these teams played to a 7-3 Nittany Lion win plucked right out of the three yards and a cloud of dust era. I wouldnt expect many more points scored in this year’s rematch with the 80th ranked Penn State offense and 100th ranked Illinois offense on the field. Neither team’s defense is playing as lights out as a year ago, however, so maybe we’ll break 20 points in this one.
A fascinating subplot between the coaches, ironic since PSU’s O’Brien and Illinois’ Beckmam havent really crossed paths in their career until now and are both in their first years in this conference and at these programs. While OBrien has been pretty classy in a difficult situation, you’ve got to think they’re itching to show the Illinois sideline whose boss after the Illini coaches invaded Happy Valley en masse back in the summer in hopes of swiping some PSU players in the aftermath of the NCAA sanctions being leveled against the school. I cant back Illinois in this game. In their last two games against FBS competition, they’ve allowed 45 points to ASU and 52 poins to La Tech. Their defensive strategy in both cases seemed to be allowing wide receivers to be wide open all day and take their chances. It didnt work. While they arent playing an offensive superpower in Penn State, the Nits have been pretty good at protecting the passer, with the return of Bill Belton into the lineup have a nice group of tailback options and QB Matt McGloin has been pretty steady. I wouldnt trust him against a well coached, quality playing D, but that doesnt describe Illinois. The Illini, as they did during much of the Zook Era, still have zero identity on offense. But now their D is falling apart and underperforming. That doesnt foretell good things this fall.
We have a pair of average teams here, and I am siding with the better Penn St coaching staff. Their D has been improving all sesason and really only had one bad half, the fatal second half against an Ohio U team in the opener whose probably better than half the Big 10 at this point. The players seem to be playing with a purpose, whereas the Illini just seem clueless, while their new coaches struggle to assemble and figure out all their pieces. O’Brien will have his team better prepared. They’ve outscored their foes 35-0 in the first quarter and only allowed nine first half points this season. I expect both those trends to continue with Penn State jumping out to an early lead and then holding on late for a tight 17-13 win.
Indiana at Northwestern, noon, BTN. Lines, NW -11, O/U 59.5
If you’re looking for a Big 10 game with offensive fireworks, then the Indiana-Northwestern game might be your best chance. With an Over/Under total set at 59.5, its the highest total among the Big 10 games by 9.5 points and at least two touchdowns higher than three of the other league games this weekend. The Hoosiers have been pretty good on offense so far this year, ranking 10th nationally in total yards, racking up 538.33 yards a game on 6.14 yards per play, and have averaged 36 points per game. But their competition of Indiana St, UMass and Ball State isnt exactly a murderer’s row.
Northwestern doesnt carry the same guady looking offensive rankings so far through September, but they’ve played much stiffer competition, having defeated three BCS league teams. That’s half the number of wins over BCS teams the entire Big 10 earned in out of conference play. It’s hard not to be impressed with the Cats so far. They came from behind to win a high scoring 42-41 game on the road over Syracuse. They outlasted Vandy and BC in defensive games. They are one of 23 FBS teams sill undefeated and are one of the most likely teams to stay that way after this weekend.
Early stats aside, the better offense is Northwesterns and against the perennially MACtion-like IU defense, I’d expect to see an output closer to the 42 points they dropped on the Orange. The Hoosiers will be able to keep up some, but this is a young, improving Wildcat defense, thats show so far to be better than the experienced, yet underachieving units the previous couple of seasons. They’ll get more stops en route to a 41-24 victory.
Ohio State at Michigan State, 3:30, ABC. Lines, MSU -3, O/U 41.5
I got into a bit of a Twitter discussion/argument over who Michigan fans should be cheering for in this game between Michigan State and Ohio State. Pretty much throughout CFB history, the answer had been simple: Michigan State. But in the new world of college football and Big 10 divisional alignment, the answer to this has done a 180. We need to be cheering for OSU, as distasteful as it sounds. Michigan hasnt won the Big 10 in almost a decade and all rooting interests need to side with that goal. An MSU loss helps Michigan immensely in the chase to win their division and play for the Big 10 Championship in Indy at the end of the season. An MSU win sets up the very real–in fact likely–possibility the Spartans would win this division even if they lose in Ann Arbor next month. So I think we need to grin and bear it while cheering for the Evil Empire. But I cant lie. There will be fist pumps whenever OSU does something bad, just on gut instinct alone.
As for the game itself, it’s almost too close to handicap and the jury remains out on the overall quality of each side. It might come down to which team commits the least crippling penalties, or which wide receiver corps drops less passes or which derps it the least, MSU’s continually underperforming offensive line or OSU’s underachieving defense. The Spartans couldnt convert third downs a week against Eastern, while the Buckeyes couldnt stop UAB on third down a week ago and get off the field. Whoever has improved that the most will probably win this one. The real drama, outside of the actual league race, is that Le’Veon Bell and Braxton Miller will both be on the field and two of the most important players of the game. Does the winner clinch the September Heisman? Bell has been a beast for the Spartans this year, with a pair of 200-yard games already. Outside of some quick passes to Dion Simms, it’s been Bell or nothing for the Spartans. The Bucks could have trouble containing him. I keep going back to the image last September of Miami’s Lamar Miller bowling over the Buckeyes. Missed tackle after missed tackle later, Miller trucked the Bucks en route to a pretty easy Cane win. OSU still has tackling issues within its back-7, so its not a stretch to see Bell, who gets a ton of yards after contact, doing the exact same thing. The Bucks dont have much on offense either after their top gun in Miller. He’s now going up against his toughest test of the season, in his first road game of the year against arguably the best defense in the conference. MSU isnt getting a ton of sacks, but they’re still harassing the passer like nobody’s business and have held QBs to just a 46-percent completion rate. There arent many defenses better at defending the running QB than the Spartans. The OSU offense often bogs down unless Miller rips of a video game run. However, opposing QBs longest runs in a game have been averging 9.8 yards during this recent MSU Era. You have to figure Miller needs to shatter that for the Bucks to walk out of East Lansing with a win.
This is tough call. Normally, I side with the team with the most dynamic player. But as we’ve seen in the UM/MSU series, Narduzzi and company know how to lay the smack down on the dynamic. If you force to me to make a call, I lean to MSU edging out a win, despite the flaws we’ve seen out of them this year. The defense ought to be the best unit in this game, there’s some statistical optimism for the offense, I like picking against teams going on the road for the first time after four or more home games to begin the season and I just dont see MSU dropping two games in a row at home. I want OSU to win to benefit Michigan’s divisional race hopes, but I am calling a 19-13 MSU victory. However, I am not betting on it.
Wisconsin at Nebraska, 8:00, ABC. Lines, Nebraska -11.5, O/U 50.5
There are going to be plenty of Big 10 games this year pitting bad corresponding sides of the ball. Like the Illinois-Penn St game this with a pair of offenses ranked in the bottom third nationally. There will also be plenty of Big 10 games this year pitting bad units that will swap helmet paint with each other on the field. We have one here where the underachieving, overrated Blackshirt D of Nebraska gets to try and pad their stats against a rebuilding Wisconsin offense thats ranked last in the Big 10 in total yards. I just dont think the Huskers are really any good on defense. In their last six games ‘showdown’ games against Big 10 contenders or out of conference teams, they’ve allowed 33 points per game. Of course, the Badgers have only scored 21.5 points per game this year against a schedule of Northern Iowa, Oregon St, Utah St and UTEP. I think there’s hope for the Badgers, however. I though they ran the ball better than they all have season after Montae Ball went out last week with another concussion and they went with James White and Melvin Gordon. That was Ball’s second concussion in as many months, and watching the Badgers, its hard not to believe the first one wasnt making him a passive runner. They might play him in Lincoln, but I think he and the team might be better off resting him for a week and letting him both heal and somehow reignite the fire he once had. The Cornhuskers have been pretty easy to run on by good teams since joining the Big 10. On the other side, we’ve had another week of Taylor Martinez has turned the corner stories. Earlier in the year when we had an influx of those, the Huskers promptly lost the game. He’s certainly improved and it will be interesting to see if Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah can give the Huskers a 1-2 punch at I-Back the way Burkhead and Roy Helu did in 2010. But I think we’re sleeping on this Wisconsin defense. Lost in all the diagnoses of whats wrong with their offense, nobody has noticed the Badger D developing into an alternative choice for best D in the conference other than Michigan State. Chris Borland and Michael Taylor can make the case for the best pair of LBs in the conference. I still think they can disrupt Martinez enough to cause a flurry of ‘same old Taylor’ tweets during this affair. I am not saying the Cornhuskers wont win. I think they will win and most of the Badger blogosphere expects the Huskers to return the favor after Wisco destroyed them a year ago. But I dont think they cover this 13-point spread. This game stays within the single digit window, lets call a 24-17 Nebraska win.