The Big Ten may not have had much of a non-conference showing, but this tradition-rich league promises an exciting race for its championship, as well as for New Year’s Day bowl opportunities against the SEC. The race for who gets to represent the league in the January battle for vindication starts on Saturday and the card is highlighted by two very good matchups to bookend the day.
Wisconsin hosts Michigan State in a noon kick on ESPN. This is an absolute must-win game for both teams. The Spartans had high expectations coming into the season, but have started out 1-2. We knew that it might be difficult for them to replace Brian Hoyer and Javon Ringer, but with interior lineman back and a lot of the defense, there was no reason to think they’d cough up 29 points to Central Michigan and 33 more to Notre Dame. Wisconsin had low expectations for the year, and is off to a 3-0 start. But the Badgers remain a tough team to get a feel for. They beat Northern Illinois in their opener—in light of the fact that the Huskies won at Purdue, is that something that’s impressive or does it portend struggles against the upper half of the Big Ten? UW beat Fresno State in double overtime, who quickly turned around and lost badly to Boise State at home. Wisconsin’s obviously well behind the best midmajor team in the country. How does that translate into judging them against the rest of the Big Ten? Bret Bielama is feeling some heat in Madison and a lot of people want him gone. My guess is that he’s secure for at least 2010, but this is exactly the kind of home game he can’t afford to lose if he wants long-term job security. Michigan State’s concern is more immediate—they need to save their season and what better place to do it than by winning on the road at the program they aim to supplant as the top perennial challenger to the Michigan/Ohio State/Penn State triumvirate?
There’s one program that might dispute either Wisconsin or Michigan State being the top challenger to the Big Ten elite and that’s Iowa. The Hawkeyes visit Penn State in ABC’s national prime-time telecast at 8 PM ET. Kirk Ferentz’s team seems to have recovered from an opening week escape against Northern Iowa. We should also note that the one area of Iowa that needed to be re-tooled was the offensive line, and that’s a unit that’s always most vulnerable in a first game, when the timing is still coming into shape. But Ferentz has a good track record when it comes to shaping offensive lines and it’s why I believe his team is going to come around and be the Big Ten champs. But you can probably lose one game and still win the league title. Will Iowa’s loss come here in the raucous night-time atmosphere of Beaver Stadium?
Penn State is ranked either 4th or 5th, depending on which poll you follow, but let’s be honest. Have they done anything to suggest they’re really that good? They don’t have any narrow escapes, but nor have they any smashing wins. They haven’t looked as good as Cincinnati or even cross-state rival Pitt out of the Big East. They haven’t won the kinds of games that ACC teams like Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech have won. And that’s before we even start to measure them against the best of the Big 12, SEC or Pac-10. In a year where the Big Ten is weak, we can’t rule out the Nittany Lions from winning a conference championship, but if they are a national contender, I’d like to start seeing some evidence of it on Saturday night. And with the linebacking corps suffering injuries and illness, namely to Sean Lee, I don’t think dominance is going to happen. I see a close game with Iowa stealing the road upset.
Now that Washington has become the latest team to upset the applecart in the Pac-10, the rest of the league will be in action on Saturday to see if someone can finally stop USC’s seven-year run atop the conference. Cal has big aspirations and a good test ahead of them on Saturday. In a regional ABC telecast (12:30 PST), they visit Oregon. I haven’t been high on the Ducks this year, but given their victory over Utah, we can’t rule them out home. Cal is in a class with teams like Oklahoma State and Ole Miss—they have to show they not only have the talent, but the consistency to compete for conference championships and more. I think the Golden Bears will stand up and be counted today and Jahvid Best will add to his Heisman resume. Count me among the people that has Best as the early front-runner for the award.
Washington comes off its monster win by visiting Stanford. The Huskies have moved into the national rankings, and we must note that they also played LSU very tough. But I like Jim Harbaugh’s Cardinals, who have shown a toughness that you don’t normally attribute to Pac-10 teams. On their homefield and catching an opponent in a classic letdown spot, I’ll take Stanford to get the win. And USC will play a late kickoff (10:15 EST) at home against Washington State, an opponent that will be cannon fodder as the Trojans get themselves back on track.
To wrap it up, there’s an intriguing late-night game, kicking at 9:15 EST and shown on ESPN2. Texas Tech visits Houston. The Red Raiders played Texas surprisingly tough. Houston’s upset of Oklahoma State two weeks ago shook the college football world. If Houston can win this home game they join Boise State as legitimate midmajor contenders to crash the BCS. A Texas Tech win affirms that they might not have lost as much as we all thought, and would restore some damaged Big 12 pride against an old SWC school that was dissed 13 years ago when the conferences realigned.
See you again Sunday night to start our wrap-ups.