After a critical and pessimistic Week 2 WIWNC article in which I bemoaned the Big Ten's inability to come through on the B1G stage, Our Midwestern Conference shored up its borders: the Gophers carved out a slice of Mountain West territory (even if they needed extra time to do it), the Hawkeyes reminded their red-and-gold-clad little brothers that it's the Hawkeye State for a reason, and the state of Michigan proved once and for all that Michigan beer > Oregon beer. Or that they're better at football or something.
Looking back at what I wanted and expected in the non-conference in Week 2, I would've preferred a 12-0 romp through a slate of underdogs, but Purdue and Minnesota gave me slight pause, as did Michigan State's home date with Oregon.
But how about that Big Ten?!
That's how you turn a national narrative on its head: the Big Ten now has two playoff contenders in Ohio State and Michigan State, Wisconsin has proven that they're still the front-runner in the West, and Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and even Northwestern and Illinois showed that they're going to be bolstering the West's ranks. Penn State and Michigan slowly turning it around, and the state of Indiana didn't embarrass the conference. It looks as if we're headed back to the salad days of the Big Ten. With that in mind, let's look ahead to what I want from a difficult non-conference slate in Week 3:
All games on Saturday and in CST.
LOL State Special Preview
Illinois at North Carolina || 11am, ESPN2
Northwestern at Duke || 11:30am, ESPN3/ACCN
As the Illinois contingent from the Big Ten heads to the Tar Heel State, the Illini bring with them the #4 defense in the nation, while the 'Cats tote the #3 D. Northwestern's may have fewer questions than the Illini's, which has feasted on Kent State and Western Illinois, but the Illini offense appears to be humming along at a finer clip than the Wildcats.
Against Duke, I want to see Northwestern win. Coming into this showdown nibbling around the Top 25, the Wildcats need to perform with a ranking on the biggest stage. One gets the feeling that Clayton Thorson hasn't totally been allowed to open up the playbook yet and take some more shots downfield like the 3rd-and-long completion he hit Miles Shuler on. Show us what you've got, Northwestern, use a quick-strike passing attack to balance Justin Jackson romping all over the Blue Devils, and come home 3-0.
Illinois, find a way. You want us to believe that Cubit is the answer? Come up with the goods against a decidedly-average UNC defense. The Tar Heel aerial attack is fair-to-middling, but the running game uses Elijah Hood (there's an LOTR 2 Tha Streets joke in there, I think) effectively.
Both Illinois teams coming out of North Carolina 3-0 would sure throw the uncertainty of the Big Ten West into even greater disarray. I want a 2-0 trip for the Land of Lincoln.
UNLV at Michigan || BTN
Hot off a home cover (which I doubted they could do) against Oregon State, it'd be nice to see Michigan keep it rolling and put the Rebels down in short order. UNLV gave Northern Illinois all they could handle in DeKalb, then were whipped by a strong UCLA team in Vegas. QB Blake Decker's hamstring injury makes him questionable for Saturday, meaning I want to see Michigan pin their ears back on the rush, stuff an uninspired Rebels ground game, and keep building offensive momentum. I'd like Michigan to cover.
Air Force at #5 Michigan State || ABC
Michigan State has the bodies to win this game going away, but seeing Sparty come out with no hangover would be impressive. With Baylor showing its question marks against Lamar in Week 2, the Spartans consolidating their momentum would be huge in Week 3. Of note: Michigan State's 2.14 YPC allowed on defense will be challenged. I want to see Sparty keep that under 2.5 after this week, cover, and keep rolling.
Kent State at Minnesota || BTN
I am not buying this Minnesota offense. At all. The Gophers' ground game has been fine but nothing special with Rodney Smith bowling along, turning in a team 4.05 YPC average, and Mitch Leidner has barely improved on his 51.5% completion rate from 2014. Illinois put up a ton of offense and yards on the Golden Flashes, Minnesota. I want to see the Gophers cover with an offensive display at home.
Nebraska at Miami(FLa) || ABC/ESPN2
In a coaching match-up pitting your grandpa against the guy who cleans your grandpa's teeth, I want to see Gramps and the resurgent Huskers consolidate the gains they made against South Alabama in Week 2. Miami Fluorolanthanide (shut up I know) looked wholly unconvincing on defense in escaping Florida Atlantic, so Tommy Armstrong and the efficient Husker offense should have a chance to move the ball down in the humidity at Sun Life Stadium. In this one, though, playing in a swamp with a still-dangerous Miami team, I just want to see Nebraska win at any cost.
Northern Illinois at #1 Ohio State || ABC/ESPN2
These aren't Mike Carey's Huskies of old: Northern Illinois can put up yards and points, but a suspect defense has been exposed, in succession, by UNLV and Murray State. That won't bode well for NIU against a potent Ohio State attack. With a defense coming off a strong home shutout against Hawaii, I want to see Ohio State cover and hold the Huskies in the single digits.
Virginia Tech at Purdue || ESPNU
Oofda. Find a way, Purdue. In what's looking like it will be a concerningly well-attended game at Ross-Ade Stadium, the Boilermakers will need to stop a VaTech offense which has put up 5.0 YPC rushing and 8.5 YPA passing, along with 6 TDs on 7 red zone possessions. I think the Boilers can score with the Hokies, and I want to believe, Purdue. Let me believe. (That's not a crisis of faith; it's me saying I want the Boilers to win, irrespective of the spread.)
Troy at Wisconsin || BTN
Wisconsin + cupcake = Cover the spread, yadda yadda.
Western Kentucky at Indiana || ESPNNews
The Hilltoppers are pulling in at 9.56 YPA and 13.83 YPC. That is really, really shitty news for an Indiana defense which is 121st in the nation in passing defense based only on games against Southern Illinois and Florida International. Thankfully for an Indiana offense which can put up points itself (along with a 8.97 YPA and 15.34 YPC), the Western Kentucky secondary clocks in at 99th in the nation. I want points, I want to be entertained, and I want Indiana to have one more point than WKU when time expires.
Pittsburgh at Iowa || BTN
Iowa looked shaky but pulled out an emotional win over in-state rival Iowa State, and any momentum moving forward is a great thing for the Hawkeyes. I think this game will be won or lost in the air, because Pittsburgh's ground game isn't moving a stout Iowa run defense (1.78 YPC) without James Conner, and Iowa's boringly-consistent running game faces its most daunting test in a Pat Narduzzi-coached run defense. Pitt is it, but Iowa is...well, I'm not good at rhyming. I want to see Iowa cover with impunity and prove that they're not the same middling Hawkeyes we've come to expect.
Rutgers at Penn State || BTN
This non-conference rivalry has taken on a fun bit of renewed vigor, as Kyle Flood has emphasized a renewed recruiting push to keep a Big Ten foe out of Big East-cum-American territory. With the Nittany Lions struggling to establish the pass, they'll want to keep the momentum going against a tough but suspect Rutgers defense, which has allowed only 2.00 YPC but faced just 39 attempts from passing offenses in Norfolk State and Washington State. It'd be nice to see Christian Hackenberg stay upright against the Rutgers rush, and I think a strong Penn State defense exploits the QB issues Rutgers has had.
A good test for Rutgers ahead of what I'm sure is a tough American schedule: there's no shame in a G5 conference team losing to a PAC-12 club at home, but the Scarlet Knights will need to prove that they can punch with Temple and Cincinnati in the AAC East. I want to see Penn State cover against this non-con foe and continue to prove they can dominate the state against schools from lesser conferences.
So How Will It Go?
What I Want:
12-0. I want to see Penn State cover against a still-dangerous Rutgers, see the Land of Lincoln show up Tobacco Road, Nebraska go into the swamps and emerge victorious, Indiana and Purdue prove that they're sentient beings, and Iowa handle a tricky night game. Proving that the Big Ten's middle tier can handle their counterparts in the ACC would do a lot to show that the conference, top to bottom, is more sound that Week 1 seemed to suggest.
What I Expect:
9-3. I'll be honest: in my heart of hearts I can only see one Illinois team coming home from North Carolina with a 3-0 record, and I have no idea which team that is. Nebraska's on the road in Miami, and that's just such a dangerous climate difference to walk into. I also don't feel great about either Indiana or Purdue, even at home, and think that they both take a high-scoring loss. Who knows. Maybe the Big Ten goes 10-2 in Week 3. Or maybe Iowa falls. Or maybe the Land of Lincoln goes 0-2. Perhaps Penn State drops another non-conference game. I don't know, but I'm feeling 9-3 in spite of all the momentum.
Burn Mattresses in the Streets If...
6-6 happens or one of the B1G playoff candidates loses. I don't think the latter is remotely likely, but I feel I have to include it now. In the former scenario, the Land of Lincoln goes 0-2 and proves that the lower-middle tier of the West is still weak. Penn State sees its New Jersey recruiting field slipping away with a bad home loss to an AAC school. The state of Indiana goes 0-fer at home, and either Nebraska or Iowa is found wanting against their ACC counterparts. Truly an ugly day for the Big Ten.