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Athlon previews the coming week of gridiron action in the Big Ten Conference.
The Big Ten championship could be on the line when Michigan visits Nebraska this weekend. Wisconsin has the Leaders Division all but locked up, but will likely be an underdog to their Legends Division counterpart. Therefore, the winner of this weekend's game in Lincoln will be the favorite to end the year in Pasadena.
Big Blue and Big Red headline what appears to be a sneaky good weekend of action as Madison, Happy Valley, Evanston and Minneapolis all host games that should be close. No Big Ten game this weekend features a point spread bigger than six points.
Big Ten's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 9:
1. Legends Division Championship Game
The Wolverines enter this weekend's showdown with the Cornhuskers unbeaten in league play after three straight wins, including a final-minute home victory over Michigan State. Brady Hoke's only two losses are to the No. 1 and No. 5 teams in the BCS. Nebraska is 2-1 in the league with quality wins over Northwestern and Wisconsin and one embarrassing fourth quarter against Ohio State. However, the Huskers are already a game behind with that loss — with road trips to Iowa and Michigan State still left to go — so this game has become the Legends Division Championship Game. Should the Maize and Blue get past the Cornhuskers, only a road trip to Columbus at season's end could derail Michigan's train to Pasadena. Should Big Red topple Big Blue, all bets are off and the Huskers then control their own destiny.
2. Taylor Martinez vs. Denard Robinson
It is cliché for a reason. Quarterback play can win or lose games and the position will easily be the focal point of both defenses in Lincoln on Saturday. Taylor Martinez is leading the league in passing efficiency and Hoke has praised his growth and development this fall. He is coming off of his best performance of the year on the road in the win against Northwestern (407 total yards, 4 TD) last weekend, but played horribly against Michigan last fall in the 45-17 loss (171 total yards, 1 TD). Denard Robinson is now the Big Ten’s leading rusher and tops the total offense charts as well. Both defenses will look to keep both scramblers in the pocket, so the winner will be the quarterback who can stand in the pocket and deliver third-down conversions down the field.
3. The Ineligible Bowl in Happy Valley
Penn State and Ohio State are two of the remaining three unbeaten teams in Big Ten play and neither will be playing in a bowl game. So while there is no Big Ten title game or bowl implications associated with what should be one of the best games of the weekend nationally, there could be a variety of other items hanging in the balance. Big Ten Coach of the Year has two clear-cut candidates and they will be standing opposite of each other in Happy Valley. Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year is also a two-horse race and both will be (hopefully) playing quarterback in this game. And Mike Mauti could slam the door on Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors with a big performance against the Buckeyes. The atmosphere in Beaver Stadium should be electric and should feel like a Big Ten title bout. Even if the only thing on the line is bragging rights.
4. Should Braxton Miller play this weekend?
The Heisman Trophy candidate for Ohio State has to play if the Buckeyes want to stay unbeaten in Happy Valley this weekend. He has practiced, but Urban Meyer has admitted his star quarterback isn’t close to 100 percent. This leaves Meyer an extremely difficult decision to make concerning the long-term future of his program. With head and neck injuries, it is impossible to be too careful, so running Miller out there against one of the Big Ten’s most physical defenses has to raise concerns about his long-term health. Miller could easily find himself in New York as just a sophomore if he continues at this pace for four more games. But Meyer and the Buckeyes’ primary concern should be a potential national championship run in 2013. Give Miller a chance at history and an unbeaten season with no real reward at season’s end? Or protect your investment and live to fight another day? This is why Meyer makes $5 million per year.
5. Sparty-Bucky Part III lacks national appeal
Michigan State and Wisconsin has developed into one of the Big Ten’s best rivalries — in both football and basketball. These two played two epic games last fall, one of which ended on a successful Hail Mary and the other was a championship bout that sent one team to Pasadena and the other to the Outback Bowl. However, with six combined losses between them, this year's game lacks the cachet of last fall's meeting. Wisconsin feels like the better team once again this year as Sparty is struggling to find balance on offense. Montee Ball has been on a tear of late, scoring 10 times and rushing for 155.5 yards per game in Big Ten play. The Badgers are starting to catch their stride and are at home where they never lose. Mark Dantonio could go from back-to-back 11-win seasons to 2-6 in the league.
6. Will this be a special season in Evanston or not?
Northwestern is 6-2 overall but 0-2 in marquee statement games. This season still has a chance to be special in Evanston, and two more wins the rest of the way gives Pat Fitzgerald a chance at nine wins — something that has only happened once at Northwestern since 1996 (2006). However, with back-to-back road trips to the state of Michigan looming, wins over Illinois in the season finale and Iowa this weekend become must wins. Iowa, without Mark Weisman, was pushed around and abused on both sides of the ball by Penn State last weekend but the big fella is going to try to play this Saturday. This is a huge swing game for both sides and the running game will be the deciding factor.
7. The battle for last place
Indiana and Illinois are a combined 4-10 overall this year, a combined 0-6 in Big Ten play and have lost a combined nine straight games. This is the best, and possibly only, chance for either team to get a conference win in 2012. The Hoosiers own the league’s top passing offense and could triple its win total from last fall with a victory this weekend. Meanwhile, a loss for the Illini would be their tenth straight in Big Ten play. Tune in if you dare.
8. Youngsters can kick start Gophers' future this weekend
A freshman quarterback, underclassman skill players and young offensive lineman. Certainly, this Gophers offense is extremely young, but it has lots of upside and, it appears, has entered the Philip Nelson era. The gunslinger from Mankato, Minn., set prep records, won Mr. Football honors in 2011and did enough in practice to earn the start against Wisconsin. He had his good moments (67 yards rushing, two scoring strikes) and his bad moments (13 total points, two interceptions), but most importantly, seem to have the poise and leadership the position requires to be successful. Yet, Minnesota can take a major step towards a bowl game with a starting 22 littered with freshmen and sophomores if it can defeat Purdue this weekend. The training wheels have been officially removed in the Twin Cities and a reeling Boilermakers team is ripe for the picking.
Week 9 Big Ten Predictions:
|Week 9 Games||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Iowa (+6) at Northwestern||N'Western, 27-24||N'Western, 24-17||N'Western, 27-20||N'Western, 28-10|
|Indiana (+2) at Illinois||Illinois, 30-27||Indiana, 31-20||Indiana, 31-27||Indiana, 45-38|
|Purdue (-3) at Minnesota||Minnesota, 27-24||Minnesota, 24-20||Minnesota, 27-24||Minnesota, 21-14|
|Michigan St (+6) at Wisconsin||Wisconsin, 24-14||Wisconsin, 24-14||Wisconsin, 24-20||Wisconsin, 38-14|
|Ohio St (pk) at Penn St||Ohio St, 27-21||Penn St, 33-28||Ohio St, 27-24||Penn St, 31-28|
|Michigan (+2.5) at Nebraska||Michigan, 31-27||Michigan, 34-28||Michigan, 31-27||Michigan, 27-24|
Bye Week: None
by Braden Gall
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