There isn’t a marquee showdown in the Big Ten this weekend but there are a host of interesting games. Michigan State can clinch the Legends Division, two NCAA blue bloods get together in Happy Valley, two coaching staffs fight for their lives in Iowa City, someone has to win in West Lafayette and the most-played rivalry in college football will feature two ranked teams.
Big Ten Week 13 Game Power Rankings:
1. Wisconsin (-16) at Minnesota (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The oldest rivalry in college football history began back in 1890 and Minnesota holds a slight edge in the all-time series, which stands at 58-56-8. However, this Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe has been extremely one-sided of late. Wisconsin has won nine straight, 16 of the last 18 meetings and hasn’t won by less than 18 points since 2009. Despite head coach Jerry Kill remaining in the press box for the game, this appears to be the Gophers' best shot at ending the streak in some time. Minnesota’s running game has been nearly as potent as the Badgers', ranking 20th nationally with 218.5 yards per game. The key, however, won’t be stopping the Wisconsin running game (because no one can truly “stop” it), it will be moving the ball on the nation’s No. 6-rated total defense (287.8 ypg) and scoring points on the nation’s fifth-rated scoring defense (14.0 ppg). Philip Nelson will have to play a perfect football game under center and tailback David Cobb will have to continue to be the workhorse he’s developed into over the last month.
2. Michigan State (-7.5) at Northwestern (Noon, ESPN)
Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford and the nation’s No. 1 defense did something last week no MSU team has ever done — it beat Nebraska. Now, the Spartans can clinch the Legends Division title and secure a date with Ohio State in the Big Ten title game with a road win at Northwestern. The Wildcats simply need something positive to happen after losing six straight. A loss would knock Pat Fitzgerald out of the postseason for the first time since his second season in Evanston in 2007. In fact, Ryan Field has been a safe haven for the Spartans ever since Fitzgerald got to town. The Wildcats are 0-4 against Michigan State at home under Coach Fitz. With some of the most heart-breaking losses in the nation this year, it’s hard to tell if the ball should finally bounce the Cats way or if they are destined for a winless Big Ten campaign.
3. Nebraska (+2) at Penn State (3:30 p.m., BTN)
The visual contrast between Nebraska’s Big Red and the Nittany Lions’ navy blue is a sight to behold — even if the teams have combined for seven losses this year. The Huskers have won both Big Ten meetings between the two and have won four out of five dating back to 1983. Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is coming off his best game (152.64 rating) since a Week 3 loss to UCF (165.38) and has shown he is a much more efficient player at home. Nebraska lost for the first time without Taylor Martinez under center last week to Michigan State and Bo Pelini will need to rebuild the confidence of both Tommy Armstrong (9-of-21) and Ron Kellogg III (67 yards total offense) quickly to top Penn State in Happy Valley. Ameer Abdullah is locked in a heated battle with Melvin Gordon for the Big Ten rushing championship after topping 100 yards for the seventh straight game last week — the first back to top the century mark against the Spartans all season.
4. Michigan (+6) at Iowa (Noon, BTN)
Wolverines offensive coordinator Al Borges is feeling the heat after yet another lackluster offensive performance against Northwestern last week. Kirk Ferentz could end all hot seat discussions with two wins to end the season over rivals Michigan and Nebraska. Devin Gardner posted the best passing game of his career (until Indiana this year) in the blowout win over Iowa last fall but comes in struggling to move the ball. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, have had two weeks to prepare after crushing Purdue on both sides of the ball. Both coaching staffs desperately need a win as the final two weeks will shape offseason perceptions of both programs dramatically. Nine wins looks totally different than seven in Ann Arbor while eight is a big jump from six in Iowa City.
5. Indiana (+34.5) at Ohio State (3:30 p.m., ABC)
This was an exciting 52-49 road win for the Buckeyes last season. And while it’s easy to root for Kevin Wilson and the upstart Hoosiers offense, there is just no way they will be as competitive this time around. Indiana allowed 554 yards on 11.1 yards per carry and six touchdowns on the ground to Wisconsin last week while Urban Meyer continues to ride his own power rushing attack. The only team better at running the ball than the Badgers in the Big Ten is Ohio State. The Bucks are fourth nationally with 315.1 yards rushing per game. Best of luck, Indiana.
6. Illinois (-7) at Purdue (Noon, BTN)
Someone has to win, right? Neither team has registered a Big Ten win in 2013 and both are nearing monumental lows in production. Illinois has lost 20 consecutive Big Ten games, including two close losses to the Boilermakers the last two seasons. Purdue meanwhile might be the worst power conference team in the nation, failing to come within one score of the opposition in eight of their nine losses (Notre Dame, 31-24). Nathan Scheelhaase, who leads the Big Ten in total offense at 290.5 yards per game, might be the only competent offensive weapon on the field this Saturday.
Big Ten Week 13 Pivotal Players
Listen to Athlon Sports writers Braden Gall and David Fox discuss Ohio State's BCS title hopes and preview Week 13 in this edition of Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast.
Minnesota’s defensive line
The Badgers' offensive attack isn’t some secret mystery. They are going to run the football… a lot. Minnesota star defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman can’t do all the work alone, however, as he will need support from those around him to stop the powerful Wisconsin ground game. The Gophers defeated Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State despite giving up 202.0 yards rushing per game on 5.9 yards per carry over their last three. If Minnesota gives up six yards per rush to Wisconsin, this won’t be a close game.
2. David Cobb, RB, Minnesota
A quiet hero of the Golden Gophers' storybook second half has been the junior from Killeen, Texas. Cobb has turned into a workhorse during the four-game winning streak, carrying 26.8 times per game for 142 yards rushing per contest. He has been over 100 yards in four straight and has scored in back-to-back games. To keep the Badgers off of the field, Cobb needs to give Philip Nelson and the offense some protection on the ground against a defense giving up just 98.8 yards rushing per game.
3. Penn State’s linebackers
Linebacker U has two excellent upperclassmen tacklers in Glenn Carson and Mike Hull. These two lead the team in tackles with 75 and 62 respectively on the season. Against Nebraska star running back Ameer Abdullah, Penn State’s linebackers will need to be disciplined and physical.
4. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
Before throwing for 504 yards against Indiana this year, Gardner’s top passing effort came in the 42-17 drubbing of Iowa in the Big House last season (314 yards, 3 TD). And more than just bragging rights or bowl pecking order is on the line, Gardner’s legacy hangs in the balance. He has failed to live up to expectations for much of the season and how he plays over the final two weeks will mold how Michigan is thought of heading into his senior season in 2014. He has finally eliminated the turnovers from his game but Iowa’s defense is opportunistic and will be looking to make plays at home.
5. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
Calhoun is in a heated battle with Chris Borland, Randy Gregory and Ryan Shazier (among others) for Defensive Player of the Year honors in the Big Ten. Against a Northwestern team that is 117th in the nation in sacks allowed (3.4 per game) and with a chance to clinch the division, Calhoun has a chance to put together a season-defining performance on the road in Evanston.
Big Ten Week 13 Prediction Grid:
Wisconsin (-16) at Minnesota
Michigan St (-7.5) at N'Western
Mich. St, 31-13
Mich. St, 20-7
Mich. St, 27-10
Mich. St, 28-7
Nebraska (+2) at Penn St
Penn St, 27-24
Penn St, 28-24
Michigan (+6) at Iowa
Indiana (+34.5) at Ohio St
Ohio St, 51-31
Ohio St, 55-21
Ohio St, 54-27
Ohio St, 49-21
Illinois (-7) at Purdue