Athlon Sports previews every contest, identifies the most pivotal players and picks every Big Ten game.
There is little left to determine in the Big Ten this weekend. Bowl pecking order is still yet to be ironed out but no more teams can reach the postseason on the season's final weekend. Even one of college football's greatest and most historic rivalries won't salvage what could be a forgettable weekend of lopsided football.
Big Ten Week 14 Game Power Rankings:
1. Ohio State (-14) at Michigan (Noon ET, ABC)
Arguably the greatest rivalry game in college football has a distinct lack of national importance in 2013. That said, the reeling Michigan Wolverines would love nothing more than to knock the Buckeyes out of the BCS National Championship hunt. Ohio State is surging on both sides of the ball behind the electric play of quarterback Braxton Miller, running back Carlos Hyde and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year candidate Ryan Shazier. The Maize and Blue are limping home after losing three of their last four and four of their last six. This Michigan team is vastly different at home (437.0 yards per game on offense) than it is on the road (273.8 ypg), so in a rivalry as heated and as venomous as this one, anything can happen. For Michigan to win, its 14th-ranked rushing defense (116.4 ypg) and embattled junior quarterback Devin Gardner will have to play their best games of the season simultaneously. In this battle, strangers things have happened.
2. Iowa (+3) at Nebraska (Fri., Noon, ABC)
The battle for the entire ear of corn goes down in Lincoln this weekend between two much more evenly matched teams than anticipated. Kirk Ferentz has already improved his win total from a year ago by three and could really quiet his doubters with a win over Nebraska in the regular-season finale. His defense has been dominant in the last two games, giving up 158 yards to Michigan and 266 to Purdue. Nebraska’s offense, without Taylor Martinez, is finally starting to show its inexperience despite winning three of the last four games. The Huskers have been below 5.0 yards per play in two of the last three and is averaging just 28.7 points per game in Big Ten play as opposed to 43.3 against non-conference foes. Both teams and coaching staffs have shown excellent resiliency over the last month but both teams will have significantly different ends to the regular season following this contest.
3. Minnesota (+14.5) at Michigan State (Noon, BTN)
The Golden Gophers' dream season could see a brutal finish if it can’t pull a big upset in the regular-season finale. Minnesota played well at home on defense against Wisconsin but mustered little offense — 185 yards and no offensive points. Now, Minnesota must face the nation’s best defense on the road in East Lansing. Many point to the heralded Spartans defense as to why Michigan State is perfect in Big Ten play thus far but the offense has been much better than anticipated. This team has averaged 410.7 yards and 32.0 points per game in seven Big Ten wins. Connor Cook has developed into a playmaker and not just a caretaker at quarterback. Jeremy Langford is a complete workhorse at running back and will put his six-game 100-yard rushing streak on the line. And the wide receivers, led by Bennie Fowler, have made big plays down the field all season. This is a complete team that needs to continue to build confidence with a win over Minnesota before the Big Ten Championship Game in two weeks.
4. Penn State (+24) at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
There is an outside chance the Badgers can slip into a BCS bowl game. Should Ohio State go to the BCS title game, the Rose Bowl would have to look seriously at the surging Badgers. Few teams in the nation are playing as balanced and effective football on both sides of the ball as Gary Andersen’s group. And a rematch with, say, Arizona State would certainly bring national intrigue to the always popular Granddaddy of them all. Either way, the regular-season finale should be emotional for a host of senior Badgers, including historic names like James White and Chris Borland. Christian Hackenberg’s legacy at Penn State is just beginning and an unlikely win on the road would give Bill O’Brien a second-straight winning record. Look for Wisconsin to pound the football per usual with the underrated but appreciated White ideally headlining the final regular-season game his Badgers career.
5. Northwestern (-3.5) at Illinois (3:30 p.m., BTN)
Tim Beckman and Illinois snapped a 20-game Big Ten losing streak last weekend with a narrow win over lowly Purdue. Now, in-state rival Northwestern comes to town looking for its first win of the Big Ten season. Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch isn’t accustomed to losing but has dropped seven straight games since starting 4-0 and ranked No. 16. A season-ending win would change the entire complexion of the offseason for either team. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has been around for what feels like a decade and will play his final game on senior day in Champaign.
6. Purdue (+21) at Indiana (3:30 p.m., BTN)
The in-state battle for the Old Oaken Bucket won’t feature much pomp or circumstance this year. For Purdue’s first-year head coach Darrell Hazell, it means a final chance at a Big Ten win. For Kevin Wilson, a fifth win overall and third in the league would show improvement for the second consecutive season. The Hoosiers have one of the league’s better offenses and a win over division and intrastate rival Purdue could put Indiana in third place in the Leaders Division — an improvement in the standings for the second straight year under Wilson.
Big Ten Week 14 Pivotal Players
Listen to Athlon Sports writers Braden Gall and David Fox discuss the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry in this edition of Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast.
The Wolverines have a strong rushing defense but will be pushed to the brink this weekend by the Buckeyes' powerful rushing attack. Carlos Hyde (133.0 ypg, 13 TDs) and Braxton Miller (82.0 ypg, 5 TDs) are surging at exactly the right time on the ground, as the duo has combined for 691 yards and nine touchdowns over the last two weeks. Clark, the Wolverines' freakish defensive end, is coming off an excellent performance against Iowa with 5.0 total tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss. Clark has to be the tip of the Michigan defensive spear this weekend.
2. Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
Few players are playing as well as Shazier nationally right now. He is leading the Big Ten in tackles (109), tackles for a loss (20.5) and is third in the league in sacks (6.5). Simply put, the hard-hitting linebacker makes big plays all over the field. If quarterback Devin Gardner cannot escape his grasp this weekend, it could be a long day for Michigan’s offense. Gardner had 171 yards passing, two total touchdowns, one interception and was held to minus-28 yards rushing in last season's 26-21 loss to Ohio State. Another line like that from Gardner and Shazier’s Buckeyes will be 12-0 with relative ease.
3. Nebraska’s Quarterbacks
Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III will have their work cut out for them against Iowa’s talented linebackers. At times, each has shown the ability to lead the Huskers to victory but neither has truly taken control of the job. Armstrong had 242 yards of offense against Northwestern and was pivotal in the road win over Michigan, but totaled two yards of offense against Penn State last week. Kellogg III has had his moments (see Jordan Westerkamp) and led Nebraska to a win last week in overtime over Penn State. Someone will have to score points other than star tailback Ameer Abdullah, right?
4. Michigan State’s Defensive Seniors
The Spartans are a two-touchdown favorite at home against Minnesota and should have little trouble finishing a perfect 8-0 in the Big Ten this season. The crowd in East Lansing will be saying goodbye to some beloved defensive stars for the final time this weekend. Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis, Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover are all playing their final home game. Expect a long tip of the cap to this extraordinary group of seniors who are leading the nation in total defense.
5. James White, RB, Wisconsin
This one is a career achievement award mention in the pivotal players section. Wisconsin shouldn’t be challenged at home against Penn State, so the seniors on this Badgers team should be honored. A group that has been to three straight Rose Bowls is led by career backup James White. The running back enters his final regular season game with unreal numbers: 50 games played, 3,818 yards rushing, 67 receptions, 628 yards receiving and 48 total touchdowns. He will never get his due as one of the more dependable, consistent and productive players in Big Ten history.
Big Ten Week 14 Prediction Grid:
|Game||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Ohio St (-14) at Michigan||Ohio St, 45-20||Ohio St, 34-14||Ohio St, 38-20||Ohio St, 48-24|
|Iowa (+3) at Nebraska||Nebraska, 27-21||Nebraska, 27-20||Nebraska, 27-24||Iowa, 21-14|
|Penn St (+24) at Wisconsin||Wisconsin, 38-17||Wisconsin, 41-10||Wisconsin, 34-17||Wisconsin, 35-13|
|Minnesota (+14.5) at Michigan St||Mich. St, 34-13||Mich. St, 30-13||Mich. St, 31-13||Mich. St, 38-10|
|Purdue (+21) at Indiana||Indiana, 34-13||Indiana, 48-17||Indiana, 45-17||Indiana, 42-14|
|Northwestern (-3.5) at Illinois||N'Western, 21-20||N'Western, 24-20||N'Western, 27-24||Illinois, 14-10|