Big Ten conference play really opens up across the league this Saturday after a teaser last weekend. Ohio State is in commanding early position in the Leaders Division but has another huge test on Saturday — this time on the road. All eyes will once again be on the Buckeyes.
However, unlike last weekend, the rest of the conference — except Wisconsin and Purdue, who are on bye — will be tangled up in big-time divisional matchups. Let the race for the Roses begin.
Big Ten Week 6 Game Power Rankings:
1. Ohio State (-6.5) at Northwestern (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
College Gameday is making just its second appearance in Evanston and its first since Pat Fitzgerald was a player in 1995. Ohio State welcomed back Braxton Miller in style last weekend in an emotional, hard-fought home win over a quality Wisconsin team. Urban Meyer now has to get his team ready for an equally talented but totally different Wildcats squad. Coach Fitz is hoping to get running back Venric Mark, a key cog in his spread option offense, back on the field for the first time since Week 1. Mark helps the Cats' two-quarterback spread system to flourish but how healthy will he be? This is the most talented Northwestern team ever assembled with Big Ten championship aspirations but must battle history this weekend. The Wildcats have beaten Ohio State just once in the last 29 tries and is hoping to shake up the Big Ten with the entire college football world watching on Saturday night.
2. Michigan State (+1.5) at Iowa (Noon, ESPN2)
This game got a lot more interesting with Iowa’s convincing and somewhat shockingly easy road win over Minnesota. These two teams are built in similar fashions as each will play physical defense and pound the football on offense. Normally, home field offers an advantage but, in this series, the road team has won three of the last four meetings. Quarterback play will be a major issue for both: Iowa is 94th in passing offense and 63rd in passing efficiency nationally while the Spartans are even worse ranking 115th in passing offense and 109th in efficiency. This will be a throwback, bruising, Big Ten slugfest and whichever defensive line holds its ground the best will escape with a hard-earned victory.
3. Penn State (-4.5) at Indiana (Noon, BTN)
This was targeted as a critical pecking order game in the Leaders Division and both teams had two weeks to prepare. Kevin Wilson enters Big Ten play with two losses and can’t afford not to hold serve at home in winnable games. However, the Hoosiers have never beaten the Nittany Lions in 16 tries and have only stayed within one score once in the last five meetings. These are two of the top three passing attacks in the league so fans should expect plenty of aerial fireworks, but the ground game may be the deciding factor. Indiana couldn’t run the ball against Missouri in the blowout loss two weeks ago while the Lions are coming off a 287-yard, 3-TD performance against Kent State. Penn State has a significant talent advantage but the team that can be more balanced on offense will come away with a significant win.
4. Illinois (+10.5) at Nebraska (Noon, ESPNU)
Taylor Martinez is listed as questionable for Nebraska’s first-ever Big Ten meeting with Illinois. The Huskers are 7-2-1 against the Illini as non-conference foes and haven’t met since back-to-back Nebraska drubbings in 1985-86. This one could be much tighter than those Big Red blowouts as quarterback play appears to be huge for both teams. Nathan Scheelhaase has been a revelation as a senior under Bill Cubit, completing 67.2-percent of his passes for nearly 300 yards per game, 12 TDs and just three interceptions. Bo Pelini, however, could be without Martinez, his star quarterback, once again. The senior signal-caller hasn’t practiced yet this week and it doesn’t sound like he will play much, if at all, this weekend. That leaves freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III to split time under center. If Scheelhaase doesn’t turn the ball over, the Illini have a chance to hang around against a questionable Black Shirts defense.
5. Minnesota (+20) at Michigan (3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN)
The Gophers were surprisingly inept in all phases of the game in the one-sided home loss to Iowa in Week 5 and things don’t appear to be getting any better for Jerry Kill in the Battle for the Little Brown Jug. Quarterback Philip Nelson returned to the starting lineup for Minnesota but played his worst game of the year. Meanwhile, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner has had two weeks to stew over his below average play (seven turnovers) against Akron and UConn. Look for both teams to get their reeling running games back on track, but a win for the Gophers over the nation’s No. 6-rated rushing defense seems unlikely. Minnesota has only won the Jug once since 1986, however, that memorable win came in Ann Arbor in 2005.
Big Ten Week 6 Pivotal Players
1. Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
The 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior will be under a microscope this weekend. He leads the Wildcats in tackles for a loss (4.0) and sacks (3.0) but will be in for his toughest challenge this weekend against Braxton Miller. It goes without saying the goal for Scott and the Cats defensive line will be to contain Miller in the pocket but, moreover, they need to punish the oft-injured Buckeye star every chance they get. The more physical the game gets, the better chance Northwestern has at an upset.
2. Corey Brown, S, Ohio State
In theory, both Corey Brown’s will play a pivotal role in Ohio State’s trip to Northwestern. But the senior safety Brown is stepping in for injured safety Christian Bryant. He has plenty of experience after starting the opener in place of C.J. Barnett and is fifth on the team in tackles (4.2 pg). But Brown is now charged with manning the safety spot for the rest of the year and it starts on the road against the diverse and complex Northwestern spread that welcomes back its star tailback this weekend.
3. Jake Rudock, QB, Iowa
Yards will be tough to come by on the ground in the Spartans-Hawkeyes boxing match this weekend and it falls to Rudock to make things happen. In a game with elite linebackers on both sides, two great running games and very little scoring, anything Rudock or Michigan State’s Connor Cook can provide in the passing game will make a significant impact. Quarterback is the one area Iowa may have a significant advantage over Sparty and Rudock needs to provide a second offensive dimension.
4. Indiana’s Front Seven
After a pathetic showing in the season opener against Syracuse (38 att., 57 yards, 0 TD), the Penn State running game has exploded. The Lions have averaged 244.7 yards per game over their past three contests with 11 rushing touchdowns. It falls to a Hoosiers front seven that allowed 280 yards and three scores to Missouri the last time out to stop the Lions' physical rushing attack. If not, PSU will move to 17-0 all-time against IU.
5. Tommy Armstrong/Ron Kellogg III, QB, Nebraska
Illinois is much improved but if Bo Pelini can get anything out of his backup quarterback duo, the Huskers should win going away. Both Armstrong (12-of-15, 169 yards, TD) and Kellogg (8-of-9, 136 yards, TD) were solid against South Dakota State but battling Jonathan Brown and the Illini is a totally different task. Another 335 yards rushing would go a long way in helping the quarterback tandem play efficient football. If these two protect the ball, Nebraska should begin its Big Ten slate with a win.
Big Ten Week 6 Prediction Grid:
Ohio St (-6.5) at Northwestern
Ohio St, 27-23
Ohio St, 34-27
Ohio St, 38-24
Michigan St (+1.5) at Iowa
Mich. St, 20-17
Mich. St, 24-20
Penn St (-4.5) at Indiana
Penn St, 38-30
Penn St, 34-31
Penn St, 35-21
Illinois (+10.5) at Nebraska
Minnesota (+20) at Michigan