Wisconsin made a big statement last weekend while both Michigan and Northwestern lost key crossover games. The door in the Legends Division is wide open for any and all of the teams in the division. In fact, the round-robin in that half of the Big Ten should be one of the most dramatic races in college football.
Just don’t expect any excitement in Week 8. Not one game in the Big Ten features a single-digit point-spread and all but one favorite is at home. So holding serve will be the theme in the Big Ten this weekend.
Penn State and Nebraska are off.
Big Ten Week 8 Game Power Rankings:
1. Wisconsin (-11.5) at Illinois (8 p.m. ET, BTN)
The all-time series between these two is tied at 36-36-7 but the Badgers have owned this rivalry of late. Wisconsin has won seven of the last eight but the games always seem to be closer than anticipated, as four of the last five have been decided by 10 points or less. The only “blowout” was a 31-14 UW win last year in Madison. The Illini are 11th in the Big Ten in total defense and will find it difficult to slow down the powerful and surprisingly balanced Badgers offense. Therefore it falls to veteran quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (259.4 ypg, 12 TD, 4 INT) to keep his team in the mix on offense. This one should be closer than the experts think.
2. Indiana (+10) at Michigan (3:30 p.m., BTN)
Michigan is the far superior team when it comes to recruiting and overall talent, but the Wolverines are playing below average football. The Hoosiers had the top-rated offense in the league before visiting Michigan State last weekend, as they dropped to No. 2 after their worst output of the season (351 yards). Michigan and turnover-prone quarterback Devin Gardner (10 INT, 3 FL) is a much different team at home than it is on the road. In the Big House, Michigan is averaging 42.5 points and 424 yards per game. Indiana fans should expect another week of quality first-half football followed by a second-half blitzkrieg from a team in Michigan.
3. Iowa (+16.5) at Ohio State (3:30 p.m., ESPN2)
Urban Meyer’s quest for 25-0 continues this weekend as the nation’s longest winning streak goes back on the line. That said, the Buckeyes are well rested after the off weekend and haven’t lost to Iowa at home since 1991. In fact, Ohio State has dominated this matchup, winning 12 of the last 13 meetings. The Hawkeyes, who are also rested after the bye, were completely stymied by Michigan State two weeks ago and will be facing a similar task in the Horseshoe. Look for Braxton Miller and the running game to run right at the talented Iowa linebackers.
4. Minnesota (+12.5) at Northwestern (Noon, ESPN2)
The Wildcats are beaten up and are in desperate need of their first Big Ten win after falling to Ohio State and Wisconsin. Minnesota is coming off a bye weekend after two of its own conference losses and is missing its head coach. So for two struggling teams, getting back to basics should be expected for both — and that means the running game. Northwestern has proven to be extremely vulnerable against the run after allowing 248 yards to the Buckeyes and 286 to Wisconsin while struggling to move the pile on offense (138 yards combined in the last two games). The Gophers are in an identical situation after rushing for 282.3 yards per game in their four wins to start the year and just 166 total rushing yards in their two losses. With injuries continuing to hinder Venric Mark and Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian needs to step into a bigger role.
5. Purdue (+26) at Michigan State (Noon, BTN)
The odds of the 121st offense in the nation moving the football and putting up enough points to win against the nation’s No. 1 total defense on the road is virtually none. But that is what Purdue is facing this weekend in East Lansing. The Spartans have won four straight in the series and haven’t lost to the Boilermakers since 2006. Look for a complete effort from Michigan State.
Big Ten Week 8 Pivotal Players
Listen to Athlon Sports writers Braden Gall and David Fox break down the big questions for each conference for the second half of the season in this week's Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast.
1. Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, Illinois
The Illini quarterback has saved his best season for last as he struggled mightily in 2011 and '12. That said, the last time Scheelhaase was on the field he looked a lot more like the Scheelhaase of old. Against Nebraska, he completed just 50 percent of his passes for 135 yards and no touchdowns with one interception. He wasn’t great through the air last year against Wisconsin (178 yards, TD, INT) but was dynamic on the ground, rushing for 84 yards and a score. Look for more of a dual-threat game plan against UW this week, as efficient play from Illinois’ quarterback is the only chance for an upset.
2. Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
On defense for Illinois, the Big Ten’s top tackler (60 total, 12.0 per game) will be faced with one of the most difficult tasks a linebacker in this league can face. Wisconsin’s offense is No. 1 in the league because of its traditionally powerful and deep running game. Wisconsin boasts the league’s No. 1 (Melvin Gordon), No. 4 (James White) and No. 10 (Corey Clement) rushers. Brown may have 20 tackles in this game but if they are all six yards down the field, it will be a long day for Illinois.
3. Nate Sudfeld, QB, Indiana
The sophomore quarterback is No. 2 in the Big Ten in passing (267.3 ypg) but has been inconsistent in conference play. He torched Penn State for 321 yards and two scores but was completely shut down by Michigan State (137 yards, 0 TD). On the road against Michigan, Sudfeld will be called upon to carry the offense in the second half — especially, if the ground game continues to struggle (98 yards against Mizzou, 92 yards against Michigan State).
4. Trevor Siemian, QB, Northwestern
With Kain Colter and Venric Mark day-to-day with ankle injuries, Siemian may be called upon to handle more of the offense for Pat Fitzgerald. And simply put, he has to be better throwing the football than he was last weekend against Wisconsin. Completing 38.2 percent (13-of-34) of your passes won’t win too many games in any league. Look for the Northwestern offense to bounce back at home against Minnesota because a third straight loss to start conference play would be crippling.
5. Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB, Michigan
The best way to help a turnover-prone quarterback is to run the football and that responsibility to falls mostly to Toussaint. He rushed for 397 yards and seven touchdowns in the first five games but was completely ineffective against Penn State. He rushed for 1.0 yards per carry on 27 attempts, and the ground game should be the focus against an Indiana team that has allowed 238 yards rushing to Michigan State, 280 yards to Missouri and 444 yards to Navy.
Big Ten Week 8 Prediction Grid:
Wisconsin (-11.5) at Illinois
Indiana (+10) at Michigan
Iowa (+16.5) at Ohio St
Ohio St, 42-20
Ohio St, 27-17
Ohio St, 38-17
Ohio St, 41-14
Minnesota (+12.5) at Northwestern
Purdue (+26) at Michigan St
Mich. St, 31-7
Mich. St, 34-0
Mich. St, 41-10
Mich. St, 28-3