After the Big Ten stepped into the national spotlight for the wrong reasons this week as a coach and athletic director found themselves not just battling their player safety procedures, but their job status.
By Saturday night, that may change as the league has a heavyweight matchup on par with any other game in a week full of key games between ranked teams.
Nebraska and Michigan State will meet in a key game — perhaps one of the last — for the league’s hopes in the College Football Playoff.
In other action, Ohio State will try to continue its progress on offense in a matchup with Maryland while Michigan tries to put a troubling week behind it when the Wolverines visit Rutgers.
Week 6 Previews and Predictions:
Big Ten Week 6 Game Power Rankings
All games Saturday, all times Eastern
1. Nebraska at Michigan State
8 p.m., ABC
This could be the most important game in the Big Ten this season, at least until the league championship game. Nebraska is the league’s only undefeated team but hardly has the resume to put the Cornhuskers into the College Football Playoff conversation. That changes with a win in East Lansing. Meanwhile, Michigan State will look to atone for the loss at Oregon, one in which quarterback Connor Cook was a week removed from a shot to the knee.
Nebraska is one of the few teams in the country that has moved the ball consistently on Michigan State’s defense in the last four season. Michigan State has allowed six yards per play just four times in the last four years, and Nebraska has done it twice. Nebraska in 2013 is one of three teams to rush for 150 yards and pass for 200 against Michigan State the last four seasons, and the Cornhuskers' 313 rushing yards in 2012 is the most against Sparty in that span. Heisman contender Ameer Abdullah has been a part of both of those games, and now he’s in the middle of a career year. Michigan State will look to limit Abdullah and put the pressure on 54-percent passer Tommy Armstrong to win the game with his arm.
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2. Ohio State at Maryland
The problems in the Ohio State pass defense resurfaced last week against Cincinnati as the Bearcats picked up three touchdown passes in excess of 60 yards, including two that enabled Cincy to get back into the game. Maryland has a talented receiver group led by Stefon Diggs, but it’s not clear who will be taking snaps. Starter C.J. Brown, who is also a running threat, was knocked out of last week’s win over Indiana. Caleb Rowe went 12-of-18 for 198 yards with two touchdowns the rest of the way. West Virginia is the only opponent to consistently move the ball through the air against Maryland this season, so Ohio State may need to revisit the balanced offense displayed against Cincinnati. Elliott Ezekiel had the best game of a Buckeyes tailback this season with 182 yards.
3. Michigan at Rutgers
7 p.m., Big Ten Network
Who knows what kind of Michigan team will show up against Rutgers? The Wolverines spent more time talking about concussion procedures than football during the last week. Maybe Michigan rallies for its first win over a Power 5 opponent this season. Maybe Michigan looks as disorganized on offense as it has all year, or worse, a steady defense that’s been overlooked starts to show cracks. Quarterback Devin Gardner, not surprisingly, will return to the starting role this week. Rutgers isn’t a great team, but it can pressure a quarterback. The Scarlet Knights are averaging a Big Ten-best 4.2 sacks per game.
4. Wisconsin at Northwestern
3:30 p.m., ESPN2
Congratulations to Northwestern, riding a genuine (two-game) winning streak for the first time since starting 4-0 last season. The Wildcats have held the last two opponents to 84 yards and 50 yards, but Wisconsin is a different challenge, to put it lightly. Melvin Gordon has rushed for 434 yards and seven touchdowns in the last two weeks. The question for Wisconsin this week will be how much Joel Stave plays, if at all. Starting quarterback Tanner McEvoy has struggled, and Stave, last year’s starter, says he’s over the “mental block” that made him unable to play so far this season.
5. Purdue at Illinois
Illinois can match its win total from last season, one that it didn’t hit until Nov. 23 against — yep — Purdue. This is a must-win for Illinois’ slim bowl hopes. Quarterback Wes Lunt is expected to return from a knee sprain that kept him out of last week’s rout against Nebraska. Backup Reilly O’Toole is also hobbled.
6. North Texas at Indiana
2:30, Big Ten Network
Even though running back Tevin Coleman is near-automatic, Indiana will try to work out its passing game. The Hoosiers rank 88th in passing offense after ranking in the top 20 nationally the last two seasons. North Texas ranks 37th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Big Ten Week 6 Staff Picks
Purdue at Illinois (-11)
Ohio State at Maryland (NL)
North Texas at Indiana (-14)
Wisconsin (-9) at Northwestern
Michigan at Rutgers (-3)
Nebraska at Michigan State (-8)