The Big Ten is having a rough year. Possibly its worst of the BCS era. But that doesn't mean there isn't great football still left on the schedule. Conference play begins this weekend with a trio of unbeaten teams and at least four juicy match-ups (sorry, Purdue and Indiana). With the entire nation fixed on East Lansing this weekend, the Big Ten needs a showcase performance from the league's top two coaches and what could be the top two players (Braxton Miller, Le'Veon Bell).
Big Ten's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 5:
1. Bring on conference play...please!
The struggles for the Big Ten have been well documented, but a dramatic conference season could make the first four weeks a distant memory. And Week 5 gets Big Ten play kick-started in style. Ohio State and Michigan State could be the best two teams in the league and has the Mark Dantonio, who won a national title at Ohio State, backstory. The corn-fed Big Red will host the dairy-fed Big Red in what should be a fashionable showdown of tailbacks, unique uniforms and revenge. A rivalry trophy is on the line in Iowa City. And two new coaches who don't like each other do battle in Illinois. Let the games begin.
2. Quarterback differential will decide the big game
Braxton Miller has been not only the Big Ten Player of the Year through four weeks but could be considered the top challenger to Geno Smith for the Heisman Trophy (if voting took place today, of course). His ability to complete clutch throws and pick up key first downs with tough runs makes him the best player on the field this weekend in East Lansing. His counterpart is Andrew Maxwell, who ranks 12th in the league in passer efficiency (that's last). Let's compare the numbers:
Miller: 754 yards, 61.2% passing, 14 total TD, 2 INT, 441 yards rushing
Maxwell: 869 yards, 56.6% passing, 3 total TD, 3 INT, minus-18 yards rushing
3. Sparty has to win the battle in the trenches
If it comes down to quarterback play, Ohio State will win. But the Spartans can win if it controls the line of scrimmage. Le'Veon Bell is the Big Ten's top rusher and has single-handedly carried MSU to wins over Boise State and Eastern Michigan. If John Simon and the rest of the Buckeyes' front line of defense can stop Bell, few believe Maxwell can win the game with his arm. Meanwhile, Ohio State's traditional rushing attack has been questionable at best, but it should have its full complement of players for the first time this fall. Jordan Hall, Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith all expect to see action. William Gholston, who has been underwhelming thus far in 2012, might be the most important player on the field. He has to play better to stop Miller and Company.
4. Recruiting-gate: Bill O'Brien vs. Tim Beckman
During the summer months following the announcement of the Penn State sanctions, Tim Beckman openly and actively recruited current Penn State players to come to Illinois. The result of the questionable tactics? One reserve offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki defected from Happy Valley to Champaign. And one frosty relationship developed between the new Leaders Division coaches. And Penn State players haven't forgotten either — Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mike Mauti in particular. Beckman was simply trying to improve his team within the framework of the rules, but in the process, he gave O'Brien and the Lions plenty of extra motivation for this weekend's showdown.
5. Floyd of Rosedale Trophy
From 2001 to 2009, the Golden Gophers defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes just once, claiming the famous pork trophy only in 2006. However, the Gophers have won two straight, including a one-point win last Halloween that seems to have jump-started the Jerry Kill era in the Twin Cities. Minnesota enters this weekend undefeated (4-0) while Iowa has struggled mightily through four games. Quarterback MarQueis Gray won't play according to Kill, so a wounded Hawkeye team is very dangerous — especially, considering Minnesota hasn't won in Iowa City since 1999. The wise guys in Vegas know that the records don't count in this one as Iowa is a touchdown favorite.
6. Keep an eye on that first quarter
Ohio State has been a notorious slow starter this season, trailing and being shutout by Miami (Ohio) and UAB after one quarter. Wisconsin has scored a total of five points (no, and it wasn't even a safety) in the first quarter this season and was shutout by both Utah State and Oregon State. Iowa trailed after one against Northern Iowa and Iowa State while trailing at halftime to all three FBS opponents. Illinois was outscored 35-7 in the first by Louisiana Tech and Arizona State. And Michigan State has been shut out in its last two first quarters. Seemingly bucking the trend, however, is the Nittany Lions. They have outscored four teams 35-0 in the first quarter and 55-9 in the first half.
7. Revenge a dish best served Big Red
It was a night game in Madison on Oct. 1, 2011. That was the first time Nebraska played a Big Ten football game. And it wasn't pretty. Wisconsin rushed for 231 yards and scored seven offensive touchdowns while Taylor Martinez threw three interceptions in the 48-17 destruction of the Cornhuskers. Welcome to the Big Ten, right? Well, the tables have turned rather quickly. Martinez is the league's best quarterback currently, the offense is the best in the league and a struggling, injured Badgers team limps into one of the most hostile environments in the nation. This one could get ugly quickly — and should make soon-to-be retired Nebraska legend Tom Osbourne smile.
8. College GameDay comes to Big Ten country
The last time ESPN brought its flagship Saturday morning program to the Big Ten, Michigan State defeated Wisconsin on a Hail Mary in arguably the best game played anywhere last fall. This is the sixth time Gameday has been in East Lansing and Sparty is 2-3 in those games. Each of the last four has been a one-score game with an average margin of 4.3 points. This bodes well for fans of both teams, fans of the Big Ten and the national TV audience that will likely be tuned in.
9. Northwestern could be only team left unbeaten
The Wildcats are a double-digit favorite over Indiana and are at home. So assuming Northwestern begins the year 5-0 with a win, there is a very good chance they are the lone team left unblemished in a down Big Ten. If Iowa and Michigan State can win at home, Pat Fitzgerald's bunch will be the only team in the league left without a loss with road trips to Penn State and Minnesota looming.
10. Unsung tailbacks could turn into heroes
Mark Weisman has rushed for six touchdowns and 334 yards on 51 carries in his last two games. If Iowa wants to hurt the improving Minnesota defense, the walk-on fullback will have to be effective again. Venric Mark has been on a tear for Northwestern and should be heavily involved in Northwestern's quest for 5-0. Giving Mark the ball will keep the league's No. 1 passing attack (yes, that's Indiana) off the field. Rod Smith has been worked back into the Ohio State rotation of late and could be a big factor against the Spartans front seven. In Lincoln, fans can expect five or six running backs to get the ball with third-string names like Melvin Gordon and Imani Cross potentially playing big roles. And Bill Belton could be back for Penn State this weekend.
Week 5 Big Ten Predictions:
Week 5 Games
Indiana (+10.5) at Northwestern
Penn State (+2) at Illinois
Penn St, 20-14
Penn St, 21-10
Penn St, 21-10
Minnesota (+7.5) at Iowa
Marshall (+17) at Purdue
Ohio St (+3) at Michigan St
Ohio St, 24-17
Ohio St, 24-21
Ohio St, 23-20
Ohio St, 24-21
Wisconsin (+12.5) at Nebraska
Bye Week: Michigan
by Braden Gall
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