The College Football Playoff race is officially on, and a pair of undefeated teams in the Big Ten is ready to show that they belong. Penn State takes its 8-0 record on the road this week against the upstart Minnesota Golden Gophers, who also bring an 8-0 record to the table. Something has to give in this matchup of Big Ten unbeatens, as James Franklin's and P.J. Fleck's teams square off with plenty on the line.
Penn State and Minnesota are both coming off a bye week, so both have had some time to prepare for this weekend’s game. With the Gophers playing the program's biggest game in decades at home, the atmosphere should be great even for an early-afternoon, or in this case a late-morning, kickoff. Minnesota owns a two-game lead in the Big Ten West Division and has a chance to pick up a massive victory on the same day the two teams chasing the Gophers, Iowa, and Wisconsin, are going head-to-head.
Penn State may have to hang tough at the start of the game, but this is something the Nittany Lions have handled well in recent games. Can they do it again and take one step closer to potentially setting up a mega matchup with Ohio State in a couple more weeks, or will Minnesota be the team to take a massive step toward its first division crown in school history?
Penn State at Minnesota
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov., 9 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -6.5
When Penn State Has the Ball
Penn State has been utilizing a bit of a running back by committee this season, and the results have been positive for the Nittany Lions. Penn State ranks seventh in the conference in rushing yards per game, but the per-carry numbers show how effective Penn State is when the Lions run the ball — 4.43 yards per rushing attempt (fourth in the Big Ten).
Noah Cain had been the emerging star in the running game for Penn State but has been slowed in Penn State’s last two games (40 combined rushing yards, zero touchdowns against Michigan and Michigan State). If he is full speed, expect Penn State to try to get him more involved. If not, that means more opportunities for Journey Brown, Devyn Ford, and Ricky Slade.
Slow starts haven’t been much of a problem in the past month, as Penn State has been playing from ahead against everyone since getting into Big Ten play. Having Sean Clifford hit KJ Hamler for a big play early on the road would help.
When Minnesota Has the Ball
Minnesota’s offense just seems to be getting better and better by the week. (The same can also be said of the defense.) Tanner Morgan has been one of the most reliable quarterbacks in the Big Ten this season, completing 65.3 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Morgan may not be a Big Ten leader in many passing categories, but he is in the same territory as the Big Ten’s best such as Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Penn State’s Clifford. Having two confident receivers in Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson (third and fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game, respectively) has helped Morgan to be the only passer in the Big Ten to average more than 10 yards per attempt. Penn State’s secondary will be tested.
The Gophers also love to run the football, which is no real surprise. The Gophers are one of three Big Ten teams averaging over 200 yards per game on the ground (Ohio State and Wisconsin are the others). A healthy Rodney Smith (889 yards, 7 TDs) and sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim (307, 6) have made for a solid running duo. But they will be challenged by one of the Big Ten’s top defenses, one that leads the conference in rushing defense (68.4 ypg).
Penn State may have the advantages in talent and depth, and the Nittany Lions have certainly been more battle-tested against quality competition. But Minnesota’s success is not all smoke and mirrors. This team is getting better and more confident by the week. The Gophers won’t be intimidated by Penn State, but just how many points are they capable of scoring on this Penn State defense? In the end, it may not be enough. Penn State gets a great battle from Minnesota but escapes this one with a win.
Prediction: Penn State 26, Minnesota 24
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.