Big Ten: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Here's a look at what's on tap Saturday (all times ET):
Northwestern (3-4, 2-2 Big Ten) at Iowa (5-2, 2-1), Big Ten Network: The games between these two are often close, with four of the past six meetings being decided by seven points or fewer, including last season's overtime affair. Both the Wildcats and Hawkeyes have similar statistical profiles, so this could be another thriller.
Maryland (5-3, 2-2) at Penn State (4-3, 1-3), ESPN2: The Nittany Lions and Terrapins have not played since 1993, and this could become a new Big Ten rivalry -- provided that Maryland can actually make it competitive. The Terps have won only once in 37 tries against Penn State (1961). Nittany Lions coach James Franklin used to be Maryland's head-coach-in-waiting, while Terrapins boss Randy Edsall is from Pennsylvania.
Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1) at Rutgers (5-3, 1-3), ESPN: This is the first-ever meeting between the Scarlet Knights and the Badgers, who appear to be traveling different paths. Rutgers has been blown out in its past two games -- at Ohio State and at Nebraska -- while Wisconsin just put together its best effort of the season in a 52-7 win over Maryland. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova (knee) is questionable, which could make things tougher against a Wisconsin defense ranked No. 7 nationally in points allowed.
Purdue (3-5, 1-3) at No. 15 Nebraska (7-1, 3-1), ABC/ESPN2: The Boilers' offense is vastly improved, but it will need to find a way to keep pace with a Huskers squad that's averaging 42.8 points per game at home. Purdue ranks 11th in the Big Ten in rush defense and could have a hard time stopping Ameer Abdullah.
Indiana (3-4, 0-3) at Michigan (3-5, 1-3), BTN: Last season's game produced 110 points and more than 1,300 yards. That seems highly unlikely this year, as both teams are struggling to score. Devin Gardner will remain the Wolverines' starting quarterback, while Indiana hopes Zander Diamont can improve after he threw for just 11 yards in his college debut, versus Michigan State.
Illinois (4-4, 1-3) at No 16 Ohio State (6-1, 3-0), ABC: The Illibuck game might not be ready for prime time unless Illinois can build off last week's rare Big Ten win versus Minnesota. The Illini are last in the Big Ten in total defense, while Ohio State is putting up 44.3 points per game. So, yeah, it could get ugly (and cold, with temperatures expected to dip into the low 30s in Columbus).
Byes: Michigan State, Minnesota
Week 10 predictions | Bold calls
Take Two: Abdullah or Gordon to NYC
Ameer Abdullah fights to see through the jungle
Gordon does Gotham; return trip in store
Ohio State learning more about J.T. Barrett
James Franklin to face familiar opponent
Michigan's issues run deeper than Hoke
Spartans sharpen focus as stakes grow
Big Ten playoff tracker
You could see all three scenarios happen in the Big Ten this weekend, which could be an important recruiting weekend for a few teams.
Nebraska vs. Purdue:
Can Austin Appleby keep it going this week against Nebraska? Sure. While the Cornhuskers rank third nationally in limiting opponents to a 48.1-percent completion rate, Appleby can look for high percentage throws to speedy backs Akeem Hunt and the do-it-all Raheem Mostert. They've combined to catch 40 passes this year. Miami burned Nebraska in September with a similar style. It’s a good formula for a talented, young quarterback such as Appleby, whose 83.4 QBR index ranks seventh nationally and leads the Big Ten. Since taking over for Danny Etling, the 6-foot-5 sophomore has completed 66.3 percent of his throws and led the Boilermankers to 35.7 points per game. With what we saw from the Nebraska defense last week against Rutgers, reason exists to believe that Appleby can have another good day.
Have we seen the last of Maryland’s feel-good story for this season? The Terps’ fast start took a dramatic turn for the worse last week at Wisconsin. Maryland’s quarterbacks have been beaten up. Its running game was non-existent in Madison. The turnovers are starting to mount -- with nine in the past three games -- and it faces two of the Big Ten’s top defensive units next in Penn State, a familiar foe to coach Randy Edsall, and, after a bye, Michigan State. Maryland looks like it’s a year or two away from a breakthrough. It has recruited athletes such as William Likely and Stefon Diggs, plenty capable of changing games against Big Ten competition, but the infrastructure is not yet strong enough. It’s conceivable, despite five wins in its first seven games, that Maryland will still be in search of a bowl eligibility-clincher in the regular-season finale on Nov. 29 against Rutgers.
Is Illinois on track to salvage its season? The easy answer is no. The Fighting Illini scored a lot of points behind Wes Lunt, now injured, early in the season, and it hasn’t been the same since Reilly O'Toole took over this month. Before its upset win over Minnesota last week, Illinois had lost four of five games, including a clunker at home to Purdue. But suddenly, the Boilermakers look much better. Illinois was competitive in losing at Wisconsin, and it punched Minnesota in the mouth, capitalizing on three turnovers and four sacks. Don't expect Illinois to win Saturday at Ohio State for the first time in seven years, but if it can continue to build on last week, a bowl appearance is not out of the question with a closing stretch at home against Iowa and Penn State and a visit to Northwestern.
- Penn State coach James Franklin plans to dress as Olaf from "Frozen" for Halloween.
- The QB decision between Gary Nova and Chris Laviano will go down to the wire at Rutgers.
- Brady Hoke is not concerned about speculation that touted freshman Jabrill Peppers might look to leave Michigan.
- Connor Cook says he wants to return to Michigan State as a senior next year.
- Ohio State is not looking past Illinois to its Nov. 8 showdown with the Spartans.
- Is Indiana in danger of losing a homegrown quarterback recruit to Penn State?
- Safety Corey Cooper quietly helps direct the Nebraska defense.
- Jerry Kill is not worrying about negativity after Minnesota's loss to Illinois.
- Wisconsin safeties Michael Caputo and Peniel Jean rely on film study to improve.
- Northwestern receiver Miles Shuler feels fortunate to have made a quick recovery from the neck injury that knocked him out of the game two weeks ago against Nebraska.
- It's time to get the running game revved up at Iowa, says Mark Weisman.
Adam Rittenberg: Purdue will pace Nebraska well into the second half.
This isn't a knock on the Huskers, who are quietly putting together a very solid, and refreshingly drama-free, season. But Purdue's offense is hitting its stride behind quarterback Austin Appleby, speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and a much-improved offensive line. The Boilers have had two weeks to prepare and face a Nebraska defense that still has too many technical breakdowns for my liking. This will be a track meet for two, maybe three quarters -- thinking 28-24 Nebraska at halftime -- before Ameer Abdullah and Nebraska pull away in the fourth.
Mitch Sherman: Wisconsin will make its biggest statement yet.
The Badgers served notice to the rest of the West last week with a 52-7 win over Maryland that they’ve turned a corner. Still, it was one game. It was at home, and we’ve seen previous flashes from Wisconsin. But with most of the attention focused on the exploits of Melvin Gordon and uncertainty at QB, the Wisconsin defense has built a résumé as the Big Ten’s best. Now, with Joel Stave back in command, the Badgers will streamroll Rutgers, beat up at QB and elsewhere after trips to Ohio State and Nebraska, and enter the final four weeks as the favorite in the West despite that ugly Northwestern loss.
Brian Bennett: Northwestern and Iowa will head to overtime. Again.
Just like last year in Iowa City, the Wildcats and Hawkeyes will play to a draw in regulation. They're similar teams, with good defenses and running games but who struggle to score at times. Justin Jackson and Mark Weisman will each find the end zone twice as the teams go into overtime tied at 20. Northwestern makes one more play in the second extra period to win it.
Austin Ward: Tevin Coleman will be held in check.
The Indiana tailback wasn’t getting all that much support from the passing game even when Nate Sudfeld was healthy and that didn’t slow him down even against stout rush defenses. But with the attack even more one-dimensional now, his string of 100-yard outings is going to come to an end on the road against Michigan and a defense allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. That’s about the only thing the Wolverines do well at this point, and any chance of salvaging something positive out of this season for Brady Hoke’s club will require coming out inspired to take care of Indiana. That’s yet another sign of how bad things are at Michigan, but there is a talented, proud defense waiting for a chance to do something nobody else has done yet this season.
Dan Murphy: Ohio State hits 60 points for the second time this season.
Any chances of the Buckeyes looking ahead to the Michigan State next weekend were knocked out after the close call in Happy Valley. J.T. Barrett will be back in his comfort zone at home and looking to pick a part the Fighting Illini defense. Ohio State hung 66 points on Kent State earlier this year. While Saturday might not be quite as big of a blowout, the Buckeyes will get to 60 for the second year in a row against Illinois.
Josh Moyer: Penn State hits its highest rushing total of the Big Ten season.
OK, maybe this is a bit of a gamble considering that left tackle Donovan Smith -- the only returning starter on the line this season -- suffered an injury Saturday, and his status is unknown against Maryland. But the Nittany Lions fared better than I expected against Ohio State, and the offensive line has a much easier test against the Terrapins. Only 17 teams in the nation are faring worse in run defense than than the Terps, so we should see a healthy dose of Penn State speedsters Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. James Franklin has vowed to keep running the ball, and I think that strategy finally pays off this weekend.
Why Indiana will win: This season Michigan's offense is averaging 1.16 touchdowns per game against Power 5 conference competition. Hoosiers RB Tevin Coleman is averaging 1.25 touchdowns per game against Power 5 competition. Big plays from Coleman and IU receiver Shane Wynn will be the difference. The Wolverines' run defense has been strong this year, but not against marquee running backs. David Cobb ran for 183 yards in Minnesota's win at the Big House, and Jeremy Langford finished with 177 last week. Coleman will do the same, and Michigan's offense doesn't have enough horsepower to keep up. ... Indiana 27, Michigan 23 -- Dan Murphy
Why Michigan will win: Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for the Wolverines, this week happened, with the controversies surrounding Joe Bolden’s spearing of the Spartan Stadium turf and Dave Brandon’s alleged angry email exchanges with fans. Yes, it got worse. Michigan has been dodging disasters for nearly two months now. At some point, it’s got to get better in Ann Arbor, right? This is the week, as Indiana brings its downtrodden defense to the Big House, for Devin Gardner and the U-M offense to get healthy, even if temporarily. What about Tevin Coleman and the Hoosiers’ offense? Yeah, that’s a concern, but the Wolverines have been strong against the rush, allowing 3.1 yards per carry to rank second in the Big Ten. ... Michigan 34, Indiana 24 -- Mitch Sherman
Why Maryland will win: Penn State is primed for a letdown game after an emotionally exhausting overtime loss at home. The Terps didn't inspire much confidence last week in their loss to Wisconsin, but they've been hot and cold all season. Maryland's run defense has been miserable (110th nationally), which should make for a good matchup with Penn State's woeful offensive line. The Nittany Lions' defense should keep this a low-scoring game. Expect a lot of action for the field goal kickers, and Maryland's Brad Craddock is the best in the Big Ten in that department. ... Maryland 19, Penn State 17 -- Dan Murphy
Why Penn State will win: Penn State will have to bounce back from an emotional overtime loss to Ohio State, but the Nittany Lions' defense proved it was one of the league's very best vs. the Buckeyes. Meanwhile, schizophrenic Maryland nearly got shut out at Wisconsin. The Terps won't have any easier time moving the ball in Beaver Stadium, and Christian Hackenberg will do just enough for Penn State to improve to 36-1-1 all-time in this "rivalry." ... Penn State 17, Maryland 14 -- Brian Bennett
Why Iowa will win: Let's take a three-point look at Northwestern's offense: QB Trevor Siemian has been so inconsistent this season that he's ranked behind both Devin Gardner and Tanner McEvoy in passing efficiency. Northwestern RB Justin Jackson is good, but the Wildcats have managed to average more than four yards a carry in only one game. And only 19 offenses in the nation are averaging fewer points per game (20.9). Add that all together, and you get a struggling offense that Iowa should take advantage of. The Hawkeyes aren't a one-dimensional offense, so this shouldn't be a repeat of the Wisconsin game. It should be close, but the Hawkeyes win in the end. ... Iowa 24, Northwestern 20 -- Josh Moyer
Why Northwestern will win: Iowa and Northwestern both have had disappointing seasons to date. Both come off of bye weeks and both look to finish strong. The vibe around Iowa is more concerning. Other than the Indiana game, when has Iowa actually looked good? Northwestern at least has solid wins against Penn State and Wisconsin. The Wildcats have a better defense and should be able to run against Iowa with Justin Jackson. Iowa has more offensive firepower, but can the Hawkeyes deliver in a critical game? These are typically close contests, and Northwestern comes out on top this time. ... Northwestern 23, Iowa 21 -- Adam Rittenberg
Ohio State 49, Illinois 21: If the Buckeyes can grab a comfortable edge, look for Urban Meyer to rest J.T. Barrett, nursing a knee sprain, in advance of the season-defining trip next week to Michigan State. Though the Illini are riding high after an upset victory over Minnesota, Ohio State and its defensive front pose a new kind of challenge.
Wisconsin 45, Rutgers 14: With or without Gary Nova, the Scarlet Knights are feeling the effects of trips over the past two weeks to Ohio State and Nebraska. And Rutgers is getting the Badgers at a bad time, right as Wisconsin finds itself offensively behind rejuvenated QB Joel Stave and the relentless Melvin Gordon.
Nebraska 52, Purdue 28: Lots of points in Lincoln, but look for the Huskers to control this from the start. Purdue has made huge strides offensively behind Austin Appleby, but its defense still lacks the playmakers to slow Ameer Abdullah. Another big day, too, for Kenny Bell, set to break Johnny Rodgers’ career receiving-yardage record at Nebraska.
1. Mitch Sherman: 66-14 (.825)
2. Brian Bennett: 64-16 (.800)
3. Austin Ward: 63-17 (.786)
4. Adam Rittenberg: 62-18 (.775)
5. Josh Moyer: 60-20 (.750)
6. Dan Murphy: 32-11 (.744)
1. Conversation starter: The College Football Playoff rankings are going to change, that much is certain. But as a starting point, the first-ever edition is pretty useful for gauging where the Big Ten sits and what it must do hitting the homestretch over the final month of the regular season. The heavy lifting mostly applies to Nebraska and Ohio State, and the spots those programs hold at Nos. 15 and 16 might have revealed more about the thinking of the selection committee than just about anything else on Tuesday. For starters, at this point, it's hard to argue that the Huskers didn't deserve the higher ranking since their lone loss was at Michigan State and they own a reasonably attractive win over Miami. The loss to Virginia Tech is currently weighing down the Buckeyes, and despite how hard-fought the victory was at Penn State against its stout defense, there isn't much else on the resume right now worth getting too excited over for the committee. But it's important to keep in mind that even with all those teams standing between Nebraska and Ohio State and a playoff berth, there is a lot of football left to play -- and if either of them can win out, it still seems likely that a one-loss Big Ten champ is going to climb enough rungs to get into the field. Only one of those teams can do it since they would face off in the conference title game, but the Big Ten as a league remains very much alive in the race for the national crown.
2. Bucking up: J.T. Barrett isn't completely healthy yet on his sprained knee, but the Ohio State quarterback made it clear after practice on Wednesday that he was on track to play on Saturday night against Illinois. Considering what's looming for the Buckeyes on Nov. 8 at Michigan State, though, it might be best for Urban Meyer to get him out of the game as early as possible to make sure he's in one piece for such a critical matchup with both the Big Ten and national-title implications. Like any week, nothing can be taken for granted, and Illinois has put together some decent game plans on defense and is coming off an upset win over Minnesota. But if the Illini do live up to their billing as the worst total defense in the league in the Horseshoe this weekend, Meyer would be wise not to leave Barrett on the field into the fourth quarter behind backup offensive linemen in an effort to get him extra reps like he did two weeks ago against Rutgers. The stakes are too high, and Michigan State is more than capable of beating the Buckeyes again even if they're at full strength.
3. Under-the-radar matchup: Basically from here on out, the West will have a matchup every week that could serve as an elimination game for the division title. The undercard for a heavyweight November starts with Northwestern visiting Iowa, which isn't exactly a showdown between leading contenders but will nevertheless leave one team in the race and essentially knock the other out. The Hawkeyes have had an extra week to address the issues that popped up in a loss at Maryland that cut down on their margin for error in the rough-and-tumble West. Playing at home will also be an advantage for Kirk Ferentz and his club. Northwestern has been something of a wildcard, though, and it already has gone on the road and come home with a surprising victory after taking apart Penn State in late September. The Wildcats do have two losses in the league already, and they don't have much going for them in a theoretical tiebreaker should they win out. But they're not all that different than the Hawkeyes at this point -- and the loser on Saturday will effectively be out of the race.
- Jabrill Peppers has obviously not had the season anybody envisioned for Michigan, and Brady Hoke admitted the freshman is frustrated.
- Mark Dantonio is only focused on taking care of business with Michigan State after the first rankings were unveiled.
- Thanks to an injury to veteran safety Ryan Keiser, Penn State will take the redshirt off Troy Apke.
- Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova took another step forward, but his status remains unclear for this week's game against Wisconsin.
- Maryland started its preparation for Penn State in the summer by breaking down Vanderbilt film, looking for ways to get pressure on Christian Hackenberg.
- J.T. Barrett left no doubt about his intentions this week for Ohio State.
- Word continues to spread about Indiana running back Tevin Coleman.
- Nebraska has received a boost for its offensive line off the bench.
- Where does Minnesota's loss at Illinois rank among the most deflating for the program over the last 15 years?
- Reilly O'Toole remembers vividly the noise at Ohio Stadium two seasons ago. The Illinois quarterback will actually have a chance to play in front of that crowd this time.
- Wisconsin has already had success in the past recruiting New Jersey. Putting on a good show at Rutgers might open up a few more doors.
- Iowa is fed up with poor tackling, and it has made cleaning it up a priority this week.
- Statistically, Northwestern has plenty in common with Iowa.
- Raheem Mostert is running down a record at Purdue.
Brian Bennett: An excellent question. On the surface, it would seem like a one-loss Pac-12 champion Ducks team would help Michigan State's cause. But I as I wrote in the previous answer, there could be a lot of jockeying among one-loss teams for perhaps only one or two playoff spots. I actually think the Spartans are better off if Oregon loses another game (but just one) and goes on to win the Pac-12. Michigan State will still get credit for going to Eugene despite the loss, but the Pac-12 would be essentially out of the running. Heck, the coaches' poll already has Michigan State ranked ahead of Oregon. If only those guys watched some games ...
@BennettESPN What's better for MSU: Oregon wins out & stays ranked ahead, or Oregon loses one more & drops below MSU but hurts MSU's resume?- Jeff Brennemonster (@brennemania) October 29, 2014
Brian Bennett: It was a mild surprise seeing Nebraska ranked one spot ahead of Ohio State, but it was also completely understandable. The Huskers' résumé is just as good if not better than the Buckeyes', and their lone loss (at Michigan State) is infinitely better than Ohio State's loss at home to 4-4 Virginia Tech. This would probably be a good time to review bowl tie-ins and procedures in case the Big Ten champion does not get into the playoff. The league winner would then go to either the Cotton, Peach or Fiesta Bowl. Those bowl matchups will be decided by the playoff selection committee. The Big Ten champion is not eligible to play in the Orange Bowl, though that game could feature a Big Ten non-champion if it is ranked higher than SEC non-playoff teams or Notre Dame -- which seems unlikely given the glut of top 10 SEC teams. Nebraska almost certainly needs to win the conference to be ranked high enough to qualify for one of the marquee non-playoff bowls. I still think the Huskers are the best team in the West Division, though trips to Wisconsin and Iowa won't be easy. If Nebraska doesn't win the Big Ten, I would bet on the Bo Pelini's team ending up in the Holiday Bowl, because the league's new bowl guidelines are aimed at avoiding repeat destinations, and Big Red has gone to Florida three straight years. Kameron from Glen Ellyn, Ill. writes: I agree both Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon are deserving of making it to NYC. I am biased as a Husker fan but Abdullah's blemish against MSU I feel is better than Gordon's against an inferior opponent like WIU where he had 38 yards. I would think voters would view that as worse than the MSU game for Abdullah. Your thoughts?
@BennettESPN As a husker fan I was ecstatic to see that Nebraska was 15 how do you feel about a possibility of one of the "bcs" bowls for us- Brandon Williamson (@Husker_bran) October 29, 2014
Brian Bennett: If you're going to have a bad day during a Heisman campaign, it's better to do it in a blowout game against a no-name opponent than to in a loss during your biggest game of the season on national TV. Gordon also was coming off a hip flexor injury against LSU when he had the subpar game against Western Illinois. Abdullah was not able to carry his team to victory or get much of anything going at Michigan State.
But let's acknowledge that we're splitting hairs here. Both players are having incredible seasons, and both are more than worthy of a trip to New York City as Heisman finalists. As is, for that matter, Indiana's Tevin Coleman. Recent history suggests, however, that it will be tough for more than one running back to make it there.
We're tracking the offensive and defensive player of the year races every week. And this week's bonus category is offensive lineman of the year.
Here we go:
Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year
1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (five first-place votes): Abdullah had been overtaken in our poll by Melvin Gordon in recent weeks, but he's back on top after he broke the Nebraska record for all-purpose yards versus Rutgers. This race should last all year.
2. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (one first-place vote): Gordon did nothing wrong in running for 122 yards and three scores against Maryland last week. It's just that his competition is steep.
3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He and the Hoosiers were off last week. He will try to keep his streak of 100-yard games going at Michigan on Saturday.
4 . Michigan State WR Tony Lippett: He had his fourth straight 100-yard day and sixth of the season against Michigan, while recording his Big Ten-best ninth touchdown catch.
5. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The Buckeyes freshman didn't have his best day at Penn State. But battling through a knee injury and leading the team to two scores in overtime was very impressive.
Also receiving votes: Minnesota RB David Cobb
Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year
1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): He came up with the walk-off sack at Penn State and won his first Big Ten defensive player of the week award. It likely won't be his last.
2. Penn State LB Mike Hull: Inexplicably left off the Butkus Award semifinalist list, Hull leads the Big Ten in tackles and was sensational against Penn State with 19 stops.
3. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: Despite missing some time earlier this year, he still has 5.5 sacks and is a holy terror to block.
4. Iowa DE Drew Ott: With the Hawkeyes off, Ott fell out of the Big Ten sacks lead. But he still has seven in as many games
5. Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: He was a little quiet early in the season, but the defending Big Ten defensive lineman of the year has come on strong of late and has six sacks on the season.
Also receiving votes: Penn State DT Anthony Zettel; Wisconsin LB Derek Landisch; Maryland CB William Likely.
Rimington–Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year
1. Michigan State LT Jack Conklin (six first-place votes): We unanimously agrees that the Spartans sophomore, who had no other Division I scholarship offers out of high school, is the Big Ten's best offensive lineman so far this year. What a great story.
2. Ohio State LT Taylor Decker: The Buckeyes' O-line has made great improvement since early in the season, and Decker is the anchor at left tackle. That's why he is somewhat surprisingly ahead of ...
3. Iowa LT Brandon Scherff: The Hawkeyes senior probably still will be an early first-round draft pick, and he made the ESPN midseason All-American team. But he and the Iowa line have been disappointing, especially last time out against Maryland.
Three Big Ten teams remain in the playoff mix. Let's take a look at how things stand for them:
Record: 7-1 (4-0)
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 vs. Ohio State
Reason for optimism: The Spartans have won 14 straight games against Big Ten opponents, and their toughest remaining game -- against Ohio State on Nov. 8 -- will be in East Lansing. Plus, their lone loss of the season was at Oregon, which was understandable. They remain the favorites to win the Big Ten and could easily move up as others lose.
Cause for concern: This year's defense has been more susceptible to the big play than defense in recent seasons, and Mark Dantonio's team has yet to play its A-game against a good opponent for four full quarters. The margin of the Oregon loss -- 19 points -- is a black mark, and the Spartans could suffer from the Big Ten's weak perception.
Whom they’ll be rooting for this week: Michigan State wants Ohio State to beat Illinois so the matchup against the Buckeyes is a marquee one. The Spartans need Oregon to beat Stanford and continue winning. They would also benefit from a Florida State loss at Louisville, a Notre Dame loss to Navy and more chaos in the SEC West.
Record: 7-1 (3-1)
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at Wisconsin
Reason for optimism: The Huskers are still lurking in the Big Ten race and could avenge their lone loss -- on the road by five points to Michigan State -- in the Big Ten championship game. They have an easier path to Indianapolis through the Big Ten West and have one of the nation's best players in running back Ameer Abdullah.
Cause for concern: Nebraska's best victory of the season came against a 5-3 Miami team, which just might not be good enough. The Huskers have been inconsistent at times and still have road tests at Wisconsin and Iowa. In their lone marquee game, they trailed Michigan State 27-3 in the fourth quarter before a furious comeback. They also don't have any ranked teams left on the schedule, though that could change if they make the Big Ten title game.
Whom they’ll be rooting for this week: Nebraska still needs a lot of help to move up 11 spots (at least). The Cornhuskers should definitely root for Florida State to lose and will want TCU to go down to West Virginia to weaken the case for both the ACC and Big 12 champ. Losses by Notre Dame, Oregon and chaos in the SEC West are needed. Nebraska also wants Wisconsin and Iowa to keep winning to make those games look more important and for Miami to finish strong.
Record: 6-1 (3-0)
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 at Michigan State
Reason for optimism: The Buckeyes have steadily improved since a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, and quarterback J.T. Barrett has developed into a reliable playmaker. If the Buckeyes win in East Lansing in two weeks, they should have relatively smooth sailing to the Big Ten championship game. The selection committee will respect Urban Meyer's track record and Ohio State's talent.
Cause for concern: That loss to Virginia Tech -- by two touchdowns, at home -- could be hard to overcome, especially because the Hokies are just 4-4. Other than Michigan State, there's no real opportunity for a statement win. And the Buckeyes barely survived the past week at Penn State, which suggests their offensive improvement might have been built on the back of a weak schedule.
Whom they’ll be rooting for this week: The Buckeyes need all the same carnage Nebraska is hoping for, but at least they could get a significant boost by winning at Michigan State. They'll also want the Huskers to win out and hope to play them in Indianapolis.
Last week, we projected Maryland to the Holiday Bowl based on merit, while noting that the Terrapins would have to prove themselves again at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin ended up mauling Maryland, so the Badgers move up the projections. Remember: the Big Ten is taking greater control over bowl pairings this season, so the teams that have earned it on the field, not necessarily those with the largest fan bases, will land in the higher-profile games.
We had a brief discussion about projecting Michigan State or Ohio State to the playoff, but a few more things need to break the Big Ten's way. There's a good chance the winner of the Nov. 8 showdown at Spartan Stadium moves up a rung, but we're not ready to pull the trigger.
We also discussed whether to project Illinois to its first bowl game under coach Tim Beckman after a big home win against Minnesota. The Illini only need two more wins, but we need to see a little more.
Maryland and Rutgers move down after losses. Penn State, meanwhile, actually moves up after taking Ohio State to the brink before falling in two overtimes.
Here are the latest projections:
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
National University Holiday: Minnesota
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Maryland
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Penn State
Quick Lane: Iowa
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern
By the way, if you’re not following us on Twitter, what are you waiting for? Follow along at @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.
Dantonio says he won't watch playoff-poll unveil tonight. How about OSU-Illinois on Saturday? "That one will get my attention."— Mitch Sherman (@mitchsherman) October 28, 2014
More Franklin on Hull: "I've been coaching 20 years ... and I'm just telling you, not many guys like this out there, in college or NFL."— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) October 28, 2014
Will Bo Pelini talk to his team about the rankings. "No. ... other than to ignore them." Catch the CFP Fever, Huskers!— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) October 28, 2014
The No. 1 reason for Purdue's improvement, according to Pelini? "Coaching."— Mitch Sherman (@mitchsherman) October 28, 2014
Tim Beckman spent a year and a half coaching under Jim Tressel: Says "sometimes I want to kick myself in the butt for not staying longer."— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) October 28, 2014
And we get our weekly reminder that Minnesota doesn't want to take David Cobb off the field. "There's still a lot of tread on those tires."— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) October 28, 2014
Ferentz on B1G West race: "If you look at it, probably nobody is out of it right now."— Mitch Sherman (@mitchsherman) October 28, 2014
The College Football Playoff selection committee will issue its first-ever set of rankings Tuesday night.
It's an exciting time for fans and the signal of a bold new beginning for the sport. Many will be glued to their TV sets for the unveiling of the Top 25.
But in terms of appointment viewing for the three Big Ten figures who have the most to gain or lose tonight, this show might as well be a rerun of "New Girl."
On Tuesday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, I asked Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Ohio State's Urban Meyer -- all of whom should see their teams ranked in the top 20 -- how much attention they'd pay to the rankings release. All three said they didn't even plan on watching the show.
"I think you'll notice it, but I think our focus has got to be on our next football game," said Dantonio, whose team has a bye this week before hosting Ohio State. "That will be where the challenge is. I think this is the starting point for everything from a media perspective. I'm really not quite sure how it will even work."
"I'm sure I'll hear about it, but I've got other things on my mind than what that vote is today," Pelini said. "It's not something that affects me."
"I'm sure I'll look at them tomorrow morning," Meyer said. "We're practicing and it's a heavy game plan night. So I know I won't watch it, though I'm aware it's going to happen."
Playoff talk has dominated college football since the end of last season. But even though there are two men with major Big Ten ties on the committee -- Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and former Nebraska coach/athletic director Tom Osborne -- the coaches all said they were unfamiliar with how the process will work.
Pelini even said he's had no conversations with Osborne about the playoff selection in the past year. I asked him if he'd address the playoff rankings with his team.
"No," he said. "Other than to ignore them."
None of the coaches expected to learn much from the rankings, either, though the committee could tip its hand on which areas -- like strength of schedule, good wins vs. bad losses -- it prioritizes.
"I haven't followed it that much," Meyer said. "I don't know if it's much different than the old BCS system when the BCS rankings came out. The only thing I look at it as, it's four teams instead of two. I really don't understand the whole dynamics."
"I think it's just another poll," Dantonio said. "I'm sure they have their methodology. It will be interesting to watch as it goes through. [But] we need to try and live in the present."
Tonight's show should attract a lot of interested college football fans. But not so many Big Ten coaches, apparently.
"I didn't know the rankings were tonight and will not watch them," Penn State's James Franklin said. "But I am curious about how the whole thing will play out. I will follow it from a distance in my free time."
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Midway through the fourth quarter of Nebraska’s victory over Rutgers on Saturday, Ameer Abdullah appeared on the HuskerVision screens inside Memorial Stadium. As his school record of 341 all-purpose yards was announced to the crowd, the senior I-back stood steely-faced, staring ahead, seemingly oblivious to the moment.
Earlier, in the midst of his 225-yard rushing effort, Abdullah, while waiting for his next opportunity, clutched a football on the sideline. Teammates mingled or sat on the bench, but Abdullah just held that ball in a locked position near his chest and kept his body in motion, a drill -- designed for practice -- that running backs coach Ron Brown encourages.
Eight games into his final season at Nebraska, Abdullah leads the nation in rushing yardage. He’s second in touchdowns. With four 200-yard rushing performances, he’s on track to top 2,000 yards in the 13th game of the season, whether that’s in Indianapolis Dec. 6 or at a bowl site.
He just passed Anthony Thompson and Archie Griffin to take the No. 2 spot on the Big Ten’s career all-purpose yardage list. With a couple more games like Saturday, in which he returned a kickoff 76 yards and caught two passes, Abdullah will pass Ron Dayne, who totaled 7,429 all-purpose yards, as the league’s all-time leader.
Not a chance.
“He’ll be able to look back on this with a lot of pride,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “It’s pretty special.”
Abdullah said he needs to keep his head down. Literally.
“You can’t get caught up in that right now,” he said, “because that’s not what is important. What’s important is tomorrow.”
Brown compared the past three months for Abdullah to a walk through the jungle. The deeper into the season he gets, the thicker the brush and the more difficult it becomes for him to see if, for even a minute, he loses focus.
“He’s just pulling things out of the way to get to the destination,” Brown said. “He realizes this is part of the jungle. He’s trying to keep his eyes on the prize.
“If you lose your senses, you can get discombobulated and go find a place to melt down somewhere.”
Last month, as Nebraska ramped up its promotion of Abdullah for the Heisman Trophy and other awards, the Alabama native largely shut down his availability to the media.
If an activity is not sharpening his focus, Abdullah prioritizes other things.
“He doesn’t have to think about that stuff,” Brown said.
Abdullah granted an extended interview Saturday, continuing to deflect attention even as he fielded questions about his own record-setting performance.
He sits 555 yards from breaking Nebraska's career rushing mark of 4,780 yards, set in three seasons by Heisman winner Mike Rozier. That record has long been considered unattainable at the school known for its legacy of I-backs.
Despite the appearance, Abdullah said he recognizes the significance of his achievements this fall.
“They're definitely memories,” he said. “Every time I step on the field, whether it's practice or a game, I'm always creating memories here. I'm always going to remember coming here and playing for this great university. Not many people are blessed with that opportunity. Definitely, it’s an honor."
His array of spectacular runs, in a way, creates a difficult situation for Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
For instance, on Saturday, Abdullah scored on consecutive touches of 53 and 48 yards as he buckled the knees of Rutgers defenders on both plays. The back-to-back drives unlocked a 7-7 tie early in the second quarter and had the stadium abuzz about Abdullah’s next chance.
But on the ensuing possession, Beck called three pass plays. The first two fell incomplete. Rutgers cornerback Anthony Cioffi intercepted Tommy Armstrong Jr. on the third.
Collectively, more than 90,000 people in attendance groaned. Why didn't Beck call the number of his best player?
“You can’t always just hand the ball to Ameer,” Beck said. “Everyone is going to know. You can’t just do that.”
Oh, the problems of coaching a Heisman candidate.
“Coach Beck understands getting the ball in the playmakers’ hands and spacing is really important,” Abdullah said. “We have to utilize all of our skilled players. We don’t want to just make this offense one-dimensional.”
Through it all, Abdullah keeps his head down, navigating the jungle. As for any discussion about his place among other great running backs -- this season or historically -- Pelini said Abdullah belongs in the discussion.
“I mean, just watch the film,” the coach said. “That’s all you’ve got to do.”
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.
Today's Take Two topic is: Which of the Big Ten's two top Heisman Trophy contenders -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah or Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon -- has a better chance of getting to New York in December as a Heisman finalist?
Both guys are extremely deserving, and if the Heisman vote was taken today and there was any justice, they'd both be finalists. That's how great their seasons have been.
However, given the glut of candidates at quarterback, it's more likely that only one Big Ten running back will make it to the Downtown Athletic Club. And I have to give the slight edge to Gordon.
Abdullah is rising in Heisman straw polls after another huge day against Rutgers last week. But he has one major stain on his résumé: that 24-carry, 45-yard performance in the Huskers' biggest game to date, the loss at Michigan State. Gordon also had an off day, but it came against Western Illinois when nobody was watching, and he had an injury as his excuse.
Voters may hold Gordon's second-half disappearing act versus LSU against him. But he also had 140 yards on 16 carries in that game, and as LSU continues to improve -- just look at what the Tigers' defense did to Ole Miss last week -- that showing will actually look better and better. The Gordon vs. Abdullah debate will likely come down to their Nov. 15 showdown in Madison. It helps that Gordon will be at home for that game. I think the Badgers star finishes slightly ahead of Abdullah in an extremely close call, and Gordon gets to New York.
I could not agree more that both backs belong in any conversation regarding the top player in college football. But for fans of Big Ten teams still unsure how to gauge Nebraska players in historical context, consider that Abdullah last week passed Anthony Thompson, the former Indiana great, and two-time Ohio State Heisman winner Archie Griffin in career all-purpose yardage.
And this season has been Abdullah's best yet, with four of his five career 200-yard rushing performances -- and at least five games to play. Abdullah leads the nation in rushing yardage. He's second in rushing touchdowns. He's on pace to exceed 2,000 yards this season (even if the Huskers don't qualify for the Big Ten title game) and surpass Heisman winner Mike Rozier as the Huskers' all-time leading rusher.
More than that, Abdullah does everything for Nebraska, returning kickoffs and taking snaps from the Wildcat formation. Last week against Rutgers, he split wide to catch a pass and grabbed another as the slot receiver.
He's also the Huskers' unquestioned leader, setting a constant example for teammates. It's part of his greatness and a trait that deserves notice from Heisman voters in the wake of the questionable decisions made regularly by the past two winners of the award.
As for the Michigan State game, yes, it is his one blemish, though Abdullah helped Nebraska get a shot to win at the end, and his poor numbers in that game are largely attributable to inept blocking and a game plan that went awry quickly in East Lansing.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Northwestern Iowa 12:00 PM ET Maryland Penn State 12:00 PM ET Wisconsin Rutgers 3:30 PM ET Purdue 15 Nebraska 3:30 PM ET Indiana Michigan 8:00 PM ET Illinois 16 Ohio State