Conference play is here. And it's mailbag time. Everything in its right place.
— Austin Hames (@azhawk911) September 30, 2015
Brian Bennett: I'm hesitant to use the word "favorite" in the Big Ten West this early, because the division is just so wide open. Northwestern, Nebraska and Minnesota will still have a major impact on the race. But I am prepared to say whoever wins in Madison this week will be in the early driver's seat.
The reason? Schedules. As we've discussed over and over again, Iowa and Wisconsin have the easiest schedules in the league, thanks to their avoidance of major East powers as crossovers. If the Hawkeyes win Saturday, their only remaining road games are at Northwestern, at Indiana and at Nebraska. None of those are easy, especially with the way the Hoosiers are playing, but they could probably stand to stub their toes once and still be in great shape.
Wisconsin goes to Nebraska next week. But after that, the Badgers should not get much of a challenge until the final two weeks against Northwestern and at Minnesota. So Saturday's outcome should define the early leader in the West scramble.
@BennettESPN does a 12-0 Iowa team that only beats 1 ranked team make the playoff? Is their schedule much different than Boise st?
— JackandJill525 (@jackandjill525) September 30, 2015
Brian Bennett: Iowa in the College Football Playoff? Now there's a question I didn't think I'd see this year. But it's an interesting one.
First, let's make sure to acknowledge that the Hawkeyes have a long way to go before they can start thinking about such a scenario. They haven't even left the state of Iowa yet. (And what this has to do with Boise State, I have no earthly idea).
But there's no game left on the schedule that looks unwinnable, either. Iowa would have wins over Northwestern, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska if it ran the table. While maybe no more than two of those teams would be ranked, they would still count as solid victories. The biggest key, of course, would be claiming the Big Ten championship game over potentially the No. 1 team in the country, whether that be Ohio State or Michigan State. That could get the Hawkeyes in the conversation in a hurry.
As unlikely as this all seems, I believe the selection committee will always take an undefeated Power 5 champion in its field of four. So yes, in your scenario, Kirk Ferentz's team would make it. But it should only concerned with finding a way to win in Camp Randall Stadium right now, because Iowa rarely has a large margin for error.
@BennettESPN Has Northwestern addressed the need for additional training room space when the Gophers visit the Wildcats on Saturday?
— Matthew Krier (@matthewkrier) September 30, 2015
Brian Bennett: Yep, both teams are M*A*S*H units right about now, and each team had multiple starters leave last week's games. Minnesota was already banged up before last week, and Jerry Kill used the word "decimated" to describe his team's health situation. The Golden Gophers are piecing it together on the offensive line and won't have star cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, though fortunately he will not need surgery on his knee.
Northwestern ran into all kinds of injury problems last week against Ball State, with key players like safety Godwin Igwebuike and left tackle Geoff Mogus sidelined. Pat Fitzgerald said Tuesday that the health of his team was "getting better" but he didn't offer many specifics. Both the Gophers and the Wildcats are among the few Big Ten teams who issue injury reports on Thursday night, so those will be eagerly anticipated (assuming neither coach tries to gain an advantage by keeping some information close to the vest).
With all those injuries and two great defenses going at it, I wonder if these teams could stage a new version of last year's M00N game in Evanston. This is still the week of the blood moon, after all.
@BennettESPN chances that Michigan beat Michigan State?
— mrh (@mrh160) September 30, 2015
Brian Bennett: I'd say they're higher than I would have thought coming into the season, based on two things.
One, the Wolverines are playing very well right now and seem to be ahead of schedule under Jim Harbaugh. And secondly, Michigan State keeps getting hammered by injuries and may have some limitations going into what should be an all-out tsunami of physicality in Ann Arbor on Oct. 17.
Are the Spartans skating on thin ice? As Phil Steele points out, Michigan State has been outgained in three of its four games and is minus-24 in yardage on the season. Those aren't numbers you'd associate with the No. 2 team in the country. On the flip side, this may be a tough matchup for Michigan, which wants to run the ball and doesn't excel at passing it downfield. Mark Dantonio's team is going to stuff the run and make you throw deep to beat it.
Either way, I can't wait to find out.