Big Ten: Jeff Tedford
The slate is the main reason why Urban Meyer's team sits at No. 3 in the BCS standings, despite a 9-0 record and a 21-game winning streak. It's also the reason why the Buckeyes soon could be behind a third unbeaten in Baylor, or even a 1-loss team in Stanford.
The Buckeyes have faced just one team in the current BCS standings, No. 22 Wisconsin. Barring a surprise, the only other ranked team they'll face before the BCS selections are announced will be in the Big Ten championship game.
How did this happen? Although Big Ten teams have shied away from tough schedules, Ohio State hasn't been one of them. In fact, the Buckeyes used a scheduling model that featured at least one marquee matchup per season, whether it was Texas in 2005 and 2006, USC in 2008 and 2009, or Miami in 2010 and 2011.
It's shortsighted to suggest, as many have, that Ohio State tried to avoid challenges in the schedule. For several reasons, the slate hasn't panned out, and it could keep Ohio State from playing for the crystal football.
1. The Cal series
Ironically, Ohio State's title hopes were impacted by a decision made in the Buckeyes' last championship season, 2002, when the school added a series with Cal. Scheduling games so far in advance is common, but it carries risks.
As Cal blossomed under Jeff Tedford from 2003-08, the series looked like a good one. But the Bears began declining in 2009. By the time the first game rolled around last fall, Cal was headed for a 3-9 campaign and a coaching change. The Bears, whom OSU defeated 52-34 on Sept. 14, are 1-9 this season.
"It just didn't work," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "You know, Cal had a run where they were rolling. Scheduling nonconference opponents is a little bit of art and a science. We have Oregon in the future, Oklahoma in the future, Texas in the future, TCU in the future. You hope that they stay great."
It would have been tough for Ohio State to back out of this year's return game at Cal, and even tougher to replace the Bears with a marquee foe.
"The only thing you could do is cancel it and take the financial hit that you pay in the penalty," Smith said. "But then you still have to find someone to fit that date. It's a supply-and-demand inventory issue, so sometimes the dates don't line up."
2. Vanderbilt mails it in
Many forget that Ohio State was set to face two major-conference teams this season, but Vanderbilt opted to cancel its game at The Shoe, informing Ohio State by snail mail last October.
Ohio State replaced Vanderbilt with San Diego State, which went 9-4 in 2012 and shared the Mountain West championship. But the Aztecs struggled to a 0-3 start this fall before righting the ship.
According to Smith, the level of opponent and the Big Ten's scheduling moratorium during its short-lived scheduling pact with the Pac-12 also limited the options.
"There was really no one we could get, a major-major, to do a one-game [series]," Smith said. "We could have got some neutral-site games, but I can't take one of our games out of Columbus unless it's a huge [financial] number, and nobody can do that but Dallas."
AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, hosts marquee season openers between major-conference teams, but was booked this year (LSU-TCU). Ohio State home games bring in $6.5 million for the athletic department, not to mention major gains for the Columbus community.
"The hotels, the restaurants, the taxi drivers, all those people count on those seven games a year," Smith said. "That's important to me. I have a social conscience. The neutral-site game has to be a big one."
3. The B1G drag
Florida State's non-league schedule consists of Nevada, Bethune-Cookman, Idaho and an unusually weak Florida team. Baylor's is even worse: Wofford, Buffalo (also a Buckeyes opponent) and Louisiana-Monroe.
So why is Ohio State's schedule criticized more? Because the Buckeyes receive little help from their conference.
The strength of the ACC and Big 12 -- real or perceived -- helps Florida State and Baylor. Some view the Pac-12 as the nation's strongest league, which could help one-loss Stanford leapfrog Ohio State. The Big Ten, meanwhile, remains a national piñata.
Michigan's struggles hurt. Northwestern, ranked 16th when Ohio State visited Evanston, is now in a five-game tailspin.
Even Ohio State's crossover schedule has been a detriment. The Buckeyes don't play 8-1 Michigan State, 8-2 Minnesota or 7-2 Nebraska during the regular season and will face only one in the Big Ten championship.
"We were hopeful," Smith said, "that the Big Ten would be a little stronger."
But he adds that perception is the biggest issue.
"Michigan State is one heck of a football team, Wisconsin is one heck of a football team," Smith said. "Just to dismiss our league says people haven't really looked at it. They haven't studied it. To dismiss our team means you haven't studied it."
Meyer didn't spent much time scrutinizing the schedule before the season, but he's aware of the Big Ten's perception problem.
"There's one way to eliminate all that talk: go win a bunch of bowl games and keep improving," Meyer said. "There's a lot of really good teams in our conference."
Still, it's hard to see the Big Ten helping the Buckeyes' chances. Ohio State needs help to get to Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6. The Buckeyes could be in Pasadena five days earlier for the 100th Rose Bowl game, which Smith calls "a heck of an accomplishment for our kids."
Ohio State likely won't have this problem in the future with marquee opponents lined up, and a nine-game league schedule beginning in 2016.
"You deal with what’s in front of you, because you can't control public opinion," Smith said.
"Still, at the end of the day, anybody who's won 20-plus games in a row, that's pretty strong."
Northwestern is up next in the rundown ...
Nonconference opponents (with 2012 records)
Aug. 31: at Cal (3-9)
Sept. 7: Syracuse (8-5)
Sept. 14: Western Michigan (4-8)
Sept. 21: Maine (5-6)
Legends Division games
Oct. 19: Minnesota
Oct. 26: at Iowa
Nov. 2: at Nebraska
Nov. 16: Michigan
Nov. 23: Michigan State
Oct. 5: Ohio State
Oct. 12: at Wisconsin
Nov. 30: at Illinois
Gut-check game: Ohio State will be the measuring stick for a veteran Northwestern team trying to legitimize itself as a Big Ten title contender following a 10-win season in 2012. The Wildcats will be favored in all of their non-league games, so there's a good chance both teams enter Ryan Field at 4-0, setting up the most anticipated home game of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Ohio State hasn't just dominated the series (59-14-1); the Buckeyes have pulverized Northwestern in many of the games. The teams meet for the first time since 2008.
Trap game: After opening league play with Leaders Division heavyweights Ohio State and Wisconsin, Northwestern returns home to face Minnesota. The Wildcats have won three straight and five of the past six against the Gophers, but Jerry Kill's squad should be improved in Year 3, especially along both lines. Northwestern needs to secure a win at home before heading back out on the road for consecutive games.
Snoozer: Northwestern has a decent non-league schedule, but Maine doesn't do much to move the needle. The Bears have had losing records in three of the past four seasons. Their only win against an FBS opponent came against Mississippi State in 2004.
Noncon challenge: It's between Syracuse and Cal, and while the Orange were the better team in 2012, Cal could be the trickier game. Northwestern must visit Berkeley and play a late-night contest (9:30 p.m. CT kickoff) against a Bears squad that is somewhat of a mystery under first-year coach Sonny Dykes. Although Cal is extremely young, Jeff Tedford left some talent behind and Dykes' up-tempo offense could test Northwestern.
Telltale stretch: There are really two of them, although the second carries more weight in Northwestern's quest to reach Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. The Wildcats open Big Ten play against Ohio State (Oct. 5) and Wisconsin (Oct. 12) -- at least one has held a share of the Big Ten title every year since 2004. They then open November with division challenges against Nebraska (Nov. 2), Michigan (Nov. 16) and Michigan State (Nov. 23). After blowing late leads in close losses to Michigan and Nebraska last season, Northwestern will seek a different result in games that could decide the division champion.
Analysis: Northwestern's Big Ten schedule undoubtedly gets tougher in 2013, as Ohio State returns for the first time since 2008 and Wisconsin is back for the first time since 2010. The Wildcats don't play Penn State, but they miss both Indiana and Purdue, two of the league's weaker teams last season. There are few gimmes in league play, which makes games like Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois virtual must-wins if Northwestern intends to reach the next level it referenced throughout the offseason.
The non-league schedule is similar to last year's, perhaps a little weaker as both Cal and Syracuse -- along with Western Michigan -- went through head coaching changes. If Northwestern can at least split its first two Big Ten contests, it should enter November with a chance to make noise in the division. Fitzgerald's teams typically perform much better in November (15-9) than October (12-17), so a good start to league play is critical.
More schedule analysis
Legends: Iowa | Michigan | Minnesota | Nebraska
Leaders: Purdue | Penn State | Illinois | Ohio State
This week's slate certainly looks a lot more manageable for the Big Ten, and several teams -- looking at you, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State -- definitely need a W.
It's prediction time ...
WESTERN MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: The Gophers improve to 3-0 -- barely. Jordan Wettstein nails his second game winner of the young season after MarQueis Gray leads the team down the field in the final two minutes. Minnesota overcomes three turnovers to escape at home. ... Minnesota 27, Western Michigan 24
Adam Rittenberg: Broncos quarterback Alex Carder provides the first real test for Minnesota, which gives up two early touchdowns before settling down. It'll be a close one, but Gray and the run game do enough as Minnesota goes to 3-0. ... Minnesota 30, Western Michigan 24
ARKANSAS STATE at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: It'll take more than a week for Nebraska to fix its defensive woes against fast-paced, spread-ish offenses. Gus Malzahn's team makes some plays, but Arkansas State can't stop anyone, and both Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah rush for more than 100 yards. ... Nebraska 41, Arkansas State 21
Brian Bennett: I think the Huskers come out angry after the loss to UCLA and take it out on Malzahn's team. The defense gives up some big plays but keeps Arkansas State under 400 total yards. Martinez has four touchdowns, including two scoring tosses to Kenny Bell. ... Nebraska 45, Arkansas State 24
CALIFORNIA at No. 12 OHIO STATE
Brian Bennett: No rest this week for Braxton Miller, but he'll enjoy running and passing against Cal's shaky defense. The Golden Bears hang around for a while, but two more picks by an opportunistic Buckeyes defense kills any upset thoughts ... Ohio State 35, Cal 21
Adam Rittenberg: I grew up in Berkeley going to Bears games, and it's sad to say the Cal program is in free fall under coach Jeff Tedford. Ohio State has some initial trouble figuring out the Cal defense, but Miller gets going eventually and accounts for three touchdowns. Cornerback Bradley Roby records his first interception of the season as Ohio State pulls away in the third quarter. ... Ohio State 31, Cal 17
CHARLESTON SOUTHERN at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: We ranked this as the worst Big Ten nonconference game, and it won't disappoint (not sure if that's possible). Josh Ferguson eclipses 200 rushing yards, and at least two Illinois quarterbacks fire touchdown passes as the Illini roll. ... Illinois 45, Charleston Southern 3
Brian Bennett: I'd be more interested in watching the Illini stage an intrasquad scrimmage than this yawner. Doesn't matter if Nathan Scheelhaase or a line cook from Nathan's Famous starts at quarterback. Illinois will win in a rout, and we won't learn a thing. ... Illinois 49, Charleston Southern 0
EASTERN MICHIGAN at PURDUE
Adam Rittenberg: Eastern Michigan looks like the perfect opponent for Purdue's offense to recharge against. Akeem Shavers rushes for 150 yards and three scores against the nation's No. 118 rush defense, and Caleb TerBush fires two touchdown passes. ... Purdue 38, Eastern Michigan 14
Brian Bennett: The Boilers, still smarting from the Notre Dame loss and the Robert Marve injury news, get off to a slow start. But their defense and running game take over and wear down Eastern Michigan. Shavers runs for 100 yards and two scores. ... Purdue 42, Eastern Michigan 17
BOSTON COLLEGE at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: I love the way the Northwestern defense stepped up against Vandy, and Venric Mark is becoming a star. But ... history tells us the Cats usually slip up after good things happen. So I'm picking the mild upset here, with Chase Rettig throwing the winning score late in the fourth quarter. ... BC 31, Northwestern 28
Adam Rittenberg: Toughest game of the week to predict. (I haven't been right on Northwestern yet.) I like Pat Fitzgerald's approach to ward off a letdown, and while Boston College jumps ahead early and attacks Northwestern's secondary more, I don't think the Eagles can slow down Mark and the run game for four quarters. Expect another Trevor Siemian-led rally as Northwestern improves to 3-0. ... Northwestern 28, Boston College 27
MASSACHUSETTS at No. 17 MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: This isn't the same UMass team that nearly stunned Michigan in the Big House in 2010. The Minutemen are awful. Fitz Toussaint gets back in the groove with three rushing touchdowns, and Denard Robinson puts up more sick stats in a total laugher. ... Michigan 65, UMass 0
Brian Bennett: If Brady Hoke wanted Robinson to get 700 yards in this game, he could. Instead, Robinson puts up 100 yards rushing and three total touchdowns before sitting in the third quarter, while Toussaint finally gets going against what is likely the nation's worst FBS team. ... Michigan 55, UMass 3
NAVY at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: OK, I incorrectly picked the Nittany Lions to win the first two weeks (although they won everywhere but the scoreboard at Virginia). I'm guaranteeing that Penn State gets off the schneid against the Midshipmen. The Lions' problems on defense have revolved around stopping the pass, which won't be an issue against the option. Matt McGloin helps PSU find the end zone three times. ... Penn State 24, Navy 14
Adam Rittenberg: Penn State has played well enough to win, and the Lions finally get over the hump this week. I like the matchup for Penn State's defense, which doesn't have to worry too much about the pass. McGloin fires two touchdown passes, and Sam Ficken connects on a 50-yarder as Penn State finally celebrates. ... Penn State 17, Navy 13
NORTHERN IOWA at IOWA
Adam Rittenberg: I've wanted to pick against Iowa twice now and hesitated, getting burned last week. This time, I'm going against the Hawkeyes, even though the opponent is Northern Iowa. The FCS Panthers have nothing to lose, while Iowa continues to play tight on offense. UNI nearly beat a good Iowa team in 2009. It beats a bad one this year. ... Northern Iowa 17, Iowa 16
Brian Bennett: The Hawkeyes fail to score a touchdown yet again, but get by on four Mike Meyer field goals. Iowa blocks a three-point try by the Panthers on the final play to survive. ... Iowa 12, Northern Iowa 9
BALL STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: The 2-0 start for Indiana is a nice story, but the schedule hasn't been very good. Ball State is a major step up, and with Cameron Coffman getting his first start at quarterback, this is a dangerous assignment for the young Hoosiers. They lead early but can't control the Cardinals' running game in the fourth quarter. ... Ball State 35, Indiana 28
Adam Rittenberg: I really think the Hoosiers are getting better, but I agree with you about the schedule. Ball State is a significant jump in competition, and while Coffman fires two touchdown passes, he also fires two interceptions in his first start. The Cardinals rally to make it three straight against the Hoosiers. ... Ball State 31, Indiana 30
No. 20 NOTRE DAME at No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE
Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another defensive struggle at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State's defense has been as advertised, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi told me this week that the unit is nowhere near its potential. Isaiah Lewis and the Spartans make it a rough night for Notre Dame's quarterbacks, and Le'Veon Bell rushes for two scores as MSU improves to 3-0. ... Michigan State 17, Notre Dame 10
Brian Bennett: This one will come down to defense, as Michigan State hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown all year and the Irish front seven will give Andrew Maxwell some problems. The Spartans' D is just better, however, and creates one score off a turnover. Bell does the rest with two touchdowns. ... Michigan State 21, Notre Dame 17
UTAH STATE at WISCONSIN
Brian Bennett: No Badgers assistant coaches will lose their jobs after the team gets back in the winning column. But it won't be easy against an Aggies team that just beat Utah. The Wisconsin offensive line looks a bit better, and Montee Ball runs for 125 yards and two scores. ... Wisconsin 23, Utah State 14
Adam Rittenberg: If Wisconsin's offensive linemen have any pride, they come out angry in this one. And a bunch of angry 300-pounders means bad things for the Aggies. The Badgers start quickly and get their swagger back, racking up 250 rush yards. ... Wisconsin 31, Utah State 17
Rittenberg: 18-6 (.750)
Bennett: 17-7 (.708)
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
This week's AP Poll threw a little more fuel on a burning debate in the state of Ohio.
Cincinnati leapfrogged Ohio State into the No. 8 spot, while the Buckeyes held steady at No. 9 despite their third consecutive blowout victory. It marked the first time since 1951 that Cincinnati has been ranked ahead of Ohio State in the poll.
Let me say that no head coach in the country has impressed me more than Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, an offensive genius who actually gets the most out of his teams (Jeff Tedford and Charlie Weis should take notice). And few teams have impressed me as much as Cincinnati, which stands at 5-0 despite losing 10 defensive starters from a Big East title-winning team.
Still, I'm wondering how a Bearcats team that beats up on winless Miami (Ohio) leapfrogs an Ohio State team that pounded 3-1 Indiana. The Hoosiers don't qualify as a great win, but they've been a lot more impressive than Miami, which didn't score a touchdown until Week 3. Let's just say the national bias against the Buckeyes is starting to become less and less subtle. What do they have to do, exactly, to move up the rankings?
But back to the point. The fact that we're even debating whether the Buckeyes are the state's top team is a good thing. It's nice to see a state so rich in football tradition have two programs to brag about. There's a ton of college football played within the state, but outside of Columbus, it has been mostly bad football.
Ohio State is still Ohio State, but Cincinnati has become a legitimate program. It's good for Ohio and good for football in the North/Midwest, which has taken a beating in recent years.
Who would win between the Bearcats and the Buckeyes? We won't know this year, but I like Kelly's take on the matter.
"From my standpoint, you settle that on the field, just as Ohio State has settled it on the field," he said Monday. "These are all just hypotheticals now, so who knows?"
Ohio State and Cincinnati don't meet again until 2012. The Buckeyes are 13-2 all-time against the Bearcats, who haven't beaten the Scarlet and Gray since 1897.
"By , hopefully we've continued to accelerate our program so Ohio State has something to gain by playing us," Kelly said. "In years past, it's been such that Ohio State has everything to lose, because they're supposed to beat Cincinnati. If we continue to win and play at a high level, I think that makes it an exciting matchup. Before, this wasn't much of a matchup."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- California senior wide receiver Nyan Boateng suffered a fractured foot in the first half of Saturday's 35-21 victory against Minnesota.
Boateng, a transfer from Florida who entered Saturday with three catches and one touchdown, had two receptions for 30 yards before the injury. He didn't play in the second half.
Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said he didn't know whether Boateng's injury will require surgery.
Junior Jeremy Ross filled in for Boateng and made two huge catches for 66 yards on Cal's go-ahead scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- After going two and a half games without a turnover, Cal finally gave one away.
And while no turnovers are easy to watch, Cal's first giveaway had to be especially frustrating for head coach Jeff Tedford. Cal held Minnesota to three-and-out on the first possession of the second half, but a short punt hit Cal's Charles Satchell and Minnesota's Nick Tow-Arnett recovered.
The Bears were one of six FBS teams that entered Saturday without a turnover on the season.
With a great chance to grab momentum, Minnesota mirrored Cal and give the ball back as Hayo Carpenter fumbled in Bears territory.
On the plus side for Minnesota, senior wideout Eric Decker recored his 200th career reception. Decker broke Ron Johnson's school record for receptions with his second touchdown catch in the first half.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- Cal just put on a clinic in its first drive, immediately putting Minnesota back on its heels.
The key for the Bears was staying out of long-yardage situations. Cal faced two third downs on the nine-play, 80-yard march, but both were extremely manageable (two and three yards). Jeff Tedford ran a ton of formations at Minnesota and exploited the middle of the Gophers defense several times, including on Jahvid Best's 33-yard touchdown run.
Minnesota needs to shore up the middle and force Cal into third-and-long. Otherwise, it'll be a very long day for the Gophers.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Big Ten's newest stadium, which definitely lives up to the hype.
Minnesota finally has a real home stadium, but whether the friendly surroundings pay off today remains to be seen. The Gophers face an enormous test in eighth-ranked California, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best at running back.
For the first time in my journalism career, I'm happy to provide a weather forecast for a Minnesota home game (instead of the standard room temperature joke at the Metrodome). It looks like a gorgeous day, with temperatures around 70 degrees at kickoff, working their way up to 77 during the fourth quarter.
A couple of personnel notes for Minnesota: cornerback Marcus Sherels (ankle) isn't expected to play, and Dom Alford will start at left tackle over Matt Stommes.
THREE KEYS FOR CALIFORNIA
1. Stay awake. Head coach Jeff Tedford hates hearing about how the early kickoff last year against Maryland doomed his team, which looked utterly lifeless in College Park. A strong start on offense, especially from quarterback Kevin Riley, would prove the Bears are ready this time and could take the crowd out of the game.
2. Find Eric Decker on every play. The Gophers senior wide receiver has been the team's only consistent offensive weapon so far. Talented Bears cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson likely will be assigned to Decker (the game's best matchup, in my opinion), but he could use some safety help against the Biletnikoff Award candidate.
3. Pressure quarterback Adam Weber. Cal ranks sixth nationally in sacks (4.5 spg), and the Gophers' offensive line is still adjusting to a brand-new system. Weber will make mistakes under pressure from time to time, so Cal should take an aggressive approach with defensive end Ernest Owusu and others.
THREE KEYS FOR MINNESOTA
1. Make Riley win the game. Minnesota's linebackers have been fabulous so far, but Best and Shane Vereen can take over a game with their big-play ability. The Gophers need to load up the box and force Riley to make tough throws. Riley has been extremely efficient this season, but Minnesota can't let Cal's running backs take over.
2. Diversify the offense. Decker can't beat a team like Cal by himself, and he'll need help from his fellow wideouts, tight end Nick Tow-Arnett and running backs Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. This needs to be the game where wideout Hayo Carpenter becomes a difference maker for the Gophers.
3. Make plays on special teams. The Gophers rank among the top 20 nationally in both kickoff and punt returns, and sophomore Troy Stoudermire can be a game-changer Saturday. Stoudermire should give Minnesota's offense good field position, and the Gophers need continued excellence from punter Dan Orseske and kicker Eric Ellestad.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller and Adam Rittenberg
Holy Rose Bowl! It's another Big Ten-Pac-10 weekend, with No. 8 California visiting Minnesota and Arizona headed to Iowa. All four teams are 2-0. Seems like a good time for another blogger debate.
Ted Miller: You again! Adam, we need to stop meeting like this. Or at least the Big Ten should stop meeting like Ohio State did with USC. Perhaps there will be some redemption on Saturday when California visits Minnesota and Arizona takes a gander at Iowa.
|Icon SMI/US Presswire|
|Golden mascots square off in the Twin Cities on Saturday.|
Let's start with your game Saturday in fancy pants TCF Bank Stadium. (Nice job, Minnesota.)
I look over Minnesota's particulars and I can't get a good vibe about what Cal should expect, particularly after the Gophers struggled to beat Syracuse and Air Force. Who are these guys ... and whose mascot is more golden?
Adam Rittenberg: Ted! Buddy! Good to be with you again. OK, full disclosure here. I grew up in Berkeley, attended pretty much every Cal home game between 1994 to 1999. Witnessed the one Mariucci season in '96 (still have nightmares about the Pat Barnes fumble at Washington State) and the insufferable Tom Holmoe era. But I was never a huge Oski the Bear fan. Too subdued of a mascot. Looked like a glum professor who hadn't had his sweater ironed in 50 years. And he doesn't wear pants, which is perfect for Berkeley (I grew up there, so I can say that!) So Goldy Gopher gets my vote. He's goldier.
As for Minnesota, they did struggle against the Cuse, but the Air Force win is pretty solid in my book. The defense has been the big plus so far, especially the three linebackers (Nate Triplett, Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence). Triplett has gone from special teams all-star to major playmaker. The offense has struggled quite a bit, as Minnesota incorporates a new pro-style system under Jedd Fisch. It's a pretty dramatic departure from what they did the last two seasons, and it has taken a bit of time to click. Quarterback Adam Weber has loads of experience and can be effective when he limits interceptions, and Eric Decker is a freaking stud. Might be the best wide receiver in America that no one talks about. The problem is Minnesota hasn't found many weapons other than Decker. The Gophers need to spark their rushing attack behind Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge and hope a No. 2 wide receiver emerges, possibly speedster Troy Stoudermire.
I saw Cal is flying in Thursday for the game. Will the Bears be ready to play this time around for a 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff, and can anyone slow down Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen? How has Kevin Riley looked so far?
|Paul Jasienski-US PRESSWIRE|
|Cal QB Kevin Riley ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency.|
As for Best and Vereen, they are a great combination for sure. Best is going to make a play or two, mostly because he always does. The question is whether he can be such a bothersome threat that he forces Minnesota to load up the box. If that happens, a much-improved Kevin Riley and a receiving corps that has grown up could make big plays down field. Riley ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency and has yet to throw a pick, so he's started off as a completely different quarterback from the guy who was so inconsistent last last season.
The big issue for Cal is playing on the road: They've lost four in a row on the road. Moreover, they've not been challenged by a team so far that can approach them physically. Minnesota will be a far tougher test, and we just don't know whether Riley and the Bears can maintain their cool efficiency away from Berkley.
As for the other game: Iowa seems to have righted itself with the big win over Iowa State. But Arizona has a fast defense. Can quarterback Ricky Stanzi and running back Brandon Wegher lead an effective attack against the Wildcats?
AR: As I like to say, Stanzi is the Manzi. Actually, Stanzi has been inconsistent throughout his time as the starter, mixing big plays with too many picks. But he has more targets this year with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Tony Moeki, Trey Stross and Marvin McNutt. The running game has been a bit messy this year because of departures (Shonn Greene) and injuries (Jewel Hampton, Jeff Brinson). Brandon Wegher likely would have redshirted but stepped up big last week. He and another freshman, Adam Robinson, will get most of the carries Saturday. It's rare to see Kirk Ferentz play so many young players, but these guys seem up to the task. The offensive line could be without star left tackle Bryan Bulaga (illness) again, so those two speedy Arizona pass-rushers will have their ears pinned back for sure.
Let's talk about the Wildcats offense. How good is Nic Grigsby and does Arizona have a passing game to complement the nation's second leading rusher?
TM: Grigsby is off to a fast start, but the Iowa defense will offer a far tougher test than Central Michigan and Northern Arizona. Also, Grigsby had some fumbling problems a year ago -- he got benched a couple of times and capable back Keola Antolin took over -- but that has yet to be an issue in 2009. My guess is the Hawkeyes load the box, gang up on Grigsby and will dare Arizona's new quarterback, sophomore Matt Scott, to pass, which is never easy on the road.
And therein lies a huge issue for this game. Arizona's best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, is out with a back injury. Gronkowski is a beast. More than a few folks in the Pac-10 believe he's every bit the player that Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham is. Think having a 6-foot-6, 265-pound safety valve would help a young QB? It also doesn't help that No. 1 receiver Delashaun Dean has been slowed by a hamstring injury, though he will play.
So, the Wildcats passing game, with Scott making his first road start, is a huge question.
Speaking of road games, seems like all the Big Ten owns home field advantage in all these matchups with the Pac-10 ... no fair. But, seriously, which place will be more difficult for a visitor from the West Coast? I love Minnesota's new digs but I've heard a lot about pink bathrooms and the nutty horde at Kinnick Stadium.
AR: Well, you guys do have this game called the Rose Bowl. If memory serves, it's in Pac-10 country. Like in USC's backyard. That reminds me, Ted, can you find a way to make sure the Trojans don't go to Pasadena this year? The Big Ten would like a break from the Trojans after all these years of punishment. I stayed on the same floor as Pete Carroll last week in Columbus but forgot to ask him myself. Let me know what they say over at Heritage Hall. Thanks, dude.
|AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall|
|Ricky Stanzi has passed for 439 yards and five touchdowns so far this season.|
TCF Bank Stadium is pretty freaking awesome, and I'm excited to see the finished product in person. But I'd have to go with Kinnick Stadium as a tougher place right now. Iowa always sells it out and the fans are right on top of the field. It's a tremendous atmosphere, one of my favorites in the league. The early start time at Minnesota could be tougher for a Pac-10 team, but Kinnick definitely is less hospitable.
OK, prediction time. Who you got in Minnesota-Cal? Arizona-Iowa?
TM: Rose Bowl in Detroit, which is beautiful in midwinter!
I don't think anyone wants to see USC in the Rose Bowl again -- even USC's fans and players. The Trojans, however, wouldn't mind being in Pasadena again this January, if you catch my drift (nudge, nudge).
As for the predictions: For folks who read the Pac-10 blog, they know I've been advocating Cal as the team that might challenge USC's seven-year run atop the conference. They also know that for weeks I've been ranting about how underrated Arizona is.
So I've got pick a road warrior weekend for the Pac-10.
Let's say: Cal 35-21
And: Arizona 24-21.
Now, for the pick you should take to Vegas ...
AR: Call me a homer, but I've got to go with Cal. Minnesota has really struggled to make plays on offense, and while the Gophers' defense looks much improved, it'll be hard to contain Best and Vereen for 60 minutes and keep Cal off the scoreboard. Minnesota will have its crowd going and should keep things relatively, close, but I have Cal winning by 11, 34-23.
We'll probably see a defensive struggle at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa's defense is always solid under Norm Parker, and the front seven should prevent Grigsby from going nuts. I think Iowa got its mojo back last week and pulls this one out, 21-17 Hawkeyes.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Nick from the Bay Area writes: when ivan maisel says, "most people would think PSU would beat cal" im like, WHAT??? cal has the best defense in the Pac-10 which you must admit, i mean really, they're completely stacked. And cal has the best player in the entire nation at running back, cal has no holes and even Ted Miller predicts they'll win the Pac-10. Not to mention it's clear that Cal will be ranked way higher than PSU in the preseason polls. It's no contest for me.And a lot of people on your blog think Iowa can beat Oregon. what is in the water up there? Seriously, not even close. Im amazed how the big 10 can suffer loss after loss to the pac 10 and everyone else for that matter and still talk trash. Unbelievable.
Adam Rittenberg: When it comes to Pac-10 vs. Big Ten, geography really makes a difference. My readers bring it up all the time with the Rose Bowl, but there really is something to it. Cal wouldn't beat Penn State in Happy Valley (where the Lions humiliated Oregon State last year), and I doubt Penn State would knock off the Bears in Strawberry Canyon. Cal has been excellent at home under Jeff Tedford, but when was the last time the Bears won a quality nonleague road game? To say Cal has no holes is just silly talk. If that was the case, the Bears would have made a Rose Bowl by now. Cal is a very solid team that needs to prove it can get to the top, finally. And I'm no Cal hater. I grew up on Cal football. I lived in Berkeley and have followed Cal for nearly 20 years. As for Iowa-Oregon, once again, it comes down to geography. Iowa probably wins in Iowa City, and Oregon wins in Eugene. Purdue totally choked last year against Oregon and should have knocked off the Ducks at Ross-Ade Stadium. The Big Ten has suffered "loss after loss" to the Pac-10 (read: USC) in the Rose Bowl, but if those games were played in the Midwest, probably a different story. So a lot depends on the site.
Evan from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Adam, i have been pondering about this from the moment i heard. Erick Howard, AKA Mr. Ohio, and a running back has ohio state at number 1. what i dont get is i saw this kids highlight tape and it was amazing at the least. i dont get why osu doesnt pick him up? is it because of the division his school is in or what?
Adam Rittenberg: There are a lot of factors that go into why or why not a team recruits a certain player. Ohio State brought in two running backs in its last recruiting class (Jaamal Berry and Carlos Hyde), and both Dan Herron and Brandon Saine should be around for the 2010 season. So running back isn't exactly a pressing need. That said, a lot of BCS schools are interested in Howard, and it wouldn't surprise me if Ohio State made a move. Just because a guy wins Mr. Ohio doesn't mean Ohio State will make a push. Tyrell Sutton won the award and went to Northwestern after getting little to no interest from the Buckeyes. Timing always plays a big role in these situations.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer will give California a run for their money.|
While many teams employ spread offenses, or at least have adopted zone blocking schemes -- you know, finesse schemes -- Michigan State is a throwback. California will play host to a true power-running team Saturday, and it will be a test to see of the Bears new 3-4 look on defense avoids getting put through the Ringer.
That's Spartans tailback Javon Ringer.
(Feel free to borrow that line and impress folks at a cocktail party this weekend).
While Ringer, a 5-foot-9, 200-pound spark plug with outstanding speed, finds himself obscured by the massive Big Ten shadow of Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells, he's an All-American-type talent after rushing for 1,447 yards in 2007, with an impressive 5.9 yards per carry average.
"He's a guy who has great balance, vision and he's tough," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "He'll run between the tackles, and you better make sure you rack him up or he can bounce out of there and make some great plays. He's an elusive guy. It's going to take gang tackling, it's hard to bring him down with just one guy."
He also runs behind a line that averaged 308 pounds and features with three returning starters. The Spartans blocking style is engage and knock over.
"We're going to get a true test," Tedford said. "When you line up, they're not a spread team. You're playing a downhill, physical football team, we better be ready for it."
That means Cal's corps of linebackers will need to live up to its preseason hype.
If the Bears manage to stop -- or slow down -- Ringer, it will be interesting to see how Spartans senior QB Brian Hoyer responds. He was solid in 2007, but tossed four interceptions in a 24-21 loss to Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl.
- Tedford was asked about the Bears 46-22 win at then-No. 15 Michigan State in 2002, his first season in Berkeley. "We've had some big wins here over the years but I think that was one of the biggest," he said. "We jumped out to a lead and they responded and came back with a couple touchdowns. And at that point right there, I thought it was very important how are we going to respond to this? Are we going to let them go or are we going to respond to their challenge and we did. I felt like when we left the field that day, there was a different confidence, a difference belief that our guys had. I felt that that was a big, big game in our time here." It's worth noting that Cal, 1-10 the season before, earned a No. 23 ranking after that win -- and then promptly lost consecutive games to Air Force and Washington State.
- Cal fans: You have been called out. Here's a question from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio's press conference: "Folks from Cal have told us that they're expecting probably 15,000-16,000 Spartan fans. It's not traditionally a loud stadium. How do you use that in recruiting?" "Not a traditionally loud stadium." Ouch.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Fast starts are nothing new for Michigan State, which has a 17-5 record in games before Oct. 1 since 2003 and a 29-9 mark since 1999. But many of those Spartans teams fell apart in October, an annual tumble that can partially be attributed to scheduling.
Here's a look at Michigan State's season-opening opponents since 2001:
- 2001: Central Michigan
- 2002: Eastern Michigan
- 2003: Western Michigan
- 2004: Rutgers (Scarlet Knights went 4-7 that season)
- 2005: Kent State
- 2006: Idaho
- 2007: UAB
Not exactly murderer's row, and all but the Rutgers game took place at Spartan Stadium. Though the Spartans always play Notre Dame early, the Irish haven't always provided an overwhelming test.
Michigan State should be able to get a much better read on its potential from this year's opener, a road trip to California on Aug. 30. Cal has made top 10 appearances in each of the last four seasons, and coach Jeff Tedford consistently produces formidable offenses and dynamic skill players.
"The Cal game comes right up on us," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "Important game, away from home, high expectations at Cal as well, so we put our hands right in the fire, right off the bat. I don't think that's a bad thing for this football team. ... It's a good thing to find out exactly who we are in the first game, and then we can play accordingly from there."
Michigan State hasn't faced a Pac-10 opponent since 2002, when Cal came to Spartan Stadium. If the Spartans want to reach their annual goal of a Pac-10 matchup Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif., this is a good place to start.
"This year's different," linebacker Adam Decker said. "There's no tune-up game, there's no warm-ups. We don't build up through our nonconference schedule. We just hit the ground. It'll be exciting."
Cal's speed already has caught the attention of Decker and several other MSU defenders. The Bears lost top wideouts DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan, as well as top rusher Justin Forsett, but Michigan State will have to prepare for sophomore running back Jahvid Best and several other threats.
Speed is often a sore subject around the Big Ten, especially after the last two national title games, but Michigan State has the chance to boost the league's image.
"It's a great opportunity," Spartans sophomore linebacker Greg Jones said. "A lot of people say the Big Ten is just power, strength and endurance. But we can play fast, too. We're college athletes just like they are. We can keep up."
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
2:00 PM ET Washington State Colorado State 3:30 PM ET 20 Fresno State 25 USC 5:30 PM ET Buffalo San Diego State 9:00 PM ET Tulane Louisiana-Lafayette
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
2:30 PM ET Marshall Maryland 6:00 PM ET Syracuse Minnesota 9:30 PM ET Brigham Young Washington
12:00 PM ET Rutgers Notre Dame 3:20 PM ET Cincinnati North Carolina 6:45 PM ET Miami (FL) 18 Louisville 10:15 PM ET Michigan Kansas State
11:45 AM ET Middle Tennessee Navy 3:15 PM ET Ole Miss Georgia Tech 6:45 PM ET 10 Oregon Texas 10:15 PM ET 14 Arizona State Texas Tech
12:30 PM ET Arizona Boston College 2:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 17 UCLA 4:00 PM ET Rice Mississippi State 8:00 PM ET 24 Duke 21 Texas A&M
12:00 PM ET Nebraska 22 Georgia 12:00 PM ET UNLV North Texas 1:00 PM ET Iowa 16 LSU 1:00 PM ET 19 Wisconsin 9 South Carolina 5:00 PM ET 5 Stanford 4 Michigan State 8:30 PM ET 15 UCF 6 Baylor
7:30 PM ET 13 Oklahoma State 8 Missouri 8:30 PM ET 12 Clemson 7 Ohio State