NCF Nation: Illinois Fighting Illini

Another rough Saturday for the Big Ten, with just three wins in nine nonconference games. Here's what we learned:
    [+] EnlargeCole Netten
    Charlie Neibergall/Associated PressGiven a mulligan by Kirk Ferentz, Cole Netten nailed a last-second field goal to give Iowa State a win over Iowa.
  • Kirk Ferentz won’t soon live down that decision to call a timeout: Didn’t coaches learn long ago that if they want to ice the kicker with a timeout, call it before the snap so as to avoid the painful situation that bit Iowa in its 20-17 home loss to Iowa State? Ferentz signaled timeout just in time to negate Cole Netten's miss wide left from 42 yards with seconds to play. Thanks for the practice kick, Coach. Netten nailed it the second time. “We had one timeout left,” Ferentz said, “and that’s the reason I called it.” Not a good enough reason.
  • It doesn’t pay to be unbeaten in the Big Ten: Eight league teams began Saturday with perfect records. By early Sunday, it was two: Nebraska, which easily handled Fresno State 55-19, and Penn State, with a 13-10 win over Rutgers in a game that guaranteed the league an unbeaten team for one more week. Meanwhile, down went Maryland and Indiana, on last-second scores by West Virginia (40-37) and Bowling Green (45-42) in early games. Then down went the Hawkeyes, along with Minnesota and Illinois, which were blown out on the road by TCU (30-7) and Washington (44-19) after both West Division squads opened with consecutive home wins over non-Power 5 programs.
  • Ohio State has plenty of gas left in the tank: Left for dead by many after its 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech, Urban Meyer’s club produced an impressive 66-0 win over Kent State. Forget that the Hokies turned around and lost to East Carolina. And forget the opponent. (Kent State is not good.) The Buckeyes were playing against themselves. They answered the doubters, jumping to a 45-0 halftime lead behind five TD passes from J.T. Barrett in the opening 30 minutes. OSU’s young quarterback and offensive line needed this, and the schedule stays manageable for a while.
  • Penn State continues to live a charmed life: The Nittany Lions, after winning in Week 1 on a game-ending field goal and beating the Icelandic volcano eruption to get back home, led for all of 73 seconds on Saturday in spoiling Rutgers’ Big Ten debut. In its first game since getting its bowl eligibility restored, Penn State created some of its own good fortune with five interceptions of Gary Nova, and Christian Hackenberg was his usual late-game self in leading a six-play, 80-yard drive for the winning points. The Nittany Lions likely will enter October at 5-0 and need to be taken seriously as an East Division contender.
  • Nebraska starts to emerge in West: Shaky starts by Wisconsin and Iowa leave the Cornhuskers as the best-looking team in the division. But with visions still fresh of their escape against McNeese State, questions linger. Nebraska pounded Fresno State on the road Saturday night, ending the Bulldogs’ 13-game home winning streak. A nice showing, powered by a handful of big plays, but the offensive consistency was lacking, especially in the first half. Randy Gregory’s return at defensive end made a difference. The competition level rises with a visit from Miami in Week 4 and a trip to Michigan State looming. Time to learn a lot more about these Huskers.
Another rough Saturday for the Big Ten, with just three wins in nine nonconference games. Here's what we learned:
    [+] EnlargeCole Netten
    Charlie Neibergall/Associated PressGiven a mulligan by Kirk Ferentz, Cole Netten nailed a last-second field goal to give Iowa State a win over Iowa.
  • Kirk Ferentz won’t soon live down that decision to call a timeout: Didn’t coaches learn long ago that if they want to ice the kicker with a timeout, call it before the snap so as to avoid the painful situation that bit Iowa in its 20-17 home loss to Iowa State? Ferentz signaled timeout just in time to negate Cole Netten's miss wide left from 42 yards with seconds to play. Thanks for the practice kick, Coach. Netten nailed it the second time. “We had one timeout left,” Ferentz said, “and that’s the reason I called it.” Not a good enough reason.
  • It doesn’t pay to be unbeaten in the Big Ten: Eight league teams began Saturday with perfect records. By early Sunday, it was two: Nebraska, which easily handled Fresno State 55-19, and Penn State, with a 13-10 win over Rutgers in a game that guaranteed the league an unbeaten team for one more week. Meanwhile, down went Maryland and Indiana, on last-second scores by West Virginia (40-37) and Bowling Green (45-42) in early games. Then down went the Hawkeyes, along with Minnesota and Illinois, which were blown out on the road by TCU (30-7) and Washington (44-19) after both West Division squads opened with consecutive home wins over non-Power 5 programs.
  • Ohio State has plenty of gas left in the tank: Left for dead by many after its 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech, Urban Meyer’s club produced an impressive 66-0 win over Kent State. Forget that the Hokies turned around and lost to East Carolina. And forget the opponent. (Kent State is not good.) The Buckeyes were playing against themselves. They answered the doubters, jumping to a 45-0 halftime lead behind five TD passes from J.T. Barrett in the opening 30 minutes. OSU’s young quarterback and offensive line needed this, and the schedule stays manageable for a while.
  • Penn State continues to live a charmed life: The Nittany Lions, after winning in Week 1 on a game-ending field goal and beating the Icelandic volcano eruption to get back home, led for all of 73 seconds on Saturday in spoiling Rutgers’ Big Ten debut. In its first game since getting its bowl eligibility restored, Penn State created some of its own good fortune with five interceptions of Gary Nova, and Christian Hackenberg was his usual late-game self in leading a six-play, 80-yard drive for the winning points. The Nittany Lions likely will enter October at 5-0 and need to be taken seriously as an East Division contender.
  • Nebraska starts to emerge in West: Shaky starts by Wisconsin and Iowa leave the Cornhuskers as the best-looking team in the division. But with visions still fresh of their escape against McNeese State, questions linger. Nebraska pounded Fresno State on the road Saturday night, ending the Bulldogs’ 13-game home winning streak. A nice showing, powered by a handful of big plays, but the offensive consistency was lacking, especially in the first half. Randy Gregory’s return at defensive end made a difference. The competition level rises with a visit from Miami in Week 4 and a trip to Michigan State looming. Time to learn a lot more about these Huskers.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
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Week 3 arrives with fresh reasons for optimism. There aren't any heavyweight tilts quite like the Week 2 night games, but there aren't many snoozers on this docket, either. And we get the start of Big Ten conference action. Huzzah!

Here's your rundown for the day (all times ET):

Noon games

[+] EnlargeClint Trickett
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsWVU QB Clint Trickett ranks No. 7 in the country in passing yards with 713.
West Virginia (1-1) at Maryland (2-0), Big Ten Network: This game is getting overlooked a bit nationally but could be a pretty good one between Eastern neighbors. West Virginia gave Alabama a solid run in the opener and should be better than it was in last year's 37-0 loss to the Terps.

Indiana (1-0) at Bowling Green (1-1), ESPNU: The Hoosiers come off their odd Week 2 bye to play their first FBS team of the year. This is the first of two straight Big Ten opponents for the Falcons, who take on Wisconsin next.

Kent State (0-2) at No. 22 Ohio State (1-1), ABC/ESPN2 mirror: The Buckeyes need to work out some kinks and let off some steam after last week's Virginia Tech loss, and this game provides that chance. Kent State has lost to Ohio (the other one, Brady Hoke) and South Alabama at home already this season.

Mid-afternoon games

Miami (Ohio) (0-2) at Michigan (1-1), 3:30 p.m., BTN: You think the Wolverines have struggled of late? The RedHawks have lost 18 straight games. If this one is even competitive, things are worse than we thought in Ann Arbor.

Iowa State (0-2) at Iowa (2-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPN: The Hawkeyes have won four of the past six in the Cy-Hawk series and face a scuffling Cyclones squad at home, although Iowa State did play Kansas State close last week. Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff (knee) is not expected to play. (Oh, and I made it all week without mentioning this trophy. Whoops, I guess I just did. So close!)

Minnesota (2-0) at TCU (1-0), 4 p.m., Fox Sports 1: Good friends Jerry Kill and Gary Patterson square off in what should be a defensive battle. Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner is expected to play despite injuring his knee last week against Middle Tennessee.

Illinois (2-0) at Washington (2-0), 4 p.m., Fox: A rematch of the 1964 Rose Bowl or, more recently, last year's Huskies win in Soldier Field. Washington has a new coach in Chris Petersen and has had close calls with Hawaii and Eastern Washington the first two weeks. But the Illinois defense will need to make big-time improvements to give the team a shot.

Night games

Purdue (1-1) at Notre Dame (2-0), 7:30 p.m., NBC: The last scheduled meeting between these old rivals until 2020. You'd need something more than 20/20 vision to foresee a Boilers victory here.

Penn State (2-0) at Rutgers (2-0), 8 p.m., BTN: The Big Ten opener. Rutgers' first league game as a Big Ten member. Penn State's first game since learning it can make a bowl this year. Yeah, it's a big one.

Nebraska (2-0) at Fresno State (0-2), 10:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Expect a wild atmosphere in Fresno that may lift the Bulldogs, who have gotten blown out by USC and Utah thus far. Nebraska should prevail, but the late kickoff and road environment could conspire to keep this one interesting.

Week 3 byes: Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin

Required reading
Northern Illinois beat Northwestern 23-15 last weekend, after which I wrote that the Huskies have the best football program in the state of Illinois.

The school's alumni group must feel that way, too, judging by this full-page ad in Friday's Chicago Tribune:


Yep, that's Northern Illinois basically taunting both the Wildcats, who like to market themselves as "Chicago's Big Ten Team" (check the reference to that in the ad), and Illinois -- while daring the Illini to play them.

Illinois is 4-0 all-time vs. the Huskies, with the most recent game occurring in 2010. There are no future scheduled meetings between the teams.

Playing an in-state team would have generated a lot more interest than the Illini's first two nonconference games this season, vs. Youngstown State and Western Kentucky. Yet there is very little if any upside to scheduling Northern Illinois -- which also beat Iowa last year and has won 48 games since the start of 2010 -- for any Big Ten team right now.

And the school in DeKalb knows that, which is why it can taunt its Big Ten friends in a newspaper ad.

Big Ten Week 3 predictions

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
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Reports of the Big Ten's death are greatly exaggerated. Look, they're still playing games in Week 3 and everything.



Why West Virginia wins: Maryland crushed West Virginia 37-0 last year in Baltimore, but Dana Holgorsen brings a much better team to College Park. Quarterback Clint Trickett looks like a different player so far, and the Mountaineers seem much more competent on defense. The Terrapins have been a bit sloppy so far (seven turnovers in two games) and it will cost them in a close one. West Virginia 31, Maryland 28. -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland wins: A lot of concerns remain on a West Virginia defense that was among the worst in the nation last season. So the Mountaineers can score -- but can they stop the Terps? Granted, Maryland didn't look great in the last outing, but there's simply too much firepower here for the offense to stay down. WR Stefon Diggs is an elite talent, and the defense is at least average. Maryland 31, West Virginia 24. -- Josh Moyer



Why Penn State will win: The Scarlet Knights turned heads by flying across the country and knocking off Washington State. But the Cougars followed that up by losing to Nevada. That leaves Rutgers as somewhat of a mystery, and while it will have a raucous home crowd and plenty of motivation for a rivalry game in its Big Ten debut, the Nittany Lions suddenly have even more to play for after their NCAA postseason sanctions were repealed this week. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg is throwing for 386.5 yards per game, which could be trouble for a Rutgers defense that has allowed more yards than any team in the conference through two weeks. Still, this should be an entertaining game. Penn State 35, Rutgers 31. -- Austin Ward

Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers' shaky pass defense certainly concerns me against Hackenberg. But Penn State hasn't been dominant, either, and the Scarlet Knights' defensive front seven could pose some problems for the Nittany Lions' offensive line and mostly invisible run game. I expect this one to come down to the wire in an emotional game for both sides. The home-field advantage and Rutgers' desire to prove itself on a B1G stage cause me to go with the mild upset. Rutgers 28, Penn State 27. -- Brian Bennett

Unanimous decisions

Indiana over Bowling Green, 31-21: A rested Hoosiers team comes out firing against a Falcons squad that was blown out by Western Kentucky and lost its starting QB.

Michigan over Miami (Ohio), 48-7: The Wolverines take out some frustration from last week's Notre Dame fiasco against the overmatched RedHawks.

Ohio State over Kent State, 38-3: The Buckeyes work out their own frustrations against another MAC pushover.

Washington over Illinois, 44-31: The Illini keep it interesting behind Wes Lunt's arm, but their defense isn't yet good enough to slow the Huskies.

Iowa over Iowa State, 21-17: It's a slugfest, and offensive lineman Brandon Scherff's injury limits the Hawkeyes' offense enough to keep this one close.

TCU over Minnesota, 17-13: Another low-scoring, defensive slog; the Gophers' lack of a passing attack (especially with gimpy QB Mitch Leidner) dooms them.

Nebraska over Fresno State, 34-24: The Huskers get a scare, but they finally pull away in the fourth quarter behind RB Ameer Abdullah.

Notre Dame over Purdue, 37-17: The Boilermakers just don't have the talent to hang with QB Everett Golson and the Irish.

Our records:
Austin Ward: 21-5
Brian Bennett: 20-6
Adam Rittenberg: 20-6
Mitch Sherman: 20-6
Josh Moyer: 19-7

Illini look to add their 'signature'

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
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Illinois is 2-0, though its close-shave victories over Youngstown State and Western Kentucky at home aren't going to impress too many people.

So I asked head coach Tim Beckman this week how important it would be for his team to get a so-called signature victory this week at Washington.

"Every win for us as we're building this program is signature," Beckman said.

That's true, considering Beckman is just 8-18 in Champaign with only one Big Ten win, coming last year over 1-11 Purdue. The Illini's biggest victory to date in the Beckman era is last year's unexpected blowout of Cincinnati.

So, yeah, even though Washington is unranked and has had trouble getting by both Hawaii and Eastern Washington the past two weeks, claiming a road win over a Pac-12 team would register as something of a milestone.

"We feel like we can set an identity in this conference as well as the nation, to show we're a good football team regardless of how we played in previous years," tight end Jon Davis told ESPN.com. "I feel like this is our time to show what we can do."

Beckman's motto this week to his team is "Fight for five." He pointed out to the players that they could be just the fifth Illini team in the past 25 years to start a season 3-0.

That fight will not be an easy one, as Beckman compared the Huskies' massive offensive line to Wisconsin, a team that has bulldozed through his team's wobbly run defense. But Washington ranked 120th in the FBS in pass defense after giving up 475 passing yards and seven touchdowns to Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. last week. Those numbers have to make Wes Lunt and an improving group of Illinois receivers excited.

Illinois played Washington last year at Soldier Field in Chicago, getting within a touchdown in the fourth quarter after falling behind by 21 points. The Huskies went on to win 34-24.

"We started out a little slow in that game," Davis said. "I think we didn't understand we were capable of winning it. Going into this year, though we have some younger guys, it's up to the older guys to instill that confidence that we can get it done."

And if they do accomplish it, Illinois will have its first signature win under Beckman.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 2

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
1:00
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We're only two weeks into the season, but we're taking a weekly look at how the major Big Ten individual awards races are shaping up.

All five of our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on the races, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place nod, etc. Also, we try hard to base these standings on 2014 season results only, not any preconceived notions or a player's previous track records. That's why you might see some names here you likely did not expect in the preseason.

Away we go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year


1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (five first-place votes): A unanimous pick right now, and understandably so given his game-winning catch and run vs. McNeese State. Abdullah is ranked No. 6 in the latest ESPN Heisman Watch.

2. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: The sophomore leads the Big Ten with 773 passing yards through two games, though his 4-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio could stand to improve.

3. Illinois QB Wes Lunt: The Oklahoma State transfer has been a big hit in Champaign, especially after he threw for 456 yards last week in a win against Western Kentucky.

4. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Coleman and the Hoosiers were off this week, so he'll look to build on his huge Week 1 performance (247 yards, two touchdowns) on Saturday at Bowling Green.

5. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He threw for 343 yards and two scores in the loss at Oregon, though he also had two picks. Cook is completing 68.3 percent of his passes through two games.

Also receiving votes: Rutgers RB Paul JamesPaul James

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Iowa DT Louis Trinca-Pasat (1): A surprise early leader. Trinca-Pasat has four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as Iowa's defensive line has carried the team in two close wins.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: Bosa already has two forced fumbles, including one against Virginia Tech last weekend. Will he be even more effective when Noah Spence returns on the other side of the Buckeyes' line?

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (2): Zettel is tied with Trinca-Pasat for the most tackles for loss in the league through two weeks, and he owns two quarterback sacks. The Nittany Lions' defense has done a great job of bending but not breaking.

4. Penn State LB Mike Hull (2): Hull has been the leader of the Penn State defense as expected, and he has the second-most tackles in the league, with 22.

5. Wisconsin S Michael Caputo: After registering 15 tackles in the opener against LSU, Caputo grabbed an interception last week vs. Western Illinois.

Also receiving votes: Iowa DE Drew Ott; Indiana DL Bobby Richardson; Illinois S Taylor Barton

The Big Ten's path to the playoff

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
11:00
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video
Week 2 confirmed what many had long suspected: the Big Ten's most recent expansion moves were a mistake. Yes, Maryland and Rutgers are really regretting joining a less relevant league.

I kid, I kid! (Hey, it's better to laugh than cry, right?). There's no getting around what a disaster last weekend was for the Big Ten, and plenty of pundits have already thrown dirt on the league's College Football Playoff chances -- some of whom seemed to enjoy playing undertaker a little too much, but that's another story. Colleague Mark Schlabach doesn't have a single Big Ten team still in playoff contention in his weekly eliminator, ignoring that eight conference teams are still, you know, undefeated.

But to bury the Big Ten after two weeks of games is to miss two key points: 1) nobody really knows how the selection committee will work in December and 2) college football seasons often take some wacky twists and turns. Who would have ever thought, for instance, that a two-loss team could win the BCS national title? LSU did just that in the 2007 season.

Now, we're not going to pretend that everything is rosy for the Big Ten. Far from it. But let's play optimist now and look at some of the ways in which a league team could still wind up in Pasadena (or New Orleans) on New Year's Day:
  • Iowa, Nebraska or a total surprise team runs the table: Let's not forget that several teams remain unbeaten. Iowa has yet to impress, and Nebraska nearly lost to McNeese State. So it's hard to see them going undefeated, and neither will pile up impressive nonconference wins (Miami's blowout loss on Labor Day hurt the Huskers). Still, the committee would likely find it very tough to keep out any undefeated major conference champion, especially one with name-brand power like Nebraska or Iowa. Or what if a newly-eligible Penn State or some bomber like Rutgers, Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois or Indiana finishes without a blemish? Stranger things have happened. Well, OK, not many.
  • Ducks soar, Spartans soldier on: The 19-point margin of Michigan State's loss to Oregon hurts, undoubtedly. The Spartans now really need Oregon to not just win but dominate the Pac-12. If the Ducks finish 13-0 and are seeded first or second, MSU backers could point to how their team led by nine points in the third quarter before getting overwhelmed late. That would also require Mark Dantonio's club running the table in impressive fashion. Remember the Spartans lost last September to a mediocre Notre Dame team but would still have made the playoff had there been one.
  • The Big 12 falters: The Big Ten is providing cover for a Big 12 that looks very top heavy (hello, Texas). If Oklahoma were to lose, the Big 12 champ almost assuredly wouldn't have a glittering résumé, as the committee must punish Baylor for its shameful schedule, and that league has no title game. A two-loss Big 12 champ? Even better.
  • Separation in the SEC and Pac-12: Let's assume the Big Ten champ compares favorably to the Big 12 winner. The next concern would be a second Power 5 team getting in ahead of both leagues, most likely from the Pac-12 or SEC. That's why the Big Ten should root for Oregon to win the Pac-12 and no second team to come close to the Ducks, and either total chaos or only one dominant team in the SEC.
  • Notre Dame losing once or twice: Big Ten fans already root for the Irish to lose every week, so this should come naturally.
  • A big jump by Ohio State: The Buckeyes have lost two of their last three games to ACC teams, so that certainly doesn't help. But Ohio State also probably has the biggest room for growth of any Big Ten team because of its young talent. Urban Meyer needs to get that talent to take off right away and for the Buckeyes to go on a tear. The selection committee is supposed to consider complete body of work, but all human beings' minds lean toward recency. A strong finish by the Buckeyes matters, especially if the committee is inclined to forgive an early-season loss while Meyer broke in a new QB.
  • A thrilling league title game: Pit a one-loss Michigan State or Ohio State versus undefeated Nebraska or Iowa or one-loss Wisconsin and have a high-level game. Big Ten detractors would still howl, but seasoned committee members might see otherwise. The worst thing that could happen is for one division winner to limp into Indianapolis with three or more losses, eliminating any credibility-gaining possibilities.

Is it an uphill climb for the Big Ten? No doubt. But Jim Delany has already scaled Mount Kilimanjaro. In comparison, this will be a leisurely Sunday hike.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
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Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
9:00
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It was not a great Week 2 in the Big Ten, to put it kindly. But there were still some standout performances, and we're here to recognize them with these helmet stickers:
  • Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: The Huskers senior rushed for only 54 yards (and a score) on 17 carries, but he won the game for Big Red with an incredible 58-yard, tackle-breaking touchdown reception with 20 seconds left in a 31-24 win over McNeese State. No player in America has a bigger heart than Abdullah, who saved Nebraska from some serious embarrassment.
  • Illinois QB Wes Lunt: In his second game with the Illini, Lunt completed 35 of 50 passes for 456 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception. Illinois needed him to power up the offense in a wild, 42-34 win over Western Kentucky. He had the second most passing yards by an Illini quarterback in Memorial Stadium history, behind Juice Williams' 462 in October 2008.
  • Minnesota RB David Cobb: The Gophers still don't have much of a pass game, but they can lean on Cobb, who ran for 220 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries in a 35-24 win over Middle Tennessee. Cobb's rushing total was the highest by a Gopher in nine years.
  • Iowa DE Drew Ott: The Hawkeyes junior had 13 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack, and he forced a fumble on Ball State's final play in a nail-biting 17-13 victory. Ball State's offense did not score a touchdown against Iowa's defense.
  • Penn State's red zone defense: The Nittany Lions have shown a great bend-but-don't-break ability early in the year. In a 21-3 win over Akron on Saturday, Penn State held the Zips to just one field goal in three trips inside the 20. Anthony Zettel, Jordan Lucas and Mike Hull were among the individual defensive standouts.
The Big Ten went 8-5 in Week 2, and we learned some things in the process. Brace yourself; this won't be pretty.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah's heroics helped Nebraska escape what would have been an embarrassing loss to McNeese State.
1. The Midwest misery index is at an all-time high: Don't completely count out the Big Ten from the College Football Playoff; we're a long, long way until the first Sunday in December, after all. But the road to getting a team in the four-team field became extremely difficult after a disappointing and dispiriting Week 2 showing by the conference. In the three marquee night games, Michigan State lost by 19 points to Oregon, Michigan got embarrassed in a 31-0 shutout at Notre Dame and Ohio State lost by 14 at home to an unranked Virginia Tech squad. Meanwhile, Nebraska needed Ameer Abdullah's heroics in the final minute just to squeak past FCS McNeese State, and Iowa had to pull off a huge comeback to escape at home against Ball State. Two other MAC teams took down Purdue and Northwestern (Central Michigan and Northern Illinois, respectively). This is as bad a weekend as the Big Ten has had since Week 2 in 2012, and the league was supposed to be improved this season. Instead, it took another savage beating in terms of national perception, with almost no opportunities to turn that around the rest of the regular season.

2. (Almost) anyone can win the mild, mild West: We knew the West Division would feature plenty of parity this season. But can anyone identify a favorite in this division now? Iowa could be 0-2 just as easily as it is 2-0 right now. Wisconsin has major passing game issues. Nebraska is dealing with injuries, barely beat an FCS team Saturday and still has the toughest schedule of any division contender. Minnesota actually had the best day of any West team in Week 2, and its defense looks legitimately strong. But the Gophers still have problems throwing the ball and are holding their breath that quarterback Mitch Leidner didn't get hurt late against Middle Tennessee. Illinois at least can score in bunches behind Wes Lunt and might have a puncher's chance. At this point, it seems you can count out Northwestern (0-2) and Purdue. But who knows how things will eventually shake out in a division that appears to lack any great teams.

3. Running games disappearing: We've talked a lot about poor quarterback play being a reason for the Big Ten's recent decline. But we've almost always been able to count on league teams lining up and pounding the ball on the ground, especially against supposedly weaker competition. That hasn't been the case for far too many league teams. Iowa, which figured to have one of the league's best offensive lines and rushing attacks, is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry and had 113 yards on 29 rush attempts versus Ball State. We underestimated the difficulties Ohio State would have with four new starters on its offensive line; the Buckeyes have done very little on the ground outside of quarterback J.T. Barrett's scrambles. Penn State has basically abandoned the run in its first two games, while Michigan's apparent gains in the rushing attack against overmatched Appalachian State in Week 1 proved a mirage in South Bend. Oregon mostly stuffed Michigan State's attempts to run the ball. Heck, even Wisconsin failed to have a running back gain more than 57 yards against FCS Western Illinois, and Melvin Gordon was held to 38 yards on 17 carries. Big Ten teams can't expect to win big games if their main calling card is bankrupt.

4. The best program in Illinois isn't in Champaign or Evanston: Nope, it's located in DeKalb, home of Northern Illinois. The Huskies went into Northwestern and won 23-15 on Saturday. That shouldn't come as a surprise, as NIU has won 48 games since the start of the 2010 season and showed Saturday that life without Jordan Lynch will be OK. As for Northwestern, the Wildcats never should have bought that monkey's paw before the Ohio State game last year. They're 1-9 since, with no end to the misery in sight. Illinois has more reason for optimism, especially given Lunt's potential at quarterback and some big-play ability. But the Illini have had to sweat out home wins over Youngstown State and Western Kentucky in the first two weeks. The top team in the Land of Lincoln plays in the MAC, a conference that came within one great Iowa comeback of notching three wins over the Big Ten on Saturday.

5. Field goals are an adventure: Iowa was 1-of-4 on field goals against Ball State, with none longer than 37 yards, and it almost cost the Hawkeyes the game. Ohio State's Sean Nuernberger missed both his field-goal attempts in the first half against Virginia Tech, while Illinois' Taylor Zalewski also went 0-for-2. Not that it would have changed the outcome, but Michigan's Matt Wile missed two attempts in the first half at Notre Dame, too. With the margin for error so small for many Big Ten teams, field-goal units need to improve significantly.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 2

September, 6, 2014
Sep 6
8:00
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Week 2 in the Big Ten brings three titanic tilts at night, a few decent afternoon games and a handful of chaff. We're here to get you ready for all the action, as every league team but Indiana hits the field Saturday (all times listed are ET):

Noon games

Western Kentucky (1-0) at Illinois (1-0), BTN: The Illini will have to play much better than they did in Week 1 against Youngstown State, as Western Kentucky showed a powerful offense in beating Bowling Green 59-31 last week. New Hilltoppers coach Jeff Brohm is a former Illinois assistant.

McNeese State (0-0) at No. 19 Nebraska (1-0), ESPNU: McNeese State is ranked No. 7 in the FCS Top 25, so the Cowboys are no pushover. But if the Huskers roll like they did last week against Florida Atlantic, it won't much matter.

Akron (1-0) at Penn State (1-0), ABC/ESPN2 mirror: The Zips nearly pulled off the huge upset last year at the Big House, and Penn State will have to hope its body clocks are adjusted after returning from Ireland last weekend.

Central Michigan (1-0) at Purdue (1-0), ESPNEWS: The Boilermakers can double their win total from 2013 in the first two weeks. First, they'll have to get by a Chippewas team that can be pretty feisty, though they had to rally just to beat Chattanooga in the opener.

Western Illinois (1-0) at No. 18 Wisconsin (0-1), BTN: A trying and strange week in Madison will conclude with what ought to be a typical Badgers home beatdown of a much lesser opponent.

Howard (0-1) at Rutgers (1-0), BTN: Let us know when it's time to talk about the Penn State game in Week 3, because this one holds little to no interest.

[+] EnlargeMike Dantonio
AP Images/Bradley LeebMark Dantonio and Michigan State face a mammoth nonconference test at Oregon on Saturday.
3:30 p.m. games

Middle Tennessee (1-0) at Minnesota (1-0), BTN: The Gophers are dealing with a rash of injuries to their defensive line but are still heavy favorites at home against the Blue Raiders.

Ball State (1-0) at Iowa (1-0), ESPN2: The Hawkeyes struggled to get by a game Northern Iowa team last week and now host a solid MAC outfit. Kirk Ferentz's team will look to make rapid improvement over Week 1.

Maryland (1-0) at South Florida (1-0), CBS Sports Network: Job One for the Maryland defense is to slow Bulls running back Marlon Mack, who leads the FBS in rushing after he piled up 275 yards in Week 1. Job One for the Terps offense is to get quarterback C.J. Brown in a better passing groove after he completed less than 50 percent last week versus James Madison.

Northern Illinois (1-0) at Northwestern (0-1), BTN: A must-win already for the Wildcats? Maybe, after the season-opening loss to Cal. The Huskies would love nothing more than to notch a win over their in-state neighbors.

The three biggies

No. 7 Michigan State (1-0) at No. 3 Oregon (1-0), 6:30 p.m., Fox
Michigan (1-0) at No. 16 Notre Dame (1-0), 7:30 p.m., NBC
Virginia Tech (1-0) at No. 8 Ohio State (1-0), 8 p.m., ESPN
Other must-reads

Finally, make sure to stay up-to-date on all the latest news by following us on Twitter @ESPNBig_Ten and our individual handles:

Big Ten Week 2 predictions

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
9:00
AM ET

Why Michigan State will win: Why not? Don't you believe by now in the Spartans, who beat Oregon's top nemesis -- Stanford -- just eight months ago? The Ducks are tough to beat at home, but I think Michigan State's defense is good enough to frustrate that spread attack, and I love the way Connor Cook is playing at quarterback. The Big Ten has to win one of these big regular-season showdowns eventually. Right? Michigan State 27, Oregon 24. -- Brian Bennett



Why Oregon will win: If there is a blueprint to beating the Ducks, the Spartans are surely capable of duplicating it with solid defense and an efficient, ball-control offense. And if the experienced, proven Michigan State defense from last season was still around, it might be tempting to pick the upset. But the Ducks have a quarterback in Marcus Mariota who won't be intimidated, they're playing with a vocal crowd behind them and they don't have to travel across the country. Oregon wins 34-20. -- Austin Ward



Why it will be closer than you think: Michigan State isn't easily intimidated, and the Spartans rarely get blown out. Of MSU's past eight losses, only one came by more than four points. An underrated Spartans offense keeps pace with the Ducks for much of this one. Oregon wins 31-27. -- Adam Rittenberg


Why Michigan will win: Devin Gardner eviscerated a Notre Dame defense in 2013 that I consider better than the current unit. Both teams will score a lot with dynamic quarterbacks and more streamlined offenses, but Michigan has the better defense, which will be the difference. Michigan 38, Notre Dame 35 -- Adam Rittenberg



Why Notre Dame will win: Both teams fired on all cylinders offensively last week against overmatched opponents. The Irish, at home, are more likely to extend their solid play. Quarterback Everett Golson provides a steadying influence. Look for him to find holes in the Michigan secondary. And the Wolverines, who are just one game removed from so much trouble up front on offense last year, will find the trenches much more difficult to navigate this week than last. Notre Dame 24, Michigan 20 -- Mitch Sherman


Why Ohio State will win: A tricky matchup to open the season put the Buckeyes on upset alert last week in the debut for J.T. Barrett, but this is the kind of opponent that should bring out their best. The defensive line will once again get to rush the passer, a rebuilt secondary figures to have some chances to make something big happen and Barrett can build on his big second half against Navy with a young offense gaining confidence. Plus, the Horseshoe isn't a very welcoming building for visitors under the lights. Buckeyes win 31-13. -- Austin Ward



Why it might be closer than you think: It's clear the Buckeyes still have a few kinks to iron out on offense, and Virginia Tech's bread-and-butter is its defense. The Hokies boast an elite pair of corners and have a disruptive defensive line, and that's not going to make it any easier for Barrett. If Virginia Tech can gain any kind of momentum on offense, the Buckeyes could be in for a scare. Buckeyes 27, Hokies 20. -- Josh Moyer

Majority decisions

Northern Illinois over Northwestern 31-28
(Rittenberg, Sherman and Ward took NIU, while Bennett and Moyer chose Northwestern):
Even without Jordan Lynch, NIU looks to have the same quick-scoring formula as last season, while the Wildcats are still searching for their identity.

Purdue over Central Michigan 35-31
(Moyer, Rittenberg, Sherman and Ward selected Purdue, while Bennett chose Central Michigan)
The Boilermakers' win over Western Michigan wasn't pretty and this won't be either, but this offense will only get better.

Western Kentucky over Illinois 42-38

(Bennett, Moyer, Rittenberg and Sherman took Western Kentucky, while Ward chose Illinois)
It's difficult to pick Tim Beckman's squad after an unconvincing win against Youngstown State.

Unanimous decisions

Maryland over South Florida 34-14. C.J. Brown + Stefon Diggs + Deon Long = Touchdowns. Enough said.
Penn State over Akron 34-21. This one could be closer than expected as PSU adjusts from its Ireland trip, but Christian Hackenberg is an elite talent.
Rutgers over Howard 52-7. Howard lost to Akron by a score of 41-0 last week, so the only question is whether the Knights' second team allows a late TD or clinches the shutout.
Iowa over Ball State 38-20. The Hawkeyes got off to a slow start against Northern Iowa, but this is their chance to make up for it.
Minnesota over MTSU 35-17. Mitch Leidner needs to improve, but the Gophers' defense and ground game should be enough to pull out the win here.
Nebraska over McNeese State 38-17. McNeese State is a quality FCS program, but the Cornhuskers simply have too much firepower with Ameer Abdullah leading the way.
Wisconsin over Western Illinois 42-0. The Badgers don't need a passing game to dominate this opponent; it shouldn't even be close.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
2:00
PM ET
 
Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
8:00
AM ET
Take a deep breath, Big Ten fans. The wait is over. Our first weekend of Big Ten football is finally here. And though we might be lacking in quality this weekend, at least there's quantity.

8:30 a.m. ET

Penn State vs. Central Florida (Dublin, Ireland), ESPN2: This overseas contest isn't the same without the O'Brien vs. O'Leary headline or the Hackenberg vs. Bortles undercard. But it could still be one of the more interesting games on tap, as it's James Franklin's debut as Penn State's head coach. The Nittany Lions are looking to once again shock the conference, and that will have to start with success from an inexperienced offensive line. The Nittany Lions have talent on offense -- Christian Hackenberg, Jesse James, Donovan Smith, Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak -- but a win won't come easy against a loaded Central Florida defense.

Noon ET

Indiana State at Indiana, ESPNews: If you haven't fallen asleep from waking up early for the Nittany Lions game, this one might cause you to fluff up that pillow. The Hoosiers upended the Sycamores 73-35 the past season and should once again put on an offensive clinic. Will Indiana's new defense be better? We probably won't find out based on this game.

Northern Iowa at Iowa, BTN: Kirk Ferentz's crew hasn't made quick work of its FCS opponents the past two seasons. Last year, Iowa edged out Missouri State 28-14 and the year before beat Northern Iowa 27-16. Northern Iowa is a middle-of-the-road FCS team this season, but those past two FCS games featured teams that finished below .500. It shouldn't be close, but then again, it shouldn't have been in 2012 or 2013 either.

Appalachian State at Michigan, ESPN2: Can history possibly repeat itself here? The 2007 game -- Mountaineers 34, Wolverines 32 -- was one of the greatest upsets in college football history. If you're a Big Ten fan, you should probably remember where you were when Julian Rauch nailed the field goal heard 'round the world to give App State a two-point lead with 26 seconds left in the game. No doubt the Wolverines will be more prepared this time around, but you can bet Appalachian State's confidence is pretty high, too.

Western Michigan at Purdue, ESPNU: Thankfully, it's not our job to tell you why you should watch these games. We're coming up relatively empty on this one. Purdue is just a nine-point favorite, which means this game should technically be closer than most of the others here. But the ratings for this game won't skyrocket based off that fact. Purdue's offense should be better, so if quarterback Danny Etling struggles in this game, it might already be time for Boilermakers fans to worry.

No. 5
Ohio State at Navy, CBS Sports Network:
Can Ohio State move on without Braxton Miller? Will Navy's triple-option fool this defensive line? How will J.T. Barrett fare in his first career start? The Midshipmen aren't a bad team, and plenty of questions are swirling around the Buckeyes' quarterback situation with the season-ending injury to Miller. All eyes will be on Barrett -- and how long a leash Urban Meyer gives him here.

12:05 ET

Youngstown State at Illinois, BTN: Tim Beckman could be on the hot seat this season, and if he loses to a team with a Penguin mascot, that seat will start heating up in no time. Wes Lunt could be in for a big season, but it'll be interesting to see who in the receiving corps can step up. Beckman is also counting on some juco players to plug roster holes, so we'll start to see how that's working out in this opener.

3:30 ET

James Madison at Maryland, BTN: First, Rutgers comes away with a win in its first game as a Big Ten member. Next, the Terrapins should follow suit. We should see offensive fireworks here, especially though the air, now that quarterback C.J. Brown is healthy, along with wideouts Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. James Madison is an average FCS team, though it nearly knocked off Akron the past season in a 35-33 loss.

Cal at Northwestern, ABC/ESPN2: No Venric Mark, no Christian Jones ... no problem? The Golden Bears are lousy, and the reins are now in the hands of Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian. The Wildcats are hoping to rebound from the past season with a bowl berth, and it'll have to get off on the right foot -- with a win over Cal -- to make that happen. Northwestern should start off 3-0 after a disappointing 5-7 finish in 2013.

Florida Atlantic at No. 22 Nebraska, BTN: It won't be the “Battle of the Pelinis” this season, as FAU coach Carl Pelini was fired the past season in the wake of drug allegations against his staff. The move wasn't without its controversy. We'll see if Bo Pelini is out to avenge his brother based on how ugly this game gets. If Ameer Abdullah wants to be a Heisman contender, he has to post crazy numbers in games like this.

9 ET

No. 14 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 LSU (Houston), ESPN: Admit it. You're waiting all day for this Big Ten game. This could give the B1G respect on a national scale -- or, if it turns ugly, could give the rest of the Power 5 more ammunition to point a finger and label the conference weak. Melvin Gordon might be the best running back in the country, and he'll be facing a slightly above-average run defense. Is that enough to give the Badgers the win? LSU might have the advantage everywhere except at tailback and offensive line. This is the game to watch.

Weather

It looks as if the weather is pretty split this week -- nice and sunny in some places with chances of thunderstorms in others. First off, the good news: It'll be nice and clear for Penn State, Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois and Nebraska. Outside of Ireland, where it should be in the 60s, the temperature should vary between the 70s and 80s.

Elsewhere? Teams might not be so lucky. For Maryland and Wisconsin, thunderstorms could strike later in the games. For the other four teams -- Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue, Iowa -- thunderstorms could strike early but could clear up later.

Top Week 1 stories

Season predictions | Weekly predictions | Fearless predictions | Bowl predictions

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LSU-Wisconsin primer

Remembering an upset for the ages

Calhoun's dual role: hit 'em, make 'em smile

Terps' Leak, Brown draw from year off

Fast start would mean sunny days for B1G

In playoff era, will Rose stay as sweet?

B1G players in Week 1 spotlight

A B1G youth movement at receiver

Loaded backfields make it B1G's Year of the RB

Twitter: PSU sights & scenes from Ireland
College football teams will pay their opponents in excess of $12 million this weekend, ESPN.com's Darren Rovell reports, and two Big Ten teams are leading the way in those costs.

Michigan and Nebraska are both paying $1 million apiece for their nonconference "guarantee" games, making them the only teams to hit the seven-figure mark.

But those two are hardly an exception in the conference. Of the top 11 payouts, six Big Ten teams made the cut: Michigan State (Jacksonville State -- $620K), Illinois (Youngstown State -- $560K), Iowa (Northern Iowa -- $550K), and Purdue (Western Michigan -- $525K), in addition to the Huskers (Florida Atlantic) and Wolverines (Appalachian State).

Home games are a huge priority for most teams, and paying opponents means those teams above don't have to worry about scheduling home-and-home contests. Penn State's James Franklin said during the spring that his main objective in scheduling was simply to reduce away games.

"I want to get as many [home games] as we could get," he said. "If we could figure out how to get 11, I would like to get 11 home games.

"I don't think that's necessarily going to happen."

Click here to read Rovell's story and how teams outside the B1G stack up.

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