NCF Nation: Michigan State Spartans

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
8:00
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The leaves are turning, the mercury is dropping and teams are becoming bowl eligible. Welcome to the heart of the college football season. It's a wonderful place to be, don't you agree?

Three Big Ten teams (Michigan State, Minnesota and Nebraska) have reached the six-win threshold, ensuring bowl placement for this year. Four other squads -- Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers and Iowa -- are one win away.

The projections don't change much this week after a Saturday where things more or less went according to plan. One debate among the Big Ten reporting team was whether to remove Northwestern, which lost its second consecutive game and continued to struggle offensively. Yet with four winnable Big Ten games left -- Iowa (road), Michigan (home), Purdue (road) and Illinois (home) -- we think Pat Fitzgerald's team can finish well.

Another factor is the Big Ten taking more control of the game assignments this year, rather than leaving it up to the bowls, who often prioritize brand name and size of fan base over on-field results. The league wants better, fresher matchups and no repeat appearances, if at all possible.

Would the Holiday Bowl rather have Wisconsin than Maryland? No doubt. But Maryland has earned its way into the Holiday Bowl slot on the field, so we're giving the Terrapins the nod. Fortunately, Wisconsin and Maryland can settle things on the field this week in Madison.

Should Michigan State or Ohio State be projected into the College Football Playoff? Not yet. But the winner of their Nov. 8 showdown at Spartan Stadium could move into elite company.

Iowa takes a tumble after its loss in College Park. The Hawkeyes have to take care of business at home in November to move up again.

OK, enough rambling. The projections ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Maryland
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Wisconsin
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Iowa
Quick Lane: Penn State
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
2:00
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Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
9:00
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Reviewing the best and brightest performances from Week 8 in the Big Ten.

Minnesota RB David Cobb: The Gophers’ senior had 14 carries for 76 yards before the end of the first quarter. Minnesota’s human perpetual motion machined finished Saturday’s back-and-forth battle with 194 yards and a touchdown on 35 touches. His early pounding also helped set up several big play-action completions for the Gopher offense.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: Four touchdowns, including two in the fourth quarter to pull away from Northwestern in a 38-17 win, gets Abdullah another sticker to add to his well-decorated helmet. He had 146 rushing yards, which makes him the first player in Cornhusker history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in three seasons. He’s the third Big Ten back to get past four digits in the rushing column this season.

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The rookie is now the full-fledged leader of an impressive Ohio State offense. He accounted for five touchdowns (three passing and two rushing) while hanging 56 points on Rutgers. He threw for 261 yards and ran for 107 more without making any costly mistakes.

Minnesota DB Cedric Thompson: Thompson bookended Saturday’s 39-38 victory with a pair of momentum-swinging interceptions. He picked off Purdue’s Austin Appleby on the first play of the game and brought it back to the 2-yard line. He clinched the game with a very athletic catch at midfield with 2:31 left on the clock.

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford: The Spartans put together a definitive 56-17 win over Indiana with a team effort on offense. Tony Lippett had 123 yards receiving and a couple highlight catches. Nick Hill led the team with 178 rushing yards -- 76 of which came on a garbage time touchdown. But Langford stood above them with his three rushing scores. The first two came when the game was still in doubt and the third was a fourth quarter knockout punch that helped the Spartans kick their recent trend of not slamming the door after they build a lead.
Five observations from Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State and Michigan State are widening the gap over the rest of the league. The Spartans and Buckeyes continued their march toward Nov. 8 in East Lansing with resounding wins by identical scores of 56-17 over Indiana and Rutgers, respectively. The Buckeyes topped 50 points in four consecutive games for the first time in school history and dealt the Scarlet Knights their worst loss in 12 years with an introduction to the big-time side of Big Ten football. MSU was slow at the start, as Indiana’s Shane Wynn and Tevin Coleman scored on long runs, but Michigan State blanked the Hoosiers in the second half. Just as importantly, both Big Ten powers climbed closer to consideration for the College Football Playoff as two top-10 unbeatens went down.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett is playing at a high level as Ohio State's offense continues to roll.
2. J.T. Barrett is a Heisman Trophy darkhorse. No, we’re not kidding. The same redshirt freshman who struggled mightily in the Buckeyes’ loss to Virginia Tech the past month has played better than any quarterback in the country as of late. He ran for 107 yards and two scores and threw for 261 and three touchdowns against Rutgers. Under his guidance, Ohio State has averaged 614 yards over its past four games, albeit against suspect defensive competition, though Rutgers appeared set to pose a challenge. Barrett won’t be considered a serious candidate unless he can play like this, without a blip, for the rest of the season.

3. Minnesota might never win pretty, but it almost always wins. The Golden Gophers beat Purdue 39-38 behind two interceptions of Austin Appleby by safety Cedric Thompson, including the game-clincher with 2:28 to play. Minnesota is 3-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1990. It was a typical Gopher effort, with 194 rushing yards from David Cobb and just nine completions from quarterback Mitch Leidner, who threw two touchdowns. Give credit to fast-improving Purdue, for sure, but this game deviated from Minnesota form only in that the Gophers trailed at halftime -- they earned the first win in 23 such occasions under Jerry Kill -- and needed a 52-yard field goal by Ryan Santoso for the decisive points with 4:59 left.

4. In spite of Minnesota’s start, Nebraska still looks like the best in the West. The Huskers beat Northwestern 38-17 at Ryan Field and outscored the Wildcats 24-0 in the second half to move to 6-1. Barring an upset win in Lincoln by Rutgers or Purdue over the next two weeks, Nebraska will be 8-1 on Nov. 15 when Bo Pelini’s team travels to Wisconsin for a final stretch that includes Minnesota and Iowa. In bouncing back from a loss to Michigan State, Nebraska displayed new depth at the line of scrimmage against Northwestern and found new ways to feature spark-plug freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El, who threw a touchdown pass to QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

5. It might be November (if even then) before we understand Maryland and Iowa. The Terrapins overcame a slow start to beat the Hawkeyes 38-31. Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown returned from a back injury, suffered in the second half, and receiver Stefon Diggs and cornerback Will Likely contributed their usual big plays. But is Maryland really a threat to get to nine wins and a New Year’s Day bowl? Maybe, in the watered-down Big Ten. What about Iowa, still a player in the West Division with its favorable schedule but unable to break through in a winnable game Saturday? Just as the Hawkeyes’ offense appears to have gained speed, the defense took a step back in College Park.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
10:00
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Let the second half of the season begin.

The Big Ten's West Division is still as muddled as ever, Rutgers is searching for more respect, and several teams still aren’t secure at quarterback. This week's games could help make the overall conference picture a bit clearer, but plenty of time – and storylines – remain. Here’s a look at Saturday’s games and what to expect (all times Eastern):

Noon

Iowa (5-1) at Maryland (4-2), ESPN2: The Terrapins have had a week to rest, and they’ll need it against a tough Hawkeyes team. Iowa scored an uncharacteristic 45 points last week, and Maryland’s defense is giving up more yards – but fewer points – than the Hawkeyes’ last opponent, Indiana. This is an interesting matchup for a lot of reasons. Not only is Iowa trying to remain atop the West, but we could possibly see four quarterbacks. Kirk Ferentz still wants to play both Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard, while Randy Edsall won’t hesitate to pull C.J. Brown for Caleb Rowe if Brown struggles the way he did against Ohio State.

Purdue (3-4) at Minnesota (5-1), BTN: The Boilermakers shocked the Big Ten last week by hanging 31 points on Michigan State -- and that wasn’t lost on Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who praised Purdue’s offensive line. With Austin Appleby now playing well at quarterback, this isn’t the “gimme” game it appeared to be a few weeks ago. Regardless, Purdue’s run defense is still lacking, and that’s not good news against Minnesota. David Cobb is rushing for more than 136 yards per game, and he’s one of the more underrated players in the Big Ten. He isn’t just the spark in this offense, he’s the engine – and he’ll again be key to the Gophers’ success. If Minnesota keeps winning, voters in both polls won’t be able to ignore this team for much longer.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesJ.T. Barrett's rapid improvement has the Buckeyes as a big favorite at home against Big Ten newcomer Rutgers.
No. 8 Michigan State (5-1) at Indiana (3-3), ESPN: This matchup is happening at the worst time for the Hoosiers. Not only is starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld out for the season, but backup Chris Covington will reportedly not play Saturday, either. That leaves true freshman Zander Diamont, who weighs 160-some pounds, according to Indiana coach Kevin Wilson. Indiana boasts the nation’s leading rusher in Tevin Coleman, but it’s no secret Michigan State will stack the box and dare the Hoosiers to pass. And even if Indiana succeeds in scoring, it still might not be enough to keep up with a balanced Spartans offense. It could be a long day for Indiana.

Rutgers (5-1) at No. 13 Ohio State (4-1), ABC/ESPN2: Rutgers is the surprise team in the Big Ten right now, but there would be no bigger surprise than if it were able to knock off the Buckeyes at the Horseshoe. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is rolling, running back Ezekiel Elliott is solid and the Scarlet Knights’ defense will be tested, B1G time. Ohio State holds the advantage in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, scoring offense, passing offense and rushing offense. Rutgers has embraced its underdog role so far this season, and it’s a big underdog in this one.

7 p.m.

No. 19 Nebraska (5-1) at Northwestern (3-3), BTN: The Wildcats have faced three one-dimensional offenses in a row, but that ends with the Cornhuskers. Not only does Nebraska have one of the nation’s best running backs in Ameer Abdullah, but quarterback Tommy Armstrong is also fourth in the Big Ten in both passing yards per game and pass efficiency. This is the highest-rated offense (No. 10 in total offense) that the Wildcats have faced all season. Nebraska’s defense isn’t too bad, either, and Trevor Siemian will have to be on top of his game for Northwestern to stand a chance.

Required reading

Ben Affleck to Spartans: 'I'm Batman'

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
5:47
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Ben Affleck is spending his autumn in Michigan shooting "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," but the two-time Academy Award winner found time to talk to the Spartans.

According to The Detroit News, Affleck was working out in the team's weight room when Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio invited him out to speak to the team ahead of Michigan State's tilt with Indiana on Saturday. He opened his remarks by deadpanning, "I'm Batman."

The film's crew is ostensibly on campus to film scenes at the angular and intimidating art museum on the north side of MSU's campus, which has closed for the week for a "private function."

"Batman v Superman" is slated to hit theaters March 25, 2016.

Affleck is not the first major movie star to address a big-name team this year. Earlier this month, Matthew McConaughey gave his beloved Texas Longhorns a very McConaughey pep talk.

No word on whether anyone gave Affleck trouble for wearing a blue shirt in East Lansing.

Big Ten Week 8 predictions

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
9:00
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Thanks to their bold selection of Michigan to beat Penn State, Mitch Sherman and Josh Moyer were both 5-0 in Week 7. Can they do it again in Week 8? On to the picks ...

Why Iowa will win: Steer clear of this game in Vegas as both teams have been hard to pin down. But I liked Iowa's aggressive offensive approach last week against Indiana and see no reason why the Hawkeyes can't keep the pedal down against a Maryland defense that allows more than 450 yards per game. Iowa must shore up its run defense after last week, but there are no Tevin Colemans on the Terrapins roster. Close game, fun game, lots of points, but Iowa emerges with a win. ... Iowa 35, Maryland 31 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland will win: C.J. Brown is healthier, Maryland is at home, the Terps are scoring an average of more than five TDs a game, and they're coming off a bye. Add all that together, and I feel a little better going with Maryland over the Hawkeyes. Both teams have been inconsistent, but Iowa has crossed the 30-point barrier against an FBS team only once -- and that was last week against the nation's No. 89 scoring defense. Maryland's D isn't good, but it's better than Indiana. The Hawkeyes might not be able to keep up in the end. ... Maryland 31, Iowa 28. -- Josh Moyer

Why Minnesota will win: Purdue is rapidly improving and growing into the kind of physical team Darrell Hazell wants. But Minnesota already has that kind of team. The Gophers are surging thanks to strong defensive work, solid special teams and a shorten-the-game approach on offense. The Boilermakers' young defense will have trouble containing David Cobb and the Gophers will move to 6-1. ... Minnesota 27, Purdue 16 -- Brian Bennett

Why Purdue will win: It's time to sell high on the Gophers. Minnesota has pounded its way to a 5-1 record despite ranking 124th in passing offense. Purdue's offense under sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby has shown a new propensity for big plays. The Boilermakers hung 31 on Michigan State's stingy defense a week ago with the help of a much-improved offensive line. If Appleby can get going early, he might be able to force Minnesota out of its David Cobb comfort zone and sneak away with the Big Ten upset of the week. ... Purdue 31, Minnesota 27 -- Dan Murphy

Unanimous picks
Michigan State 45, Indiana 17: Already suspect on defense with one of the worst units in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers are going to have an even harder time hanging around in shootouts with quarterback Nate Sudfeld out for the season.

Nebraska 28, Northwestern 20: Ameer Abdullah and the Huskers have had a week to recharge the batteries after their late rally came up short against Michigan State, and they’ll be looking to send a message that the West Division still goes through them this season.

Ohio State 48, Rutgers 20: The odds of the Buckeyes actually being better offensively this season than the last two under Urban Meyer looked long about a month ago, but that young attack is gaining confidence and shattering records seemingly every week even without Braxton Miller at quarterback.

Our records:
Mitch Sherman: 57-13 (.814)
Brian Bennett: 55-15 (.786)
Austin Ward: 55-15 (.786)
Adam Rittenberg: 54-16 (.771)
Dan Murphy: 25-8 (.758)
Josh Moyer: 51-19 (.729)

Big Ten midseason overview

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
10:30
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The Big Ten entered 2014 with a few high-profile opportunities to raise its flailing image.

Things started out well enough, as Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead on LSU in the third quarter on opening weekend. And it was pretty much all downhill from there for the Badgers, who wound up losing 28-24, and the rest of the league. Other early-season losses by Michigan State (at Oregon), Ohio State (Virginia Tech) and Iowa (Iowa State) relegated the Big Ten to its same old status as a middle-of-the-pack (at best) power conference.

As a result, the league needs some breaks just to get a team into the four-team College Football Playoff. Yes, conversation about the inaugural playoff has dominated the sport a little too much so far. Then again, when's the last time you heard anybody talking about who might play in this year's Orange Bowl?

The Big Ten might not place a team in the Rose Bowl -- site of a national semifinal this year -- unless Michigan State and Ohio State run the table the rest of the way, or if a team from the wide-open West Division like Nebraska or Minnesota really surprises.

Not everything, of course, revolves around the playoff, and there have been some good stories in the Big Ten during the first half. The conference boasts three of the top four rushers in the nation. The oft-mocked addition of Maryland and Rutgers doesn't look so bad as the two teams are a combined 9-3. Purdue has already tripled its win total from a year ago. The NCAA sanctions at Penn State were lifted -- though no relief was provided for the Nittany Lions' offensive line. Five teams sit at 5-1, setting up an interesting race toward ... wherever the league champion might wind up in the postseason. (Hey, how about that Orange Bowl?)

So reasons for hope remain in the Big Ten for the second half. Though maybe not so much in Ann Arbor and Champaign.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has already topped 1,000 yards and has 13 touchdowns halfway through the season.
Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. It's so hard to choose between the fantastic running backs in this league, as Indiana's Tevin Coleman leads the FBS in rushing and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah has been a warrior. Gordon has received very little help from his team's passing game, yet he has piled up 1,046 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, including four straight games of at least 175 yards.

Defensive MVP: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa. There's no runaway winner of this award yet, but Bosa has built on his impressive freshman campaign of a year ago to become one of the most disruptive pass-rushing forces around. He has seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

Biggest surprise: Few people gave Rutgers much of a chance to contend in the school's first year in the Big Ten, especially given the Scarlet Knights' murderous schedule. But with an improved Gary Nova at quarterback and a stout defense, Rutgers sits at 5-1 at the halfway point. The back half is still treacherous, including games against Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but Kyle Flood's team has shown it can't be taken lightly.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan, naturally. The Wolverines (3-4) beat Penn State last week at home, finally ending a streak of seven straight losses against Power 5 teams. Blowout losses against Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, and the Shane Morris concussion controversy have put Brady Hoke squarely on the hot seat.

Newcomer of the year: Losing Braxton Miller did not end Ohio State's playoff chances, largely because of the rapid growth of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. After struggling in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, Barrett has blossomed into one of the top players in the Big Ten. He leads the league in total offense, pass efficiency and passing touchdowns (17).

Best coach: Jerry Kill, Minnesota. With apologies to Flood, no coach has maximized his talent more than the head Gopher. Minnesota is 5-1 and tied atop the Big Ten West Division, with its only loss coming at TCU. Kill's team finds ways to win without an overpowering offensive attack.

Best game: Indiana 31, Missouri 27. This game had a little bit of everything, with both teams combining for nearly 1,000 yards of offense and the Hoosiers scoring the winning touchdown with 22 seconds left after Missouri had hit what looked like the game-winning field goal. The road win in SEC country was also one of the league's few bright spots in nonconference play. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they haven't been able to duplicate that performance.

Biggest games of the second half: Armageddon arrives on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, when Ohio State travels to Michigan State in a possible playoff eliminator. Other big B1G games are mostly in the wide-open West, including: Iowa at Minnesota (Nov. 8), Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15), Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22) and Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 28).
Mark DantonioAP Photo/Jae C. HongIf the Spartans reach Indianapolis, they will need a quality opponent from the West to bolster their playoff chances.
The first half of the college football season has been deliciously unpredictable nationally. Here in Big Ten country, though, things have more or less played out like we thought they would.

The East Division looks like a two-team race between Michigan State and Ohio State. That's not a knock on Rutgers, the Big Ten's most pleasant surprise. But Rutgers' true Big Ten introduction takes place the next two weeks in Columbus and Lincoln. If the Scarlet Knights earn their #Chops, they become a real threat.

For now, it's about No. 8 Michigan State and No. 13 Ohio State, and their looming showdown Nov. 8 at Spartan Stadium under the lights.

And then there's the wild, wild West Division. It appeared to be the more balanced, more wide-open division entering the season, and it has stayed true to form. While some handed the division to Wisconsin back in August, they were the same folks spending too much time studying the Badgers' schedule and not enough time studying the Badgers' roster.

Minnesota and Iowa sit atop the division at 2-0 in league play, followed by Northwestern at 2-1 and Nebraska and Wisconsin both at 1-1. Nebraska's lone loss came in a cross-division game at Michigan State, while Northwestern (Minnesota) and Wisconsin (Northwestern) both have lost a division game.

There's not much separation between the five, and you can make a case for each to represent the West in Indy. This has all the makings of a plot-twisting, cannibalizing, down-to-the-last-weekend, complex-tiebreaker-requiring, wildly entertaining division race.

But that's not the best thing for the Big Ten. Far from it. The Big Ten needs a Wyatt Earp to tame the wild, wild West.

Why? This season is all about the playoff -- who's in and who's out. The Big Ten needs to get in for an opportunity to validate itself nationally. Otherwise, irrelevance continues.

(Yes, I realize some Big Ten fans despise the ESPN-driven, all-about-the-playoff narrative. But it's the world we live in, so deal.)

The Big Ten's Week 2 and Week 3 struggles muddied its playoff path, but there's still a route to the field of four. Michigan State and Ohio State remain the league's top two candidates -- the Spartans much more so than the Buckeyes because of a higher quality loss (Oregon on the road versus Virginia Tech at home).

If Michigan State and Ohio State don't slip up before Nov. 8, the showdown in Sparta essentially becomes a playoff elimination game. No Big Ten team is getting in with two losses, no matter what zaniness happens in other conferences.

But the winner of OSU-MSU still likely will need help in the Big Ten championship game. The game has to be a résumé-boosting opportunity in the eyes of the playoff selection committee.

The only way that happens is if the opponent from the West Division also has one total loss, two at most.

If an 11-1 Michigan State or an 11-1 Ohio State faces a 3- or 4-loss West Division opponent at Lucas Oil Stadium, the game will fall off of the national radar. The selection committee will be focused elsewhere. There's not much to gain for the East champ and a lot to lose.

That's why the Big Ten needs someone to take charge in the West. The ideal candidates are Minnesota and Nebraska because both have quality losses (Gophers on the road against TCU, Huskers on the road against Michigan State). Iowa isn't a bad option at 11-1, but a home loss to Iowa State will be held against the Hawkeyes.

Northwestern is improving but already has three losses. Wisconsin's season-opening loss to LSU probably won't look great come November, so even a 10-2 Badgers team reaching Indy might not made the championship game meaningful enough.

There's also the possibility, albeit slim, that both Big Ten championship game participants are in the playoff mix. If Nebraska's lone loss is a 5-point setback at Michigan State, its résumé, which will include road wins against Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa, plus a home win against Minnesota, doesn't look too shabby. Minnesota would have benefited from TCU holding on against Baylor and continuing to win, but a Gophers team that runs the Big Ten table with wins against Ohio State (home), Nebraska (road) and Wisconsin (road) would get much more national respect than the current unranked product.

Iowa would need the committee to overlook a bad loss and an incredibly favorable Big Ten schedule (no Michigan State or Ohio State, toughest road game at Minnesota). Can't see it happening.

We're still looking at Michigan State as the Big Ten's most realistic playoff hopeful. If the Spartans reach Indy with a second consecutive perfect regular-season league record, they'll be on the playoff's doorstep.

But they might a nudge over the threshold. A quality opponent provides one.

It's why the wild, wild West needs a team -- ideally one with badges, Colt .45s and handlebar mustaches -- to restore playoff order.

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
8:00
PM ET
Michigan is back on the winning track but not quite back in the bowl projections.

Brady Hoke's team ended its three-game slide Saturday night by grinding out an 18-13 win against Penn State at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines' defense locked down Penn State, but many of Michigan's problems remain, and three more wins still seems like a tall order.

We considered dumping Penn State from the projections as the Nittany Lions' offensive woes up front could be unfixable this season. But James Franklin's team needs only two wins to qualify for postseason play, and with games left against Indiana, Temple and Illinois, the Lions should get there.

The favorites held serve around the Big Ten in Week 7, but we have a bit of shuffling as Minnesota continues to make strides and deserves more love in the projections. It's also important to project non-repeat destinations, so Iowa moves out of the Outback Bowl (for now) and Minnesota moves up.

Melvin Gordon is a stud, but Wisconsin continues to look faulty and falls down a spot.

Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland have excellent opportunities to rise in the projections this week as they take on Ohio State and Iowa, respectively.

The winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Nov. 8 will be in decent shape for College Football Playoff selection, as long as it runs the table. But for now, we have both the Buckeyes and Spartans in contract bowls.

Enough rambling. Projection time ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Iowa
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Wisconsin
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Penn State
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
2:00
PM ET
Five observations from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Gophers are contenders: The wins aren’t usually pretty, but it doesn’t take any style points to win a conference championship. Offensive limitations certainly cut down on Minnesota’s margin for error every week, but with running back David Cobb pounding away at teams and a stout defense, the victories are starting to pile up for coach Jerry Kill, who appears to have a legitimate contender on his hands. Knocking off resurgent Northwestern 24-17 puts the Gophers on top of the West Division with manageable games on deck against Purdue and Illinois, which could allow them to build momentum ahead of a tough closing stretch in November. By the end of October, there might not be a team in better position in the wide-open West.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's David Cobb
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb rushed 30 times for 97 yards, helping Minnesota to a 2-0 record in the Big Ten.
2. Ferentz, Hawkeyes alive and well: Meet the new Kirk Ferentz, fearless riverboat gambler in do-or-die, fourth-and-goal situations and manager of a two-quarterback system. Indiana’s suspect defense might have made it easier for Ferentz to get aggressive just before halftime Saturday, and the Hawkeyes might have given the scoreboard a workout regardless of who was taking the snaps. But after some ugly play in September, Iowa appears to be finding an identity and gaining confidence at the right time now that Big Ten play has arrived. Iowa has taken care of business in both league games so far, including Saturday's 45-29 win over the Hoosiers, and like Minnesota, that alone makes it a threat in the unpredictable West.

3. Uphill battle ahead of Hackenberg, Nittany Lions: The talent is still plain to see at times, but Christian Hackenberg's development might be getting stunted by Penn State’s anemic offensive line. The sophomore looks like he’s preparing to get hit every time he takes a snap, and that’s leading to some horrible decisions and inaccurate passes that are catching up with the Nittany Lions after their fast start under James Franklin. Without Hackenberg’s ill-advised attempt under pressure that was picked off in the second half on Saturday night, Michigan’s toothless offense probably would have never been in position to kick a game-tying field goal, and his intentional grounding on Penn State’s final drive clinched the 18-13 defeat. Devin Gardner is in a similar situation behind Michigan’s suspect offensive line, and both guys should prepare to take a lot more punishment over the next few weeks.

4. Spartans still missing a complete effort: Purdue has noticeably improved and deserves credit for the strides it has made in coach Darrell Hazell’s second season with the program. But there’s still no real excuse for the reigning Big Ten champions and a team aiming to get back in the College Football Playoff conversation to lose concentration and allow opponents to climb back into games down the stretch the way Michigan State did for the second week in a row. The Spartans claimed to have learned a lesson after nearly giving away a win over Nebraska last week, but it doesn’t appear to have sunk in yet following a 45-31 win over the Boilermakers. Even Mark Dantonio will have to accept some blame this time after his head-scratching decision to fake a punt deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter.

5. Defenses sinking Illinois, Indiana: Both programs are still more than capable of scoring points, even with injuries limiting their quarterbacks. But the Illini and Hoosiers just aren’t going anywhere with such porous defenses continuing to undermine any efforts on the other side of the ball. Illinois showed some fight for coach Tim Beckman during a 38-28 loss, but its tackling was shoddy far more often than not and it couldn’t slow down even a one-dimensional Wisconsin offense that is barely a threat to pass at all. And an Iowa team that hadn’t scored more than 24 points in a game all season surpassed that total by the end of the first quarter, once again showing how far the Hoosiers have to go defensively if they’re going to turn things around and get back to a bowl game.
Early in the second half of a 27-22 win over Nebraska, Michigan State defensive end Marcus Rush slipped around the end of the offensive line and jarred the ball loose from the Cornhuskers’ Tommy Armstrong Jr. Rush stood menacingly over the crumpled quarterback, but he went unnoticed. The spotlight had already shifted downfield to a teammate recovering the fumble he created.

Later, on his final play of the game, Rush bullied his way into the backfield again and pressured Armstrong into throwing a game-clinching interception. He threw his arms in the air to celebrate. The cameras once again were pointed elsewhere, which is just the way Rush likes it.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Rush
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMarcus Rush leads the Spartans with 6.5 tackles for loss this season.
 The redshirt senior has had as much success slipping past the spotlight as he’s had slipping past opposing linemen during his long career at Michigan State.

“Not a lot of people talk about him. He’s one of those silent but deadly type of guys,” said Shilique Calhoun, Rush’s more boisterous counterpart on the opposite end of the defensive line. “He won’t say much. You won’t know he’s coming, but it happens in an instant.”

Rush and Calhoun are bookends on a Spartan defensive front that acquitted itself well against one of the Big Ten’s best running attacks a week ago. Along with crushing Ameer Abdullah’s Heisman hopes, Michigan State sacked Armstrong five times and pressured him routinely. Rush and Calhoun had one sack each, helping the defense improve its average to four per game -- tied for third best in the country.

They head to Purdue this weekend as arguably the best one-two punch at defensive end in college football, but outside of East Lansing few have heard of the first part of that combination. Even fewer know that Rush currently leads the Spartans with 6.5 tackles for loss this season, and his 3.5 sacks are slightly ahead of Calhoun’s three.

“Shilique gets more of the pub, but Marcus is a guy who comes in and works hard,” safety Kurtis Drummond said. “He pushes Shilique and they push each other. Marcus has been making plays for us his whole career, so I don't understand why he doesn't get the recognition that he should get."

Part of the reason is that Rush has made a habit of avoiding media attention when he can. Part of it is that he’s been so consistent for so long that the rest of the defense tends to take him for granted. While Calhoun, the preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, got off to an underwhelming start this season, Rush has been his usual, reliable self.

Rush has started 45 of the last 46 games for Michigan State. Head coach Mark Dantonio said the Cincinnati native has been dominant since stepping into the lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2011. He’s grown as a leader since then, but his play has always been disruptive.

“On the football field you’re not going to be starting if you’re not consistent,” Rush said when asked about the source of his steadiness. “I think that started my redshirt freshman year when I first got the chance to play. It was just about making sure I got the chance to play the next week.”

He did. And he’s had the chance to play every week after that, starting all but one time -- against Iowa in 2013 when he played through a minor ankle issue. Barring any unforeseen circumstances in October, Rush will tie the program career starts record with his 49th against Ohio State on Nov. 8. He can finish with as many as 55, a total almost impossible to top, if Michigan State makes it to the Big Ten title game and wins a game in the College Football Playoff.

Rush said he’s lucky to have made it this deep into his college career without any major injuries. Even those haven’t slowed him down much in the past. Following his senior season at Moeller High School, Rush underwent shoulder surgery. A week later, according to his coaches at Moeller, Rush was back in weight room. When it came time to squat he held one end of the bar balanced on his back and had a teammate hold the side of his recently repaired arm, which he kept in its sling.

That type of dedication was the cornerstone of Rush’s ability to get on the field early in East Lansing. The results have always been there, even if no one seems to notice.

Big Ten viewer’s guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
10:00
AM ET
Week 7 is here, and let’s not sugarcoat it: Big Ten football has looked more interesting on other weekends. This first Saturday of the season without nonconference action lacks marquee matchups. Still, the division races will continue to take shape.

Here’s a look at the five games (all times Eastern):

Noon

Illinois (3-3) and Wisconsin (3-2), ESPN2: Will Melvin Gordon run for 300 yards? If the Badgers wanted it to happen, Illinois’ 119th-ranked rushing defense would likely comply. More of the intrigue in Madison involves the quarterbacks. For Wisconsin, Joel Stave, who returned last week against Northwestern, will see time, in addition to Tanner McEvoy, who might also take a shot at receiver. And with Illinois’ Wes Lunt out with a fractured leg, senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey, who was set to redshirt, have competed in practice this week.

Indiana (3-2) and Iowa (4-1), ESPNU: Indiana has shown it can win on the road in tough spots, handing Missouri its lone loss on Sept. 20. The Hoosiers are more explosive on offense than any foe Iowa has faced. But Indiana still can’t defend well, in particular against proficient quarterbacks. The Hawkeyes are going back to Jake Rudock at the start, but C.J. Beathard will play. How well can Greg Davis manage this? If it’s a disaster, Indiana might just find itself in the right place at the right time for an upset bid.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb and Minnesota can take a big step in their quest for a Western Division crown by beating Northwestern on Saturday.
Northwestern (3-2) at Minnesota (4-1), BTN: Who would have guessed a month ago, as the Golden Gophers fell flat at TCU and the Wildcats sat winless, that this game would have legitimate implications for the West Division title race? It does, with NU in quest of a third straight unexpected win to open league play. Its defense led the charge against Penn State and Wisconsin. Minnesota is simply solid, led by David Cobb, statistically the league’s most valuable offensive player. Minnesota has defended the pass especially well in recent games and will test Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian, 13th in the Big Ten in QBR.

3:30 p.m.

No. 8 Michigan State (4-1) at Purdue (3-3), ESPN2: At least it’s not the best team in the Big Ten against the worst. Purdue escaped the low spot last week with a win over Illinois. And sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby looked good in the victory. Very good, in fact. Back at home, he figures to find a much more difficult situation against the Spartans, who might come in a bit angry after nearly blowing a 24-point, fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska.

7 p.m.

Penn State (4-1) at Michigan (2-4), ESPN2: The visitors from Happy Valley, after an off week, get an opportunity to show that their anemic performance against Northwestern was just a fluke. With an upcoming stretch of three challenging games, no better time exists for PSU to get healthy than at Michigan, trying to avoid its first 0-3 start in the Big Ten since 1965. Against a good Penn State front, the Wolverines must protect Devin Gardner and throw the football, neither of which they’ve done well in recent weeks.

Required reading
Tim Beckman is 1-17 in Big Ten games and questions about his future has hindered the Illini's recruiting efforts. Plus, Georgia Tech has surprised both on the field and on the recruiting trial.

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