NCF Nation: Michigan Wolverines

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
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Those in Ann Arbor will understandably disagree, but Week 4 was a very good one for the Big Ten. The league went 12-1 and won several games in impressive fashion. When almost every team handles its bid-ness, there's not much shuffling in the bowl projections.

The big development this week is Indiana's return. Seven days after an all-too-typical, potentially bowl-crushing loss at Bowling Green, Indiana recorded its biggest win in years, shocking No. 18 Missouri on the road. The Hoosiers are back in the projections and could rise higher in the coming weeks if they can build on the Missouri win. For now, we have them receiving an at-large bowl invitation.

Michigan moves down after its loss to Utah. The Michigan brand still carries weight in the bowl pecking order, but this Wolverines team could have a tough time reaching the six-win mark if its offense doesn't dramatically improve. The Wolverines are last nationally in turnover margin at minus-10 through four games. Yuck.

For now, we have Michigan essentially staying home for bowl season in Detroit.

New Big Tenners Maryland and Rutgers, meanwhile, move up after impressive starts.

Expect more shuffling next week as Big Ten play begins in full force. Several matchups could affect the order, namely Minnesota visiting Michigan and Indiana visiting Maryland.

To the projections ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Ohio State
Capital One: Penn State
Outback: Nebraska
National University Holiday: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Iowa
San Francisco: Maryland
New Era Pinstripe: Rutgers
Quick Lane: Michigan
Heart of Dallas: Minnesota
At-large: Indiana

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
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Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. The Big Ten can step up in key games: After two weeks of justified bashing, the Big Ten deserves some credit for bouncing back nicely in the last meaningful Saturday of nonconference play. The league went 3-0 against the ACC and recorded a huge road win against a ranked SEC opponent as Indiana stunned No. 18 Missouri in Columbia. Iowa finally found its swagger -- and, potentially, its new quarterback (C.J. Beathard) -- in rallying to beat Pitt. Nebraska didn't lose its composure in a chippy game against Miami and outlasted the Canes behind star back Ameer Abdullah. And all three games against MAC teams -- Michigan State-Eastern Michigan, Wisconsin-Bowling Green and Penn State-Massachusetts -- turned into routs by the Big Ten squads. Michigan remains a black eye for the league, but everyone else took a step forward and the Big Ten bolstered its record against Power 5 opponents. It doesn't erase the damage done the previous two weeks, but the Big Ten can feel a little better as league play cranks up next week.

[+] EnlargeRalston Evans
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesIndiana had plenty of reason to celebrate on Saturday after notching a signature win over No. 18 Missouri.
2. Indiana is back on track: Same old Hoosiers. That's what everyone said in Week 2 when an Indiana defense that hasn't stopped anyone for two decades let Bowling Green march downfield for the game-winning score. The loss made bowl eligibility seem unlikely and raised questions about the program's direction under fourth-year coach Kevin Wilson. And then Indiana did the most un-Indiana-like thing imaginable: beat Missouri on the road, 31-27, thanks in large part to its defense. The Hoosiers limited Missouri to one second-half touchdown, and Tevin Coleman (132 yards rushing, one touchdown) showed why he's one of the nation's best big-play backs. It added up to the biggest win of the Wilson era and the biggest in recent memory for IU. The coaches and players deserve a ton of credit for rebounding from the Bowling Green setback. IU has teased us before, but a win like this suggests the program is truly turning a corner under Wilson.

3. Michigan's offense is just getting worse: Brady Hoke hired Doug Nussmeier to fix Michigan's offense and save his job as head coach. But Michigan's offensive woes clearly run deeper than the playcaller, as the unit has amazingly managed to backtrack this year. The Wolverines have yet to reach the red zone in 23 drives against Power 5 opponents (Notre Dame and Utah). The turnover troubles that plagued them in the past have only intensified, as four more giveaways against Utah leave Michigan with 12 on the season and a minus-10 turnover margin. There was a rock-bottom feeling about the 26-10 Utah loss, which ended at a mostly empty, waterlogged Michigan Stadium following a weather delay. Athletic director Dave Brandon repeatedly gave Hoke a vote of confidence before the season, but if the offense doesn't improve in Big Ten play, Hoke could be in serious trouble.

4. B1G's newcomers are better than expected: The Big Ten might have added Maryland and Rutgers because of their favorable locations, but the league is getting an added bonus so far this season. Both programs could be undefeated and both have won two games away from home in the first three weeks. Maryland responded from a last-second loss to West Virginia and beat Syracuse, 34-20, behind big plays in all three phases. Will Likely continued his excellent season with an 88-yard pick-six, while quarterback C.J. Brown and running back Brandon Ross connected on a 90-yard score on a screen pass. Rutgers beat an always-tricky Navy team, 31-24, in Annapolis, Maryland, despite losing star running back Paul James in the first half. Quarterback Gary Nova responded from his five-interception debacle with a clean performance (12-of-15 passing, no interceptions), and running backs Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples picked up the slack with James sidelined.

5. Melvin Gordon is going to be just fine: Until Saturday, things had not gone as expected this season for the Wisconsin star. He barely saw the field in the second half of a Week 1 loss to LSU and was held to 38 rush yards on 17 carries against FCS opponent Western Illinois in Week 2. But after an early fumble against Bowling Green, Gordon could not be stopped. He rushed for a career-high 253 yards, the most by an FBS back this season, and tied the team record with five touchdowns in a 68-17 win. And he did it on only 13 carries, recording the best single-game yards-per-carry average (19.5) in team history by a wide margin (14.5 was next best). Gordon even put himself in the company of the great Glenn Davis, as he's tied with the Army star for the NCAA career yards-per-carry record (8.26). Although Gordon will face better defenses this season, he appears to be just fine for Big Ten play. "The unselfishness of Melvin Gordon ... has been incredible," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. "I'm so proud of the way that he's handled it. Today was his day."

Stormy night clouds Michigan's future

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
11:20
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The announcement at the start of the fourth quarter thundered ominously, perhaps even forebodingly, from the public address system Saturday night at Michigan Stadium.

The detached voice informed a thinning crowd that severe storms were approaching Michigan’s campus and were expected to reach the stadium within 20 minutes. The sheets of rain and lightning strikes arrived on schedule and delayed a painful day for the Wolverines an extra 144 minutes. The few hundred fans who returned to the Big House after the weather cleared witnessed the end of a 26-10 loss to visiting Utah (3-0) and, if things continue in this direction in Ann Arbor, perhaps the beginning of the end of something much larger and ominous.

Brady Hoke started his fourth season as head coach at Michigan on thin ice, and the first month of the 2014 season has done nothing to halt the melting. Hoke’s team fell to 2-2, with a 31-0 shutout loss to rival Notre Dame and a sound defeat at the hands of the Utes filling the loss column.

It’s not so much the record that created a feeling of woe following Saturday’s game. The manner in which the day unfolded left a locker room disappointed and searching for answers.

“I’m concerned about everything that we’re doing,” Hoke said. “We need to play better. We need to make sure we execute better.”

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier, Brady Hoke
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and head coach Brady Hoke are looking for ways to fix a turnover-prone offense.
The frustration of the Michigan coaching staff started to boil over before halftime, when the score was still 10-10 and Michigan’s defense looked stout enough to keep the game close. Cameras captured Hoke jawing with defensive coordinator Greg Mattison following a sideline-infraction penalty late in the second quarter.

Hoke said their “discussion” was nothing out of the ordinary for the two coaches who have worked together on and off for the past 30 years. Michigan’s players defended their coaching staff after the game and echoed Hoke’s mantra that execution and “the little things” are what continue to trip them up.

“It comes down to execution, and we didn’t execute,” said senior middle linebacker Jake Ryan, who made a team-high 13 tackles. “We have the best coaches there are. I’ve got to give all the credit in the world to them.”

Most of the flubbed execution for the Wolverines this season has come on the other side of the ball.

Michigan’s offense didn’t score after the first drive of the game Saturday. It hasn’t run a play inside the red zone in either of its two losses this season. It ran one play inside the Utah 40-yard line in the final 49 minutes Saturday, and that was a pass intercepted by Utah’s Brian Blechen.

That was the first of three interceptions thrown by Wolverines quarterbacks, which sunk the nation’s worst turnover margin to a minus-10. Senior starter Devin Gardner (14-of-26 passing for 148 yards) was responsible for two of the interceptions, with the second one coming on his final play of the day with 13 minutes, 37 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Shane Morris replaced him and threw an interception on his first drive. He also fumbled on the next drive after play resumed.

Hoke said it was too early to assess who his starting quarterback will be when the team starts Big Ten play next Saturday against Minnesota. Turnovers have been the biggest bugaboo thus far for Michigan, but the changes the Wolverines need, if Hoke is going to survive for a fifth season in Ann Arbor, are broader than one player.

“I don’t think there has to be an overhaul. I think it’s our execution, the little things that we need to do. And again, that starts here,” Hoke said, pointing to himself.

What is certain is the Wolverines are in need of a change. Michigan has lost seven of its past 11 games and three of its past four against FBS competition at Michigan Stadium. The program has trended steadily backward since its overtime victory over Virginia Tech at the Sugar Bowl in Hoke’s first season.

Michigan scheduled this home-and-home series with Utah the summer after that BCS victory. The fact that the Wolverines offered Utah $1 million to travel to Ann Arbor, the type of carrot big-time programs typically use to lure sacrificial lambs into their stadiums, speaks volumes about how much has changed since then. Hoke’s team is 17-13 in the past three years.

“I don’t know if I have all the answers,” center Jack Miller said.

Doubt that anyone has the answers -- at least those outside the walls of Michigan’s locker room -- must be creeping in.

Hoke hasn’t lost control, or hope, yet. It’s still September, after all. He reminded his players after the game of the 1998 Michigan team he helped coach to a share of the Big Ten title after it lost its first two games.

Michigan has eight games remaining against teams from the Big Ten, a league that did a lot to bolster its reputation Saturday after two rocky weeks in nonconference play. Even an imperfect run through conference play -- perhaps capped with a win over rival Ohio State -- could be enough to inspire optimism for the future.

Hoke can still salvage the job he called his dream destination before it ever opened to him, but he’ll be fighting an uphill battle from here. Michigan has been sufficiently warned: The storm is coming.
It's an indelible image in college football history: Desmond Howard striking the Heisman pose after returning a punt for a touchdown in Michigan's 1991 win against Ohio State.

Well, this one wasn't so sweet for Wolverines fans. In Saturday's game at Michigan Stadium, Utah's Kaelin Clay returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown and struck a Heisman pose in almost the exact same spot as Howard 23 years ago.

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Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
8:00
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The chances to bolster the leaguewide résumé are running low, and the Big Ten already has squandered almost all of them. Can it turn things around today before conference action picks up in earnest next week? Or is more of the same from the past couple of Saturdays on tap starting at noon?

There's only one way to find out, and here’s the blueprint for following all the action (all times Eastern):

Noon games

[+] EnlargeJames Conner
Gregory J. Fisher/USA TODAY SportsIowa's schedule doesn't get any easier, as it comes off the loss to Iowa State with a tough matchup at Pittsburgh.
Iowa (2-1) at Pittsburgh (3-0), ESPNU: So much for that supposedly easy schedule. The Hawkeyes have strangely been unable to run the football, which made their conservative play calling a problem in last week’s loss to Iowa State. The Panthers are more talented and Iowa must travel to play them, which could present a real test for coach Kirk Ferentz.

Eastern Michigan (1-2) at No. 11 Michigan State (1-1), BTN: The Spartans had some extra time to regroup after the loss at Oregon, and that doesn’t bode well heading into the last two weeks of nonconference action for their opponents. First up is Eastern Michigan, which will have its hands full with Connor Cook and what so far seems to be a much more dangerous offense for the reigning conference champs.

Western Illinois (2-1) at Northwestern (0-2), ESPNews: The bye week was definitely not a time to rest for the Wildcats or Pat Fitzgerald, who certainly wasn’t expecting to be in this early hole as the nightmare year for the program continued with two early losses. If Northwestern didn’t find some answers ahead of the visit from Western Illinois, there’s not much left to look forward to this fall.

Southern Illinois (3-0) at Purdue (1-2), BTN: There were signs of life from the Boilermakers in the loss against Notre Dame, though in the end they didn’t have the talent to hang around for four quarters. Purdue’s non-Big Ten slate wraps up this weekend, and it could surely use a confidence boost before hosting Iowa next weekend.

Bowling Green (2-1) at No. 19 Wisconsin (1-1), ESPN2: The Badgers are still something of a mystery at this point thanks to an off date last week following a relatively uneventful win over FCS-member Western Illinois. The Falcons already have a win over a Big Ten team and can wear defenses out with their up-tempo attack, which might make this a good time for Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin running game to get rolling.

Maryland (2-1) at Syracuse (2-0), 12:30 p.m., GamePlan: This matchup might be better suited for the hardwood, but the Terrapins and Orange could put on a pretty good show in pads at the Carrier Dome. Maryland has proved capable of putting up points in bunches while Syracuse relies on its defense, leaving an intriguing contrast of styles before Randy Edsall’s team dives into its first Big Ten action.

Midafternoon games

Utah (2-0) at Michigan (2-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke usually takes care of business at the Big House, but this could be a difficult matchup with Utah scoring at least 56 points in each of its first two games. If this turns into a shootout, the Wolverines and quarterback Devin Gardner will have to protect the football much better than they have so far this season to build some momentum for Minnesota’s visit next week.

Rutgers (2-1) at Navy (2-1), 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Even in a losing effort, the Scarlet Knights impressed in their Big Ten debut last week against Penn State. Rutgers can create problems with its stout defense and nearly won last week despite getting almost no offensive help, though Navy could easily pose problems with its tricky triple-option rushing attack.

Massachusetts (0-3) at Penn State (3-0), 4 p.m., BTN: The wins may not be all that overpowering, but the Nittany Lions are undefeated -- and for now, that’s enough to make them contenders in both the Big Ten and nationally until the outcomes change. Christian Hackenberg should have some chances to add to his résumé again this week as he faces a UMass defense allowing 35 points per game.

San Jose State (1-1) at Minnesota (2-1), 4 p.m., BTN: Uncertainty continues to swirl around the quarterback position for the Gophers, but whether or not Mitch Leidner plays again this week, the rushing game figures to be front and center. The two programs met last season, and Minnesota exploded for 353 rushing yards and won easily while completing just five passes.

Texas State (1-1) at Illinois (2-1), 4 p.m., ESPNews: The Illini and their high-powered offense hit a stumbling block last week at Washington, but they’re back home again Saturday afternoon and looking to unleash Wes Lunt again through the air. If Illinois is serious about making a push for bowl eligibility this season, this is a game the Illini can’t afford to overlook with a trip to Nebraska looming.

Indiana (1-1) at No. 18 Missouri (3-0), 4 p.m., SEC Network: Bowl projections for the Hoosiers almost certainly banked on a victory last week at Bowling Green, but that one slipped away and Kevin Wilson’s program now is a bit behind schedule in the win column. A soft defense continues to plague Indiana, and that could be an issue against a Missouri offense that has scored at least 38 points in each of its three wins so far.

Night game

Miami (2-1) at No. 24 Nebraska (3-0), 8 p.m., ESPN2: The latest polls might not reflect it, but this is still a prestigious matchup packed with historical significance. Having already lost and coming in unranked, the Hurricanes aren’t as close to competing for college football’s top prize as the Huskers. But if Bo Pelini and his team can knock off Miami to stay unbeaten, that might be a victory that resonates as the season progresses.

Bye week

Ohio State

Required reading

Utah matchup special for Michigan's Mone

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
12:00
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There will be several familiar faces in Michigan Stadium Saturday afternoon for freshman defensive tackle Bryan Mone when his Wolverines host Utah. The Salt Lake City product will get a chance to square off with former high school teammates and friends, but he is most looking forward to seeing his parents on their first trip to his new home.

Homesickness is a common ailment among freshmen football players across the country, but it hit Mone harder than most. Making the 1,600-mile move east to Ann Arbor was a difficult decision. Not only was he leaving behind his tight-knit Tongan family, but he was also leaving them with the heavy responsibilities he shouldered for many years.

Since the start of junior high Mone has been largely in charge of caring for his older brother Filimone, who was born in Tonga with health problems that have prevented him from walking, talking or fending for himself. Bryan, seven years his brother’s junior, hustled home from football practice throughout high school to feed Filimone, change his diapers and help move him around the house. The family jokes that Mone’s first foray into weight training was lifting his brother.

[+] EnlargeBryan Mone
Courtesy of IntersportMichigan freshman Bryan Mone on family: "We come from nothing, and they're my motivation."
"I had to grow up faster than other kids," he said. "It's a blessing. I say it's a blessing."

The family moved from Tonga to California to Utah in search of the resources they needed to help Filimone. The silver lining for Mone was finding football. He landed at Highland High School in Salt Lake City, a school that has produced a handful of NFL draft picks including five-time Pro Bowler and fellow Tongan Haloti Ngata. Two other Highland alums -- Utah starting defensive end Nate Orchard and Michigan fullback Sione Houma -- will be on the field Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who coached Ngata during his time with the Baltimore Ravens, tells Mone he sees similarities between the two players. The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Mone has played all three games and has made four tackles so far for the Wolverines. He has helped to add a new element of depth to the front lines of a top 10 defense that is allowing an average of 80 rushing yards per game this season.

"The sky is the limit for him," Mattison said. "You don’t think he’s the youngest of all of them. He just got out of high school, and all the sudden he’s here starting or playing a lot for the University of Michigan."

Mone finished his high school career as the top-rated prospect in Utah. He chose to pass up scholarship offers to stay close to Filimone and the rest of his family because he thought Michigan gave him a chance to help them more in the long run.

"We come from nothing, and they're my motivation," Mone said. "At first I was planning to stay home, but I trust the coaches here. Academic-wise, I knew I'd be able to get something."

A promising future didn’t make the transition to life away from home any easier. The self-proclaimed "mama’s boy" enrolled a semester early at Michigan and struggled to deal with the distance at first. He called often to make sure his family was managing to take care of Filimone without him, and so that his brother could hear his voice.

"(Filimone) does understand his surroundings and his atmosphere. He can sense it. It did get him down a little bit," said Latu Lauhingoa, Mone's older sister who has helped pick up some of his caretaking responsibilities. "Every time Bryan calls, he wants to talk where Filimone can hear. We would just put the phone to his ear and, oh my gosh, would he smile."

Mone leaned on Houma, his current and former teammate, for support during the spring semester. He also started to develop close relationships with his fellow defensive linemen. Coaches and veterans of that unit say they have bonded more this year than in any previous seasons. Mone called them his new family. When asked if he had any particular mentors that have helped him get settled on the field, he rattled off the names of 10 fellow linemen before taking a breath.

The defensive line was heralded this offseason as a strength that would need to be an anchor of this Michigan team if it was going to rebound from a 7-6 season a year ago. The final decorating touch to their position group meeting room, which was renovated in the spring along with the rest of Schembechler Hall, is a sign that assistant coach Mark Smith hung this summer. He made all of the players sign it as an oath of sorts when they returned for fall camp in August. It reads: "I am committed to my brothers."

Among a group that universally agrees it has grown closer in the past year, no one understands that concept of commitment quite like Mone.

Butt's return provides options for Michigan

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
12:00
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Michigan sophomore Jake Butt saw teammate Dennis Norfleet running toward him pointing to the sky and decided to break doctor’s orders. Butt, having just caught his third career touchdown pass last Saturday afternoon, met his fellow receiver in mid-air at the goal line with a flying chest bump. He thought he had earned a brief celebration after all.

"I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but yeah, I did," he said. "It’s not like I have big hops anyways. It was a baby jump."

[+] EnlargeJake Butt
AP Photo/Tony DingJake Butt's touchdown catch Saturday against Miami (Ohio) was the third of his career.
Six and a half months after surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee, Butt found himself back in the end zone. His second of three catches so far this season was good for a walk-in 29-yard score against Miami (Ohio). Team doctors told Butt to avoid any unnecessary risks while his joint rounds back into shape, but he couldn’t help but get airborne to enjoy the moment.

Pushing limits helped put Butt on the field sooner than expected, even in a new era of knee rehab that has turned once-dreaded ACL injuries into surmountable obstacles. The 6-foot-6, 249-pound tight end is still working his way to full health, but his return comes at an opportune time for the Wolverines. Without star receiver Devin Funchess, whose status remains a mystery after missing last week with an apparent leg injury, Michigan’s offense is searching for new options in the passing game.

"We may play more tight ends. It just depends on what we want to do," head coach Brady Hoke said when asked about contingency plans if Funchess can’t play in a key non-conference game with Utah this weekend. "... I think again, you go back to the tight end position with getting guys ready for different personnel groups, I think that’s a positive."

Hoke said Butt’s versatility opens parts of the playbook Michigan wouldn’t be able to use if he remained on the sidelines. He expects the sophomore’s impact to grow in the coming weeks as he ramps up to full speed and loses the restrictive play count the Wolverines have set for him.

Butt made the ESPN.com All-Big Ten freshman team last season after catching 20 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. The coaching staff considered him a big part of the offensive game plan for this season, even after he hurt his knee in early February.

At the time, the Wolverines didn’t expect to have the sophomore in their lineup until the team started Big Ten play in late September. Butt had other ideas. His maternal grandfather, Bob Lally, won two national championships for Notre Dame under Frank Leahy in the 1940s, and Butt was determined to play on the same field as one of his childhood idols before Michigan’s series with the Irish expired. He set a goal the day after he was injured to play in South Bend the second week of the season. Though he took only four snaps in that game, he reached it.

"Jake was committed to getting on that field for his Papa. That was a big deal for him," said Rob Butt, Jake’s father, who attributes the fast recovery to hard work, a positive attitude, and a knack for mending quickly.

Butt broke a bone in his foot in fifth grade and shocked doctors when X-rays showed it was completely healed a little more than two weeks later. That was about the time he started scouring the Internet for ways to become a better receiver. Butt cut tennis balls in half and taped them to his palms to force himself to catch with his fingertips when his dad threw him passes in the backyard. His reputation for working hard followed him through an all-state high school career in Ohio.

The same attitude led Butt to impatiently grind away at whatever the Michigan training staff allowed him to do during the past six months. He set up camp in the trainer’s office, receiving treatment while he ate or studied or did just about anything else. After rehab sessions, he went home and repeated the drills on his own in his apartment.

"When he got hurt he said I’m going to have the quickest ACL recovery in history," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "When you know the kid, nothing would surprise you. Each and every day we’re trying to give him a little bit more. He’s a phenomenal football player."

Butt’s ability to create matchup issues for opposing defenses will make him a key piece in Nussmeier’s offense, especially if Funchess needs more time to return to the lineup. He took a big step forward last weekend with three catches for 59 yards and his touchdown. That return to the box score happened sooner than anticipated for just about everyone except himself.

"I hold myself to a high standard," he said. "Once they called that play, I knew I was going to get into the end zone."

Big Ten Week 4 predictions

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
9:00
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Week 4 features a new voice in the predictions mix as our new Big Ten reporter Dan Murphy jumps into the fray. It also features a handful of games our writers disagree on, including games involving programs that desperately need to rebound with a win this week.

 

Why Iowa will win: Call me a contrarian if you'd like (I've been called much worse), but Iowa seems to rise up at the unlikeliest of times. Pitt has looked way better than the Hawkeyes this season. The Panthers can run the ball (James Conner has 544 rush yards and eight touchdowns), while Iowa can't (393 rush yards, four touchdowns). Panthers coach Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin assistant, knows the Hawkeyes well. So of course I'm going with Iowa, which will discover its run game and force two second-half turnovers to rally for the win. Iowa 21, Pitt 20 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Pitt will win: Adam did a pretty good job of making my argument for me. This game hinges on who wins the battle between Iowa’s front seven and the Panthers’ running game. Conner's 214 rushing yards against Boston College in a 30-20 win look a lot more impressive this week after the Eagles held USC's entire offense to 20 rushing yards. Pitt also has some good experience in the secondary (CB Lafayette Pitts and S Ray Vinopal) that could put a dent in the strong completion percentage Jake Rudock has put together thus far. Pitt 27, Iowa 17 -- Dan Murphy

 

Why Syracuse will win: Beating MAC teams isn't easy, as the Big Ten can attest. Well, Syracuse went on the road last week and crushed Central Michigan, one of the better MAC squads, by 37 points, looking nothing like the team that was extremely fortunate to get by Villanova in its opener. The Orange are a different offense with quarterback Terrel Hunt at the helm, and they're stout in defending the run (opponents average just 2.7 yards against them). Maryland makes too many mistakes to get this win on the road. Syracuse 28, Maryland 24 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland will win: Maryland has shown an explosiveness on offense and special teams, but the Terrapins have lacked consistency. They will need to avoid the turnovers and wild mood swings on the road at Syracuse. Former Orange quarterback Randy Edsall's team has enough playmakers to get the job done. Maryland 31, Syracuse 27 -- Brian Bennett

 

Why Utah will win: Unless Brady Hoke’s unwillingness to talk about injuries is based around a desire to spring a surprise by unleashing a healthy secondary on the Utes, the Wolverines could have their hands full with Travis Wilson, the nation’s No. 2 quarterback in terms of passing efficiency. The jury is still out on Michigan’s offense as well, particularly since it was shut out at Notre Dame, its only true test so far, and has shown signs that issues protecting the football haven’t been solved. That’s not a good combination against a program that appears to be on the rebound and actually has prior experience winning at the Big House under Kyle Whittingham. Utah 34, Michigan 27 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: Utah is good, but it's no Notre Dame. The Utes' success so far this season has come against two lowly opponents -- Idaho State and Fresno State -- so they might be getting a little bit more credit than they deserve. Devin Gardner is a wild card, but I can't see him committing another four turnovers, at least not in the Big House. Michigan 31, Utah 28 -- Josh Moyer

 

Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers is actually an underdog against Navy, and this game has serious letdown potential after the Scarlet Knights got sky high for Penn State. Yet the Scarlet Knights have been very good against the run and have the defensive front to disrupt the Navy option. That will be enough to pull it out -- provided Gary Nova doesn't throw another five interceptions. Rutgers 24, Navy 21 -- Brian Bennett

Why Navy will win: The Scarlet Knights said there would be no letdown after the loss last week to Penn State. But Rutgers invested so much energy in the program’s first meeting in nearly two decades with the Nittany Lions that, yes, there will be a letdown. And be sure of this, Navy requires Rutgers’ full attention. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is expected back from injury on Saturday to lead the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense, which averages more than 400 yards. Rutgers looks equipped up front to defend the triple option with Darius Hamilton and a solid line, but Navy’s offensive efficiency will prove too much to overcome. It has won eight straight true home games dating to 2012. Make it nine. Navy 31, Rutgers 21 -- Mitch Sherman

Unanimous decisions

Illinois over Texas State, 38-21: The Illini running game finally emerges and opens things up for Wes Lunt to have a big second half in Champaign.

Missouri over Indiana, 42-27: The Hoosiers couldn’t help the Big Ten’s nonconference record against the MAC’s Bowling Green last week. They aren’t likely to turn that around against an undefeated SEC opponent.

Michigan State over Eastern Michigan, 52-3: Former Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden's last crack at the Big Ten doesn't go any better than the first time around. Mark Dantonio calls off his dogs after halftime to keep this one from getting uglier than it could.

Minnesota over San Jose State, 27-13: David Cobb and the Gophers show they are still headed in a good direction despite a disappointing showing against TCU last Saturday.

Nebraska over Miami, 34-31: The Canes have the talent to make it close, but they don’t have the quarterback to steal a game from a big-time opponent on the road yet.

Northwestern over Western Illinois, 24-10: Pat Fitzgerald keeps it simple and forces his team to play the bully role while trying to develop a new toughness in Evanston.

Penn State over UMass, 44-14: The Christian Hackenberg hype machine continues its crescendo toward a primetime matchup in the Big House in early October.

Purdue over Southern Illinois, 28-20: The Salukis put up a fight, but Danny Etling builds on a strong performance against Notre Dame to pull the Boilermakers to 2-2.

Wisconsin over Bowling Green, 33-7: Bowling Green won’t be able to sneak up on a well-rested Badgers team at Camp Randall Stadium.

Our records:

Mitch Sherman: 31-6
Adam Rittenberg: 29-8
Austin Ward: 29-8
Brian Bennett: 28-9
Josh Moyer: 27-10
One and ten. Get to know those numbers because they'll be shoved down your throat all week.

After the Big Ten's worst two-week stretch in nonconference play since, well, ever, the league sits with a 1-10 record against Power 5 teams and Notre Dame. The season looked so promising when Rutgers upset Washington State in Seattle on college football's opening night.

Since then: bupkis.

So prepare for 1-10 fever. Many of you would expect nothing else from evil ESecPN and its Big Ten-hating agenda. But 1-10 is a fact, and in a playoff-first environment where conferences will be constantly compared until Dec. 7, the Big Ten finds itself in a miserable spot.

So, you ask, is there hope for a turnaround? Sure. There's a lot of season left, and as we saw Saturday night at Boston College, anything can happen in college football. The biggest measuring-up opportunities -- Wisconsin-LSU, Michigan State-Oregon, even the Notre Dame games -- are finished, but the baby-step opportunities remain.

There are several of those for the Big Ten in Week 4. It's not the end of nonleague play, but it's the last full Saturday before conference play kicks off.

No one will confuse Missouri, Pitt, Syracuse, Utah and Miami for world beaters, although Mizzou is pretty darn good (Big Ten expansion miss?). But the Big Ten's Week 4 opponents provide chances for that 1-10 mark to look a little bit better ... or much worse.

Fans have to understand that in the playoff environment, everything is connected. Teams can be both playoff contenders and enhancers for league brethren who carry genuine playoff hopes.

For example: If Maryland beats West Virginia on Saturday, and WVU later knocks off a Big 12 heavyweight or two, Maryland suddenly carries more cache, even in subsequent defeats. If Michigan State beats Maryland later this season in College Park, the Spartans would get more playoff credit for that road win.

The problem for the Big Ten is when you lose almost all of your games against comparable conferences, your league race becomes devalued. Conference wins that could make the difference between getting into the playoff and just missing the cut aren't as impressive because of the opponent's nonleague struggles.

And don't kid yourself: it's all about the playoff now. Don't imprison yourself in a Big Ten bubble and pretend like the national race is secondary. You can still enjoy league play and all the twists and turns from now until Dec. 6 in Indianapolis. But you should ultimately judge this league on whether it's in or out on Selection Sunday. Some of you will disagree, but expecting less than the best is part of the reason why the Big Ten finds itself in this position.

That brings us to Week 4. On paper, it should be a better week for the Big Ten, but the last two weeks have shown us nothing is guaranteed.

Nebraska will beat Miami in Lincoln if it plays like it did Saturday night at Fresno State. But if the Huskers revert to McNeese State form against a Hurricanes team that never lacks talent, things could turn sour for one of the Big Ten's last two remaining unbeatens.

Michigan also gets its Power 5 foe at home, where it has been 11-0 in nonconference games under Brady Hoke (21-2 overall). But Utah leads the nation in sacks per game (5.5) and is tied for first in tackles for loss (10.5 per game), which could be a problem for a still-shaky Michigan offensive line.

Other than Rutgers, Big Ten teams have been dreadful in nonleague road games against the Power 5 -- not just losing but losing big (average margin of defeat: 24.5 points). This week, Iowa travels to Pitt, Indiana travels to Missouri and Maryland visits Syracuse.

Pitt is off to a very good start behind bruising back James Conner, while Iowa hasn't played particularly well in any of its three games. Indiana just lost to an undermanned Bowling Green team on the road, as the Falcons ran 115 plays and racked up 39 first downs. Maryland and Syracuse look fairly comparable, but Syracuse comes off an impressive win at Central Michigan, while Maryland surrendered 694 yards in the West Virginia loss.

A 4-1 or a 5-0 record in these games won't transform the national narrative about the Big Ten. But it will keep the league out of the crosshairs. After all, 6-10 sounds a lot better than 1-10.

But another bad day -- 1-4 or 0-5 -- would make the Big Ten's playoff path even trickier. And the way this season is going, expect the worst.

The Big Ten can't repair its reputation in Week 4, but it can begin the patching-up process and take some baby steps toward respectability.

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
8:00
PM ET
The major development in this week's bowl projections isn't that the Big Ten suddenly looks poised for a breakthrough postseason. If anything, things went from bad to worse for the league in Week 3 with a 3-6 record in nonconference games.

So what changed? Penn State is back. For good.

Not only did the Lions improve to 3-0 under new coach James Franklin, but they learned Monday that they once again are eligible for bowl games after two seasons of sanctions. So for the first time since the 2011 season, Penn State appears in the bowl projections. While the Lions have a lot to fix, especially on offense, they're a young, talented team that should improve throughout the season. They've posted two of the better wins (UCF and Rutgers) of any Big Ten team so far, and we like their potential to keep racking up W's.

Penn State is slotted for the Capital One Bowl, which knocks several teams down a peg. There's some shuffling at the bottom of the projections as Minnesota tumbles following its blowout loss at TCU, and Indiana falls out of the rankings entirely after an all-too-familiar-looking defeat at Bowling Green.

We continue to keep two teams in the major bowls as Ohio State rebounded nicely from the Virginia Tech loss to crush Kent State.

To the projections ...

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

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and brightest from Week 3 in the Big Ten:
  • Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: A week after Barrett's tough night against Virginia Tech, the redshirt freshman bounced back in a big way. He completed 23 of 30 passes for 312 yards and a school-record tying six touchdowns (with one interception, off a tipped ball) in the Buckeyes' 66-0 laugher over Kent State.
  • Michigan RB Derrick Green: The Wolverines struggled with Miami (Ohio) for more than two quarters, but Green's hard running helped salt the game away. The sophomore finished with 22 carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan's 34-10 victory.
  • Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: Perhaps the early frontrunner for Big Ten defensive player of the year, Zettel was terrific yet again in the Nittany Lions' 13-10 win over Rutgers. He led the defensive charge with three tackles for loss and a sack while helping control the line of scrimmage. "We couldn't handle him in the second half," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said.
  • Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: It wasn't easy most of the night for the Nittany Lions' sophomore signal caller. He was harassed under a heavy pass rush, and Penn State didn't score a touchdown for the first 58:47. But Hackenberg proved he's the king of clutch among current Big Ten quarterbacks by leading a two-minute drill that led to Bill Belton's game-winning touchdown. Hackenberg finished 25-of-44 for 309 yards and an interception.
  • Nebraska WR De'Mornay Pierson-El: The true freshman accumulated 136 yards on a pair of punt returns in the first half of the Huskers' 55-19 road win over Fresno State. Included was an 86-yarder for a touchdown, the longest ever by a Nebraska freshman. Pierson-El fills a key area of need for Nebraska, which amassed 70 yards all of last season on punt returns, averaging 3.04 yards on 23 returns to rank 121st nationally.
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.

Devin Funchess not dressed for Michigan

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
4:08
PM ET
Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess is watching Saturday's game against Miami (Ohio) in street clothes on the Wolverines' sideline. The team's leading receiver is one of three regular starters not suited up for Michigan.

Head coach Brady Hoke declined to discuss any specifics about injuries during the week. Funchess appeared to injure his leg during the second half of last week's loss to Notre Dame. Funchess ran onto the field with the team without any visible problems. He caught 16 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns during the first two weeks of the season.

Senior cornerback Raymon Taylor appeared to injure his knee during the Notre Dame game and is on the sidelines this weekend. He did not play during the second half of the 31-0 loss to the Irish. Junior safety Jarrod Wilson is also missing from the defensive starting lineup.

The Wolverines' secondary should get a boost from the return of freshman standout Jabrill Peppers. The cornerback and punt returner went through team warm-ups without any issues after missing all of last week's game in South Bend. He injured his ankle during the team's season opener against Appalachian State.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
8:00
AM ET
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

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