This week is the last round of Big 10 action before Championship Week, and much of the discussion around the conference hasn’t been about what games are to be played this weekend, but rather which games will NOT be played.
We learned earlier this week that Ohio State’s annual rivalry clash with Michigan was canceled amid COVID concerns in the Wolverines’ program.
For a quick minute, the Buckeyes were left under the six-game minimum for entry into the Big 10 title game and with their College Football Playoff hopes in serious flux. The conference decided to adjust their criteria, so even without a game this week, Ohio State will be headed to Indy next week for a championship contest against Northwestern.
So, no OSU-Michigan this week. We’ve also had Indiana-Purdue stricken from the schedule, which leaves five conference games on Saturday.
It might not be pretty or exciting, but there’s still some intrigue left on the Big 10 board. Let’s break it down (lines, as always, provided by Bovada):
Rutgers (2-5) vs. Maryland (2-2)
The Line: Maryland -7
The first of a noon four-pack of games, Rutgers will look to bounce back from a 23-7 loss to Penn State last week, while the Terps have had three of their last five games canceled and are likely just happy to be on the field at all.
Maryland had looked to be having a promising year earlier this season, 2-1 with a nice win over a Penn State team that we hadn’t yet realized to be as bad as they’ve been. Since that win on Nov. 7, the Terps have had games with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan canceled, and a loss to Indiana sandwiched in there as well.
They’re likely more talented than Rutgers, but with so little game experience over the last month and a half they’re tough to gauge at this point.
The Scarlet Knights haven’t enjoyed a whole lot of winning this year but they’ve been competitive in just about every game they’ve played, with the exception of last week’s loss to Penn State.
I like the direction Rutgers is heading, and while I think Maryland might be trending the same way, I think their program just took too many COVID-induced lumps this year to really trust them this late in the season.
The Pick: Rutgers +7
Illinois (2-4) vs. #14 Northwestern (5-1)
The Line: Northwestern -14
The Wildcats’ last stop before the Big Ten title game is at home in Evanston, hosting the Fighting Illini.
Northwestern is locked into the title game, but early lines have them projected as a 20-point underdog against Ohio State. That may be fair, but you could bet a 5-1 team that’s played as well as this team is going to feel slighted by such a big number.
Thus, I’ll use the same idea I used last week with Ohio State: This Northwestern team doesn’t want to be limping into Indianapolis off a dogfight with Illinois. They’re going to be looking for style points.
Couple that with the fact that the Wildcats’ strength is their awesome defense, while Illinois’ offense has been pretty pedestrian this year, and I think Northwestern has little trouble dispatching the Illini.
The Pick: Northwestern -14
Minnesota (2-3) vs. Nebraska (2-4)
The Line: Nebraska -10.5
My, how things have turned for the Golden Gophers. Pegged as a contender for the conference championship, Minnesota is playing the last week of B1G action below .500 and as a double-digit underdog to Nebraska.
Part of that margin is the fact that Minnesota hasn’t played in three weeks, and Nebraska is coming off a nice-looking win over Purdue. Adrian Martinez looked good sliding back in at QB for the Huskers, and they have a chance to finish strong here.
Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim had been gashing every team in his path before the last two canceled games, and the RB has yet to be held below 100 yards on the ground this year. Nebraska’s not going to hold him there, either.
I think these teams will play each other close, points will be scored en masse, but I think the Gophers will, at the very least, keep it to single digits. I think they’ll win straight up, honestly, but I feel safe taking the points here.
The Pick: Minnesota +10.5
Michigan State (2-4) vs. Penn State (2-5)
The Line: Penn State -14.5
Most years, this is a marquee matchup, but in 2020 this is a battle of two once-proud programs scrapping for win #3.
That’s a lot of point for the Nittany Lions to be laying against a team with essentially the same amount of success this year, but Penn State’s actually on something of a heater, winning two in a row (context being key, the wins were over Michigan and Rutgers). It’s much too late, but Penn State does look to have picked themselves up off the canvas here.
The Spartans just got smoked by Ohio State, but that’s just par for the course against the Buckeyes this year. They handed Northwestern their only loss of the year the week prior.
What’s got me leaning PSU here is the Lions’ defense, which has been decent this year. Michigan State really only moves the ball through the air, and Penn State’s 191 passing yards allowed is 2nd in the conference this year.
I also think it’s kind of amusing that a nice win for PSU here might save James Franklin’s job, and I’m all for another year of James Franklin in Happy Valley, even if Penn State fans are not.
The Pick: Penn State -14.5
Wisconsin (2-2) vs. #16 Iowa (5-2)
The Line: Wisconsin -2
Iowa. Iowa. Iowa.
The Hawkeyes were 0-2 once upon a time. Do you remember that? Then they went scorched earth, dismantling Michigan State, Minnesota and Penn State before a couple of close wins over Nebraska and Illinois. They could score points if they want to, or they could grind you into dust with their defense.
Plus, Iowa’s one of three Big 10 programs not disrupted at all by COVID, along with Rutgers and Penn State. Clearly, it didn’t help those two other teams, but the Hawkeyes THRIVE on consistency.
Wisconsin has been famously ravaged by COVID this year, and they’ve lost the last two games they’ve been able to play, including being held entirely out of the end zone by Indiana last week.
They’re cooked, and they know it. Perhaps more than any other program in the Big 10, the Badgers’ season will be defined by the coronavirus, and I think they’re already trying to get to the offseason.
The Pick: Iowa +2