Tuesday, September 18, 2007

This weekend's prime Big Ten matchups

Time to look ahead to this weekend because, let's face it, it's never too early to start thinking about college football.

Let's take a quick look at three intriguing matchups involving Big Ten teams. Later this week we'll take a look at some big SEC matches and the mediocrity of this weekend's Saturday Night Football split telecast (it's why Iowa/Wisconsin is not included here).

Illinois at Indiana
Why it's important: The Big Ten's perennial bottom-feeders square off in each team's conference opener. Both are off to a decent start -- a combined 5-1 record between them -- with the only loss between the two coming when Missouri beat Illinois in a tense 40-34 game in St. Louis. One will be one step closer to a long-awaited bowl game, the other will head back to the basement. Ron Zook is out to prove he's more than just a glorified recruiter, and Indiana still looks to honor the memory of Terry Hoeppner.
Important Stat: Illinois and Indiana have combined for a 13-67 conference record since 2002. The best performance put up by either team over the last five seasons was a 4-4 finish by Illinois in 2002. Indiana went 3-5 last year. Over that same span, Indiana was 1-7 four times and Illinois went 0-8 twice.
The Edge: Of the two Memorial Stadiums, this one's being played at Indiana's, so I think the home field advantage gives it to the Hoosiers.

Penn State at Michigan
Why it's important:
The winner in Ann Arbor Saturday gets the inside track at the Big Ten title. I know that sounds odd, with Michigan's 0-2 start, but c'mon, it's Michigan. They're bound to bounce back somehow. Both get Ohio State and Purdue at home and Penn State gets to play Wisconsin in Beaver Stadium. Anthony Morelli is making smarter passing decisions, but still needs to work on his overall play. (In other words, let's not scramble with 14 seconds left in the half, cut away from the sideline and cough up the ball.) It should be interesting to see if the Wolverine's D has improved or whether the Notre Dame O-line was just that awful. Lloyd Carr may also be pulling a Charlie Weis and we may never know if Chad Henne or Ryan Mallet will be the starting QB for Michigan until the 3:30pm kickoff.
Important Stat: The last time Penn State beat Michigan was 1996. In other words, Lloyd Carr owns Joe Paterno. Luckily for Nittany Lions fans, most Wolverine fans only remember that Jim Tressel owns Lloyd Carr.
The Edge: Penn State, but only if Joe Paterno releases Anthony Morelli and Galen Hall from his chokehold and lets them exploit the Michigan secondary. Austin Scott or Rodney Kinlaw up the middle is not going to win this football game.

Michigan State at Notre Dame
Why it's important:
Notre Dame has never started 0-4. I think this is only the second time they've started 0-3 -- something Ty Willingham never did -- but surely the first 0-3 squad never looked this bad. Just the other day, I saw an ESPN report about Notre Dame students' reaction to the 0-3 start. One sophomore said, "Well, as long as we keep the winning streak against Navy alive, I think we'll call it a successful season." Charlie Weis will be looking to right the ship at home. Mark Dantonio will be looking to avoid that typical, disappointing slump that annually started about this time of the season in the John L. Smith era. Sparty might be handing the Irish a historic loss if they can't get their act together quickly.
Important Stat: Notre Dame leads the nation in most sacks allowed this season thus far, at 23. (Hey, at least they lead in one category.) Michigan State is tied for the most sacks against their opponents, at (I believe) 17. Yikes. Jimmy Clausen better bring a lot of ActivOn and IcyHot to the stadium Saturday.
The Edge: Michigan State. If Michigan can put up 38 points and devour Notre Dame fresh off a 39-7 embarrassment against Oregon (and some other travesty that Michigan fans no longer speak of), then Sparty's got a damn good shot.

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