Wisconsin (1-2) at Penn State (0-1) - This is the game for Hawk fans to watch as Joe Paterno struggles to become the NCAA all-time leader for career coaching wins at the Division I level. Joe Pa has a career record of 322-91-3 in his 36 years as a head coach at Penn State, but has gone just 6-11 since starting out the 1999 season at 8-0. Miami made the Nittany Lions look absolutely horrible in front of a capacity crowd in Happy Valley, as they were beaten worse than the 33-7 loss indicated on September 1. Penn State has not played since that game.
Wisconsin has played much better football this season than Penn State, but they also need to redeem themselves. Head Coach Barry Alvarez uncharacteristically scheduled a tough preseason schedule, and his team is 1-2 as a result. After beating Virginia in their home opener, the Badgers lost a tough game on the road to an overrated Oregon team, 31-28. It was a great ballgame to watch, and both teams had several chances to win the game. After watching the game, I felt that both teams deserved to be ranked at the bottom of the top-25.
The loss to Oregon is somewhat understandable for Badger fans since it happened on the road to a highly ranked team, but losing to Fresno State the next week had to have Mad Town shaking their respective heads. Fresno State is a very good football team that deserves to be ranked higher than they currently are, but the Badgers were leading 20-10 at the half in Madison. No matter the opponent, good teams should not lose games at home when they are up 20-10 at the break.
Even though Brooks Bollinger is a two-year starter that made a huge splash in Ron Dayne's senior year, his injury may have shown Badger fans that Jim Sorgi is the most effective UW QB under the current offensive schemes. Sorgi cannot run like Bollinger, but he seems much better at reading coverages and throwing accurately.
Penn State really struggled on offense in 2000, but their defense was still tough. Unfortunately for Nittany Lion fans, the offense still needs to improve in 2001 while the defense looked confused and overmatched in their opener.
The field for this game has been somewhat leveled because it is at Happy Valley. Both teams desperately need a win, but I still think Wisconsin is better than PSU in the trenches. Besides having more talent on the roster, the Badgers also make less mental errors than the Nittany Lions. Joe Pa has had a unreal career, but he seems to be going out the same way that Hayden did as his talent level has plummeted while his assistant coaches aren't as good as they used to be. If the Nittany Lions lose this game, they might be in for a season in which they lose 7-9 games. Just think, Beano Cook and others thought Penn State was going to be much better this year!
Louisville (3-0) at Illinois (2-0) – It is the Cardinals, not the Illini that are ranked. Louisville is at no. 25 after scoring 112 points in their first three games. Illinois was considered to be a national surprise after their opening 44-17 domination of Cal in week one. However, the inconsistent Illini followed up that effort by playing poorly and almost losing to Northern Illinois, 17-12. What Illinois team will show up this week?
Louisville has shown consistency in winning with ease so far this year, but the biggest name of the three victims is a poor Kentucky program. However, even though they play in Conference USA, the U of L has been known as a productive offensive school over the last few years. They have good stats in both the running game and passing game, but they usually throw to open up the ground game.
While Louisville has shown balance on the ground and in the air, Illinois has shown so far to be one-dimensional like last year. Kurt Kittner is a streaky, but very solid quarterback and Brandon Lloyd is a super talent at WR. However, the Illini ground game has yet to really get on track. Illinois may have a better defense this season, but if the ground game cannot provide offensive balance and be productive in short-yardage situations, it is going to be another disappointing year for the fans in Champaign. Illinois should be favored because they are at home, but no outcome of this game would surprise me.
Utah (1-1) at Indiana (0-1) – Cam Cameron and his Indiana team are the biggest embarrassment in what is a sub-par start for the Big Ten Conference in 2001. The league does not look as good as it did two years ago, and Indiana can not play any worse than they did against North Carolina State in their opener. Even though NC State will win 7-9 games in the weak ACC, the Hoosiers and their offense should have at least made the game competitive in Raleigh.
The plan to move Antwaan Randle El to wide receiver certainly did not pay off in the opener. Although he still took some snaps at QB, it was obvious that Randle El has not been practicing that much at the position this fall. Tommy Jones looks like a capable QB, but he pales in comparison to Randle El. Antwaan is a nice wide receiver, but he is one of the most exciting QBs in college football. When he plays QB, he makes the offensive line and the running backs around him look so much better.
The Hoosier Defense, which has been non-existent for many years, looked somewhat better against NC State, but the special team problems and offensive shortcomings decided the game. If Indiana is to have success and challenge for a bowl game, it is going to have to be with an outstanding Hoosier Offense with Randle El at the helm. I think Coach Cameron is a good offensive mind that probably told Randle El that he could play WR some this year if he didn't go to the NFL and instead returned to IU for his senior year. It is time for him to sit down and tell Randle El that the team needs him at QB.
Utah plays decent defense and is a traditionally physical team under Coach Ron McBride. They lost to Oregon by two touchdowns, and should challenge IU. If Randle El and the Hoosier Offense return to the form of the last two years, Indiana should win the game. However, if Antwaan is still playing WR and the offense looks anything like the NC State game, Indiana might not win a game this year.
Akron (1-1) at Purdue (1-0) – This is an interesting game because Purdue had such a hard time putting away Cincinnati in their opener. They won 19-14, and passed for only 117 yards. The Boilermakers were able to run effectively and their defense made big plays at the end of the game that preserved the victory. Akron looks to be a formidable MAC opponent as they upset Ohio in their opener, and then lost to Ohio State, 28-14.
Although the Boilermakers started to run the ball more last year as their offensive balance helped them reach the Rose Bowl, Joe Tiller's teams have had a great passing attack in every season since he arrived in West Lafayette. His team this season might be centered around the running game and a defense that returns ten starters. However, it was the passing attack that in years past put fear into fellow Big Ten coaches and players. If they do not perform better against the Zips, Purdue is going to be perceived as being more vulnerable this year. The opener was the first career start for QB Brandon Hance (14-25, 114 yards), so it will interesting to see how much he and the Boiler Offense improves in their second game. Akron looks as capable of winning the game as Cincinnati if the Purdue Offense does not make a large improvement.
Northwestern (1-0) at Duke (0-2) – Back when Northwestern played like Northwestern traditionally did, this would have been a good game. The Duke Football program is perhaps the worst major college football program over the last ten years, and this year shouldn't be much different. The Blue Devils only lost 15-13 to a bad Rice team, but they were destroyed 55-13 by a Florida State team that struggled against UAB the next week. Duke is so bad and the fan base is so small that the Duke Basketball team almost averages more fans per game than the football team! To put that in perspective, as crazy and zealous as the Duke hoops fans are, Iowa and Carver-Hawkeye Arena average several thousand more a game than Duke!
Northwestern struggled early against UNLV in their opener, but then the offense came to life and scored 37 points. Much like last season, the Wildcat Defense struggled as UNLV ended up scoring 28 points. Although they are picked by many to win the Big Ten, their defense has to play better; the offense cannot be expected to consistently win high scoring shootouts in the Big Ten again this season. Against the Blue Devils it should not matter as RB Damien Anderson and QB Zak Kustok should have very big days in an easy win.
Western Michigan (1-1) at Michigan (1-1) – What can you evaluate from Western Michigan so far? They handily beat I-AA Illinois State, 48-7 in their opener, but then were beaten 31-0 by a talented Virginia Tech team. Although Coach Gary Darnell will certainly have a good year in the MAC, this Western Michigan team does not look as good as the 2000 version that beat Iowa and should have beaten Wisconsin.
Michigan is not off to the start that Wolverine fans wanted to see, but they could be very good after a couple more games. They have been inconsistent on offense in the win over Miami (Ohio) and the loss to Washington. That was expected, as QB Drew Henson, RB Anthony Thomas, WR David Terrell, and the best offensive line in the country in 2000 are no longer on the team this season. What is a little surprising is that the Wolverine Defense has not carried the team the way that many envisioned that they would early in this season. The Washington game was decided by an interception that was returned for a touchdown and a blocked kick that was returned for a touchdown. Those mistakes certainly had nothing to do with the defense. However, the defense did only look average to a little above average against a very inexperienced Washington Offense.
John Navarre and the Wolverine Offense still need to prove themselves, but Michigan could be good in a wide-open Big Ten. They are not there yet though, and Western Michigan should be competitive. Instead of going by the score in this game, watch for how effective Michigan is in stopping the WMU passing game. On the other side of the ball, the Wolverines need to continue to effectively run the ball more consistently.
Ohio State (1-0) at UCLA (2-0) – This is a great match-up on paper as both schools are traditional football powers that have struggled in the last two seasons due to attitude and discipline problems, not a lack of talent. Ohio State was the most talented team to play in Kinnick Stadium last season as they had excellent talent on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. However, besides poor quarterback play, Ohio State had no discipline last season as they had an obscene amount of personal foul penalties and deserved many more.
The game is at UCLA, and the Bruins also have the advantage of being the team that has already proven itself in this young season. After a couple of years of key injuries, attitude problems and forgetting how to tackle on defense, Coach Bob Toledo's team looked like a real football team in road wins at Alabama and Kansas. The Bruin Offense looks better and is more consistent because star RB DeShaun Foster is healthy, but the defense is where the marked improvement has taken place so far. UCLA has always had great team speed, but this season it looks like the defensive players know how and care about the art of proper tackling. Besides the skill and technique of playing defense, the Bruins seem to have a better attitude so far.
Columbus and the state of Ohio are excited with the job that Jim Tressel has done with the OSU program since taking over in January. After great seasons at Youngstown State, Tressel is trying to restore discipline and proper effort while keeping the talent pool strong in Columbus. Ohio State could also be a good Big Ten team by the end of the season, but much like Michigan, they still have a lot to prove. The defense should be good again this season, but they are only going to go as far as the offense can take them. The OL is banged up right now, and the passing game still needs to show something against a legit foe like UCLA.
Michigan State (1-0) at Notre Dame (0-1) – The Illinois game is somewhat hard to predict, but this match-up is the toughest. Michigan State has been loaded with talent for a few years now, but all the talent on last year's team could muster was a 5-6 record and a 2-6 Big Ten record, which tied them for last place. Notre Dame has been over-hyped for decades now, and the mighty program has not finished close to preseason expectations in almost eight years.
Michigan State had a very good defense in both 1999 and 2000, and this year should also see another physical Spartan Defense. The Irish were not able to move the ball against MSU in either one of the Spartan wins the last two years, and MSU has won the last four meetings. In fact, Notre Dame has taken it on the nose from every Big Ten opponent they have played over the last five years. Too bad they hated Evy and dropped the Hawks from their schedule. Hayden tried to get them back on, but Gerry Faust and Lou Holtz wanted nothing to do with it.
MSU also had a good running game last year led by a veteran offensive line and physical RB T.J. Duckett. Duckett is back, but the line is more inexperienced this season. Most media members think the Spartans could be a good team this year if either Jeff Smoker or Ryan Van Dyke step forward and become a good Big Ten QB, but I think their fortunes lie more with how consistent the offensive line will be this year. Duckett is still going to get his yards no matter what, but the Spartans will win more games if the holes are there every game.
Notre Dame will also be physical as the year goes on, but they were manhandled in the trenches by Nebraska in their opener in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers did not even need to pass the ball or run much option to win – they just pounded the tailback between the tackles all game! Notre Dame has two talented athletes at quarterback in Matt LoVecchio and Carlyle Holiday, but they struggled to move the ball on the dreaded Nebraska Blackshirts.
Even though they were destroyed by the Huskers, ND has a good chance to win this game. The game is being played in Notre Dame Stadium, Michigan State does not have Nebraska's OL, and Notre Dame was perceived to have more talent than the Spartans going into the season. Michigan State had one major flaw in their opener against Central Michigan in that they had four punts blocked. I doubt that will happen this Saturday, but you never know.
A couple years ago, Notre Dame was offered by the Big Ten presidents to join the conference. I thought it was a mistake by the Big Ten for many reasons to offer, but Notre Dame helped fans like myself out by turning down the offer. It is a good thing for Notre Dame that they did, because the Fighting Irish would have become another example like Penn State – a former independent college football power that now struggles to win half of its league games in the Big Ten Conference. Penn State's program was in much better shape than Notre Dame is now when they joined the Big Ten in 1993. Even though the Big Ten is off to a rocky start this year, if Notre Dame was in the league this year they would probably go 6-5 or 7-4.