The midway mark is in the rearview, and the conference race is already becoming more clearly defined after just two weeks of league play.
And in terms of building momentum heading into the homestretch, the Big Ten couldn’t really ask for much more to kick off the second half of the season than a potentially epic clash of ranked rivals. It's so massive even the College GameDay crew couldn’t stay away from it.
And while Jim Harbaugh’s first coaching matchup with Mark Dantonio as instate foes is going to dominate the spotlight, it isn’t the only meaningful matchup on tap Saturday. Here are five early things to watch ahead of Week 7 in the Big Ten, starting with the obvious.
The battle for the state of Michigan: Harbaugh’s offseason of making waves has carried right into his first season on the sideline with the Wolverines, and the only thing more impressive than the renovation of the program he’s delivered is how quickly he’s done it.
Michigan may not be the most dangerous offensive team in the nation, but it certainly doesn’t need to be with a defense that is riding a three-game shutout streak along with an improved, physical rushing attack. The instant success Harbaugh has produced has turned Michigan back into a contender in the East Division well ahead of schedule, and now it has a chance to prove it definitively belongs in that conversation against one of the two programs that actually had that designation coming into the season.
Dantonio and the Spartans had designs on something even bigger than that for this year, eying a breakthrough not only in the league but potentially into the College Football Playoff as well. The stakes are always huge against instate rivals anyway, but the fact that titles could be on the line in the middle of October only adds to a matchup that isn’t short on intrigue in any way.
Claiming the West: If any coach’s offseason qualified as the exact opposite of Harbaugh’s, it would probably have to be Kirk Ferentz.
Instead of a seemingly never-ending summer of good will and headlines, Ferentz had his contract parsed publicly to figure out the buyout this season, Iowa struggled to sell tickets and the program was painted as the poster child of mediocrity. But how much did that mean to Ferentz? Absolutely nothing based on the perfect 6-0 start he and the Hawkeyes have turned in to stamp themselves as the new favorites in the wide-open West Division race.
Northwestern was the other surprising co-headliner as recently as Saturday up until kickoff against Michigan, when everything went sideways and its unbeaten start through five games went up in smoke. But the Wildcats are still alive in the division, and they’d be quite healthy in fact if they can disrupt Ferentz and his feel-good story at home in Evanston.
Paint it black: Ohio State busted out a fancy new three-quarterback rotation to silence the skepticism about its high-powered offense. Now it’s busting out a new uniform for Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller to wear against Penn State, as they try to build on that explosive performance last week against the Nittany Lions' aggressive, skilled defense.
The Buckeyes will unveil black jerseys for the primetime kickoff at the Horseshoe, which may take some getting used to for a program that isn’t shy about wearing alternate uniforms but doesn’t traditionally step this far away from the familiar scarlet and gray. But as always, the real statement won’t be about fashion, and Urban Meyer’s offense has a chance to prove it’s back on track.
Tragic Mike: Nebraska is seemingly inventing torturous ways to lose in the closing seconds at this point, and this is miles away from what Mike Riley surely envisioned when he left Oregon State to take over a program that had been nothing if not consistent under Bo Pelini. The Huskers might actually be that right now, though coming up short in the fourth quarter isn’t exactly the kind of consistency they were anticipating -- and dropping to 2-4 isn’t going to win over the fan base.
With Minnesota rediscovering some offensive mojo despite dealing with an injury outbreak during the first half of the season, it could get worse for Riley as he takes the Huskers on the road desperately in need of a conference win. The Gophers and their hard-hitting defense aren’t going to make that easy, and after demolishing Purdue, they also need a victory if they are going to sneak back into the West Division race at all.
Kyle Flood returns: For the most part, Rutgers is no worse for wear as its coach returns from a three-game suspension to resume his work on the sideline. The Scarlet Knights were widely expected to drop two of the three games no matter who was in charge, so Flood is taking over again facing probably the same road back to the postseason the program was always going to need to take.
But maybe, just maybe, his absence was notable given the late-game debacle that kept Rutgers from getting one last shot to upset Michigan State when word from the benches to spike the ball on fourth down brought a thrilling upset bid to an anticlimactic end. With a tough stretch coming for Rutgers, a win at Indiana might be one Flood really needs to prove he’s worth keeping around -- even with some of the baggage that kept him away over the past three games.