Friday, November 1, 2013
Big Ten: November stretch run
By Josh Moyer
October was a miserable month.
Byes were aplenty Oct. 12 and 26 when only four games were played. No currently ranked teams played one another. (Although, OK, the Northwestern-Ohio State game was good at the time.) And only three of the 18 Big Ten matchups were decided by single digits.
But divvy up those Halloween treats, toss that costume to the back of the closet and rejoice. Boring, old October is no more. And the month of November is sure to be a much, much more entertaining one for the Big Ten.
Brady Hoke and Michigan will face the heart of their schedule.
The Legends Division remains a three-team race for Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska. And those three teams all play one other over the next three weeks, starting with the MSU-UM contest this weekend. Anything can still happen there.
Of course, there's also The Game to look forward to, while Buckeyes fans have plenty of other football to keep track of since they'll need outside help to rise to No. 2 in the BCS standings. There are plenty of other storylines, too. Nebraska and Northwestern are trying to reclaim their lost magic, Wisconsin is trying to prove it still deserves a major bowl bid, and other teams such as Iowa and Minnesota are trying to show they're capable of pulling the upsets.
October was a month to forget. File that away. Pretend it never happened. And enjoy November.
Team with the most to prove: Michigan. Are the Wolverines the kind of team that wins championships or just talks about them? We're still not entirely sure what their identity is. Their signature win, against Notre Dame, happened in Week 2 when Devin Gardner was a 14-to-1 Heisman wager. Oh, how things have changed. They slipped past nonconference cupcakes Akron and UConn before dropping a quadruple-overtime game against PSU that they never should've lost. UM's identity will be formed this month; its season will be remembered based on what it does in November. Look at the slate: MSU, Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State. This is the heart of the Wolverines' schedule, and we're still awaiting the verdict of just how good this team is. It still has the potential to finish near the top and spoil Ohio State's season -- or finish in the middle of the pack and be a nonfactor.
Team with the most to lose: Ohio State. This answer is obvious for obvious reasons. The Buckeyes are riding a national-best 20-game winning streak right now. With some outside help -- we're looking at you, Alabama, Oregon and Florida State -- the Buckeyes could play in the national championship. When the title's on the line, that's a lot to gain -- and it's certainly a lot to lose. One loss is all it's going to take to crush the Buckeyes' hopes.
Three players to keep an eye on: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Penn State WR Allen Robinson and Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. Let's touch on each one. Miller finally appears to be a quarterback doubling as an athlete instead of the other way around. Said Urban Meyer: "Braxton is officially a quarterback at Ohio State now. He wasn't last year." Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien called him one of the five best players in the nation and, now that he's healthy, he could be in for quite the month.
So could one of O'Brien's top players, Robinson. The junior wideout could leave early for the NFL, but not before breaking some more single-season records at Penn State. He's on pace to shatter Bobby Engram's record for receiving yards (1,084), as he needs just 207 yards over the next five games. And he needs just 23 receptions to break the single-season receptions record, which is held by a pretty good PSU wideout in, well, Robinson himself. (He set it last year with 77.)
And Gordon? Well, he has a shot to be the nation's leading rusher as he currently sits fifth (1,012 yards). And he already boasts the nation's best yards-per-carry average at 9.5, more than 2 yards better than Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Gordon is the best running back in the Big Ten and belongs in the conversation as the best overall player.
Biggest trap game: Indiana vs. Ohio State on Nov. 23. It's the week before The Game, so it's a conference contest that could easily be overlooked. The Hoosiers are a 3-4 team right now and don't exactly strike fear into the Buckeyes. They're not balanced, not great and not defensively good. But, if the Buckeyes have an Achilles' heel, it's their pass defense. And Indiana has the most up-tempo passing offense in the conference. The Hoosiers might be able to match the Buckeyes' penchant for scoring. And, if the defense can string together a few big plays, maybe -- just maybe -- Indiana has a shot. At the very least, it's a trap game.
Fearless November prediction: Michigan State and Ohio State will end up playing each other in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes are the easy pick, and the Spartans' Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford have taken big steps forward since the beginning of the season. Michigan State's defense is easily the best in the Big Ten, maybe in the country, and the offense is no longer anemic. The Buckeyes are the best team in the conference, no doubt. But the Spartans are No. 2. And they'll face OSU in the conference championship.