Big Ten

A less than appealing slate for Week 3 Big Ten previews and picks

0915_jonathan_taylor.jpg
USA TODAY

A less than appealing slate for Week 3 Big Ten previews and picks

After last weekend’s monster top-five showdown between Ohio State and Oklahoma, this weekend’s Big Ten slate is … less appealing.

That’s the nice way of putting it, as the non-conference matchups in Week 3 leave a ton to be desired. These things happen, of course, but I won’t blame you for being far more excited for Clemson-Louisville than the totality of this weekend’s Big Ten schedule.

Nonetheless, get ready for every Week 3 game featuring a Big Ten team with previews and picks below.

Friday, Sept. 15

Illinois at No. 22 South Florida, 6 p.m., ESPN

The Illini are 2-0 despite some offensive shakiness through the first two games. Mike Epstein has emerged as a noteworthy name in the backfield, already getting far more carries than incumbent starter Kendrick Foster. In the preseason, this game was shaping up to be a near surefire loss for Illinois, with South Florida pegged as “the” Group of Five team after a strong 2016. The Illini defense will still need to play a strong game to stop quarterback Quinton Flowers, but the Bulls have started slowly in each of their first two games of the season, something Lovie Smith’s crew might be able to take advantage of.

The pick: South Florida

Saturday, Sept. 16

Air Force at No. 7 Michigan, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

Michigan raised a few eyebrows by failing to blast Cincinnati into oblivion last weekend, but the Wolverines still won that game by three touchdowns so those complaints need to be put in perspective. The excellent Michigan defense still created some turnovers, and a feature back emerged in Ty Isaac. Expect a romp this time around, too, though if the Wolverines “only” win by three touchdowns, don’t be too mad, either.

The pick: Michigan

Northern Illinois at Nebraska, 11 a.m., FS1

There’s good news and bad news for the Huskers this weekend. The bad news is that Bob Diaco’s defense has to take the field again after getting throttled in each of the last two weeks by Arkansas State and Oregon. The good news is this weekend brings a matchup with Northern Illinois. That beat-up defense should get an opportunity to make some stops. But if it doesn’t, Tre Bryant should at least run by the Huskies’ defense. He’s got 299 yards in two games.

The pick: Nebraska

No. 10 Wisconsin at BYU, 2:30 p.m., ABC

At first glance, it might look like an appealing watch in a weak weekend slate. But BYU has been pretty bad through its first three games, scoring just 20 points against an FCS opponent before getting shut out by LSU and scoring just 13 against Utah. Remember that former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is running the defense at LSU now, and his Bayou Bengals held the Cougars to a negative rushing total. I expect a similarly strong performance from the Badgers’ defense.

The pick: Wisconsin

Middle Tennessee State at Minnesota, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Two weekends, two dramatically different performances from P.J. Fleck’s crew of boat-rowers. Week 1’s ugly offensive performance against Buffalo was followed by last week’s road rout of Oregon State. Middle Tennessee State won on the road at Syracuse last weekend and could be smelling more Power Five blood in the water. The Blue Raiders have held two Power Five teams to an average of fewer than 100 rushing yards through two games. If that happens to the Gophers, there could be trouble.

The pick: Minnesota

North Texas at Iowa, 2:30 p.m., ESPN 2

The Hawkeyes are rolling through two weeks, turning in a pair of impressive performances in wins over Wyoming and Iowa State. The defense has shown its capability, shutting down a guy who could be a first-round draft pick. The offense has shown its capability, new quarterback Nathan Stanley throwing five touchdown passes in an overtime comeback win and Akrum Wadley looking awesome. North Texas gave up 54 points last week, so … yeah.

The pick: Iowa

Morgan State at Rutgers, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

It was a horrible weekend for Rutgers last week, losing to Eastern Michigan, which prior to beating the Knights hadn’t beaten a Power Five team ever. That fact makes it somewhat unappealing to pick Rutgers this weekend, even with the FCS opponent. Still, you’d have to expect the Knights have enough to defeat Morgan State. Right? Bueller?

The pick: Rutgers

Purdue at Missouri, 3 p.m., SEC Network

The Boilers are playing well, fresh off presenting a challenge to Louisville and beating the pulp out of Ohio. The Tigers are not, fresh off surrendering 43 points to Missouri State, scoring just 13 points against South Carolina and firing their defensive coordinator. Purdue has an opportunity here to score a big road win in the SEC. If it does, Mizzou will have lost home games to Big Ten teams from Indiana twice in the last four years.

The pick: Purdue

Army at No. 8 Ohio State, 3:30 p.m., FOX

Ohio State is in full-blown crisis mode after that ugly showing against Oklahoma. The offense appears to be broken, with J.T. Barrett and his receivers constantly out of sync. And under the radar though equally troubling, the Buckeyes have what is statistically the worst pass defense in the country. Ouch. A date with Army is just what the doctor ordered, but Ohio State’s biggest opponent on the field will likely be Ohio State. Can they stop the spiral?

The pick: Ohio State

Georgia State at No. 5 Penn State, 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Penn State has trucked through each of its first two opponents, even turning the rivalry game with Pitt into an easy win last weekend. Georgia State has played just one game in 2017 — and it was a loss to FCS opponent Tennessee State. Expect Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley to have monster games and for the Nittany Lions to keep looking like the class of the Big Ten.

The pick: Penn State

Bowling Green at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Another moment of reckoning for Northwestern, which hasn’t looked good through two games. Last weekend’s loss at Duke was particularly nasty, a 41-17 blowout in which the Cats struggled in every aspect of the game. The best remedy is getting Justin Jackson back on track. Supposedly banged up last week, the senior running back only had a handful of carries for a paltry rushing total. If Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson can get the offense going this week — and know that Bowling Green has allowed a combined 70 points in two losses — that will ease concerns, if only a bit, heading into a tough start to conference play.

The pick: Northwestern

Well, we're waiting: Northwestern team that sparked preseason expectations missing through two weeks

Well, we're waiting: Northwestern team that sparked preseason expectations missing through two weeks

The pieces seemed to be in place.

Sure, there were questions, as there are with any team. But with Justin Jackson in his fourth season and Clayton Thorson in his third, this was perhaps Pat Fitzgerald’s program’s best shot yet at reaching the Big Ten title game.

But two games in, and Northwestern is looking far from a contender of any kind. The first two contests of the 2017 campaign have featured two ugly performances from the Wildcats. They averted disaster against Nevada, scoring twice in the final five and a half minutes to go from down three to up 11, but the Cats didn’t look good through the majority of a game they were projected to win by more than three touchdowns. Then came Week 2’s horrendous loss to Duke, a 41-17 blowout loss in which Northwestern looked bad in every facet.

Fitzgerald’s reaction to being asked to talk about the Duke game two days later summed it up pretty well.

“Do I have to?”

The numbers were tragic. Northwestern rushed for a jaw-droppingly low 22 yards, with Jackson getting just seven carries for 18 yards. Thorson threw a pair of interceptions. The Cats mustered 191 total yards and converted just once on third down. They had the ball for fewer than 19 minutes. And there’s the damage Daniel Jones and the Duke offense did to the defense, gaining a total of 538 yards, scoring 41 points. Jones had 413 total yards and four total touchdowns by himself.

Jackson was supposedly a little banged up. One of the interceptions was certainly not Thorson’s fault. The defensive secondary was thin. But this was a complete failure all around.

“Any time you get your fanny whipped, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror first,” Fitzgerald said Monday. “It starts and ends with me. … There were ample opportunities in that game for us to win the game on Saturday. It got away from us a little bit at the end as our defense ran out of gas, and credit Duke for that. But at the end of the day, there are areas there for us to make, we’ve got to go make them happen. All three phases.

“What’s the mood? The mood is let’s work hard to get better. Let’s improve. Let’s get back on the practice field and get things going.”

The natural reaction is to think back to last season, when the campaign’s start was also an issue. The Cats lost their first two games of the season to Western Michigan and Illinois State, embarrassing losses that derailed any shot the team might have had at competing for a division title before things even really got going.

That’s a somewhat flawed comparison, as that was different team with different personnel and different challenges at that time of year. But does it somehow make this year’s edition look a little worse? Things were supposed to be better this time around, and yet that same season-beginning disappointment exists.

“I get it, but there’s way too much stock put into what happened last year. This is a totally different team,” Fitzgerald said. “This is the 12th team I’ve had the privilege to be the head coach for, every team is different. … We’ve got to do a better job as coaches, we’ve got to get those guys to play more fundamentally sound and consistent, and they will. I wish it was Saturday, but it wasn’t.”

The best way to go about that Duke game could very well be to flush it from memory, a favorite coachism in the world of sports. So many things went wrong that just forgetting about it wouldn’t be a bad idea at all for the players.

But for those observing the team, it’s fair to wonder if it will be more of the same as the calendar advances.

Last season’s start was eventually overcome, and the Cats strung together some great performances in the middle of the season. But still the best that could be achieved was a .500 finish to the regular season and a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl. It was a great win in that game for Northwestern, but no one would consider it one of college football’s more illustrious postseason destinations.

Does this year’s slow start signal that a similar fate awaits the 2017 unit? That would be a pretty large disappointment in a season in which preseason expectations were relatively high.

Of course, these Cats still have just one non-conference loss in September. There’s no reason to declare that the season — and everything expected from it before it began — is over. Regardless of what happened before conference play rolled around, the Big Ten slate was always going to start with highly challenging games against Wisconsin and Penn State, games Northwestern would not have been favored in even had these first two weeks featured blowout wins. The final seven games of the schedule — against Maryland, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois — were where the Cats were supposed to amass the wins necessary to stage a run at a division championship. And of course that can still happen.

But the optics have not been good in the season’s first two weeks. Where’s that Cats team folks were expecting to see?

Well, we’re waiting.

See how they stack up: Week 2 college football top 25 rankings

0911_baker_mayfield.jpg
AP

See how they stack up: Week 2 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 2 in the books, here’s my top 25.

1. Oklahoma (2-0)

Sorry, Bama, but right this second there’s no one playing better than the Sooners. Baker Mayfield has been near perfect and he just turned in a Heisman-caliber performance on the road at Ohio State.

2. Alabama (2-0)

Of course, the Tide rolled again, smoking Fresno State. This Jalen Hurts guy is pretty good. He totaled 282 yards and three touchdowns.

3. Clemson (2-0)

All hail the Clemson defense, which shone in keeping Auburn out of the end zone and holding them to a jaw-droppingly low 117 total yards.

4. Penn State (2-0)

Penn State’s defense helped mitigate a not-so-smooth day for Trace McSorley. Unlike last year, this was an easy win over Pitt and featured two touchdown drives under 10 seconds in length.

5. USC (2-0)

Redemption came quick for a USC team that looked shaky against Western Michigan as the Trojans turned in a dominating win over Stanford. But Sam Darnold’s thrown four picks in two games.

6. Michigan (2-0)

The Wolverines weren’t the dominating force I expected in a win over Cincinnati. But the numbers turned out fine, with Michigan’s defense creating two takeaways and holding Cincy to just 200 yards.

7. Wisconsin (2-0)

Jonathan Taylor Touchdowns. Surprise, surprise, the Badgers have another star running back. Taylor, a freshman, rushed for 223 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Florida Atlantic.

8. Oklahoma State (2-0)

Another weak opponent, another crushing from the Cowboys. Okie State out-gained South Alabama 505-175 as Mason Rudolph brought his season totals to 638 yards, six touchdowns and zero picks.

9. Louisville (2-0)

In a shocker, your new Heisman frontrunner is the defending Heisman winner. Lamar Jackson looked superhuman against North Carolina, totaling 525 yards and six touchdowns.

10. Georgia (2-0)

The Dawgs brought a true freshman quarterback to South Bend and walked out with a win, thanks to a defense that clamped down, holding the Irish to 55 rushing yards after they ran for 422 a week earlier.

11. Auburn (1-1)

There was no Auburn offense Saturday night in Death Valley, but that was the national champs on the other side of the line. The Auburn D did fine work against a very, very good football team.

12. Ohio State (1-1)

There are big problems in Columbus, from an offense completely stuck in the mud to the worst pass defense in the country. The Buckeyes are long from dead, but they’re ailing badly.

13. LSU (2-0)

The Bayou Bengals’ strength of schedule is nothing but a bad BYU team and FCS foe Chattanooga. But the LSU defense has only allowed 10 points and 63 rushing yards in eight quarters of football.

14. TCU (2-0)

While the Frogs’ defense kept the Hogs to just seven points, the TCU offense was 10-for-14 on third down. TCU has outscored its first two opponents 91-7.

15. Maryland (2-0)

The Terps simply cannot be stopped, following up a 51-point performance in the opener — in which their starting quarterback was lost for the season — with 63 points in Week 2.

16. UCLA (2-0)

After the comeback to end all comebacks in Week 1, Josh Rosen was pitching it all over the yard again, throwing five touchdown passes in a blowout win over Hawaii.

17. Virginia Tech (2-0)

The Hokies’ offense only reached the end zone twice against FCS opponent Delaware, which is a tad concerning. But since when is a 27-0 win a bad thing?

18. Duke (2-0)

After dropping 60 points in the season-opener, the Dukies dominated Northwestern, with quarterback Daniel Jones cutting up the Cats’ defense for 413 total yards and four total touchdowns.

19. West Virginia (1-1)

After that narrow loss to Virginia Tech, West Virginia dropped 56 points on East Carolina. Will Grier is a-slingin’ and is up to 723 yards and eight touchdowns through two games.

20. Stanford (1-1)

The Cardinal got run over by the truck that is the USC offense, nearly getting doubled up by their in-state rivals. You can’t fault the offense too much, as it didn’t turn the ball over and Bryce Love ran for 160 yards.

21. Oregon (2-0)

The Ducks continued their torrid offensive start, demolishing the awful Nebraska defense to the tune of 42 points — in the first half! Oregon didn’t score after halftime but finished with 566 yards.

22. Florida State (0-1), 23. Miami (1-0)

The Noles and the Canes had their games canceled this weekend because of Hurricane Irma. Wishing the very best to everyone in the Sunshine State.

24. Kansas State (2-0)

The Wildcats took two turnovers back for touchdowns and had five rushing scores. K-State keeps a -rollin’ and has scored 55 points in back-to-back games.

25. Washington State (2-0)

Wazzu had a thrilling comeback, triple-overtime win against Boise State to move to 2-0. All that late-night fun counts for something, right?

Other receiving votes:

Iowa (2-0)

The Hawkeyes have wildly exceeded my expectations, following up a shutdown of Josh Allen and Wyoming with an overtime win over Iowa State. Iowa’s looking great with a new quarterback.

Tennessee (2-0)

Another day of big numbers from the Vols’ offense. But it came against Indiana State, which seems less impressive than that opening-week win over Georgia Tech.

Washington (2-0)

I understand the AP voters think the Huskies are a top-10 team, and maybe they are. But a very mediocre win over Rutgers and a throttling of Montana do not, to me, a top-10 team make.

Georgia Tech (1-1)

Four more touchdowns from TaQuon Marshall in this week’s blowout win over Jacksonville State. He’s got nine total scores on the season.

South Carolina (2-0)

Two weeks and two Power Five wins for the Gamecocks, a rarity in the SEC at this time of year. This time it was holding Mizzou to 13 points after the Tigers scored 72 the week before.

Vanderbilt (2-0)

The Vandy defense has allowed six points through two weeks. The Dores have only played Middle Tennessee State and Alabama A&M, though, so yeah.