Big Ten

Let's play football: Ten big questions as the Big Ten football season begins

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USA TODAY

Let's play football: Ten big questions as the Big Ten football season begins

Feel that crisp chill in the air? The leaves changing colors? The comfort of your favorite sweatshirt?

No? Well, whatever. College football season is here anyway!

The 2017 campaign has actually already begun, that is if you’re into games in Australia and between Group of Five teams. But Big Ten play starts this week, and boy does it with a conference game not just on the season’s first weekend but on a Thursday to close out the month of August. It’s a scary new world.

After last season’s incredible success for the conference, with four teams chasing a College Football Playoff berth down to the last week of the season and finishing way up there in the rankings, it’s time for the encore. Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin are expected to all be there again, but there are plenty more storylines than just the ones surrounding the league’s four top teams.

So open up the back of the car, throw on the jersey, set up the grill, open a beer (isn’t it Monday morning?) and read through these 10 big questions as the Big Ten football season begins.

1. How will Ohio State’s retooled passing game fare?

If you’re still wanting to debate whether Ohio State belonged in last year’s College Football Playoff, look elsewhere. What is a certainty is that the Buckeyes were crushed in their Playoff game against the eventual national-champion Clemson Tigers. The passing game, led by then-third-year starter J.T. Barrett, was inconsistent to say the least all season long, and when it went up against that Clemson defense, well it didn’t stand a chance.

That defined the offseason for Urban Meyer, who immediately vowed to fix the broken air attack. What followed was a flurry of staff changes, headlined by the import of former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson to be the Buckeyes’ new offensive coordinator. At Indiana — and in his previous role as the OC at Oklahoma — Wilson orchestrated incredibly prolific passing offenses. With Barrett as a fourth-year starter and the as-usual incredible talent Meyer recruits to Columbus, Wilson hopes to do something similar at Ohio State.

While Meyer is fond of saying that a quarterback is only as good as the players around him — a pretty reasonable assessment — Barrett will be the focal point. After dazzling in fill-in duty as a redshirt freshman, relieving the injured Braxton Miller during the regular season en route to that national championship, Barrett was a victim of Meyer’s indecision the following season as the head coach couldn’t pick between Barrett and Cardale Jones. Barrett was the full-time starter again last season, but an underwhelming performance from the passing game as a whole meant mortal numbers — even if Barrett was still one of the top quarterbacks in the conference, thanks to what he did as both a runner and a thrower.

But another year and another status as favorite for the Buckeyes. Their defensive line looks to be the strength of the team after so much of that jaw-droppingly good secondary moved on to the NFL. Let’s face it, we know Ohio State is going to be very, very good. But if the memory of that beatdown against Clemson is going to be erased, every facet of the team is going to need to be good enough to compete with college football’s best. Usually, for Meyer and Ohio State, that's the case. But that means the passing game — and Barrett — will be the center of attention.

2. Will Penn State’s offense be even more explosive than it was last year?

There were few offenses in college football as fun to watch last season as Penn State’s. Need evidence? Go watch the Rose Bowl again. I’ll wait.

That fireworks spectacular of a football game between the Nittany Lions and the USC Trojans wasn’t just one of the most entertaining games of last season. It was a preview of what we’re supposed to get this season, and you’ll notice both Penn State and USC ranked highly as the 2017 campaign gets going. The Trojans have Sam Darnold, the quarterback who could end up the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft. The Lions have not one but two Heisman Trophy candidates in running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, two guys who make up the most formidable offense in the Big Ten.

Barkley is a known commodity by now as he enters his third season. He’ll be pegged as the conference’s preseason player of the year by almost everyone, and while he’s not the league’s leading returning rusher — that would be Northwestern’s Justin Jackson — he’s probably the league’s most impressive player. The guy is a human highlight reel, able to execute every evasive move on the video-game controller and hurdle defenders like a track star. He also racks up the yardage and sets up camp in the end zone. The dude’s a beast.

Add to that the surprising performance of McSorley from last season, who turned the Penn State passing attack into just as dangerous a weapon as Barkley’s rushing attack. Thanks to Joe Moorhead, the Lions’ offensive coordinator who was in his first season with the team last year, McSorley bombed one home run of a touchdown pass after another to awaiting receivers. His ability is what made those epic comebacks in the Lions’ last two games of the season — a win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl loss to USC — possible.

Those two should be just as dangerous this season. McSorley lost a go-to receiver in Chris Godwin but still has a couple great targets in DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki. Barkley is Barkley and should strike fear into every Big Ten defense. Is Penn State better than Ohio State? On offense, yeah it is. Thing is the head-to-head showdown between the two is in Columbus. But the Lions have what it takes to once more compete with the Buckeyes for a Big Ten title — and this time it won’t be a surprise.

3. Will Michigan be able to reload without missing a beat?

There’s almost no team in the country that lost as much as Michigan did from last year’s squad. The names that departed are familiar because they were so good for the Wolverines last season — and because you heard 11 of them read during the NFL Draft: Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill, Amara Darboh, Ben Gedeon, Ryan Glasgow, Jehu Chesson, Jake Butt, Jeremy Clark.

If you’re counting along at home, that’s eight defensive starters plus two starting wideouts and a starting tight end. Many of those guys were all-conference caliber players. Plus, Michigan lost its leading rusher from a season ago (though the running-back-by-committee setup means no one guy was all-important to the unit’s success), and Jim Harbaugh is doing his usual secretive “nobody knows who the quarterback is going to be” thing again. It’ll almost surely be Wilton Speight.

So with that mass exodus, why are you still seeing Michigan mentioned among the conference’s best teams? Why are the Wolverines still plenty high in the national preseason rankings? Well, Harbaugh has done a bang-up job recruiting in recent years. Turns out all that tree-climbing and go-kart-racing and sleeping over at kids’ houses (still weird) paid off. Michigan has had the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the country the past two cycles. So just like Ohio State had to reload ahead of last season when it lost so many starters to the NFL, Michigan is tasked with doing the same thing this season. It worked out just fine for the Buckeyes last year, and there's no reason to believe it won’t work out for the Wolverines this year.

The name you’ll be hearing a whole bunch in 2017 is Rashan Gary. The 6-foot-5, 287-pound defensive end from New Jersey was the No. 1 recruit in the country in 2016, and after totaling 27 tackles as a freshman, he’s expected to have a monster sophomore season. He’ll be well-accompanied on that defensive line by senior tackle Maurice Hurst, projected as a top pick in next year’s draft. But it’s a reload almost everywhere else on the field, meaning Harbaugh gets a chance to show off his program’s strength.

4. Is it going to be more of the same from consistent Wisconsin?

Running backs graduate. Defensive coordinators get better jobs elsewhere. But the Wisconsin train keeps on chugging. It’s same old, same old on a seemingly annual basis up at Camp Randall, and it doesn’t look like that will change in 2017.

Once more, the Badgers went through two big offseason shakeups, losing their starting running back for the second time in three years and losing their defensive coordinator for the second straight year. Corey Clement ended his senior season with 1,375 yards and 15 touchdown runs. Justin Wilcox coached a defense that was statistically one of the top 10 in the nation for the second year in a row. Clement is on the Philadelphia Eagles. Wilcox is the new head coach at Cal.

But just like there was no panic after Melvin Gordon left for the pros or after Dave Aranda left for LSU, there’s plenty of confidence that the baton will be picked up and that the Badgers will do what they always do. Bradrick Shaw is the new starter at running back, though he’ll have plenty of help with freshman Jonathan Taylor and Pitt transfer Chris James. A deep Wisconsin backfield? In other news, water is wet. Wilcox’s replacement is a household name for Wisconsin fans though far less proven. Justin Leonhard — a former Badger safety — takes over the defense after just one season as an assistant. But why worry? Even with the real bad news that linebacker Jack Cichy will miss the season with a torn ACL, the defense again looks strong, with productive names Conor Sheehy, Garret Dooley, Ryan Connelly, T.J. Edwards, Chris Orr, Derrick Tindal and D’Cota Dixon on that side of the ball.

And remember last year’s terrifying schedule? Well, wins over LSU and Michigan State and close losses to Ohio State and Michigan had Wisconsin as a Playoff contender for much of the season. This time around the schedule looks mighty favorable, with Michigan the only Big Ten East power on the docket — and that game will be played in Madison.

So there’s no need to panic. Heck, Badger fans might even want to gather some roses before the frost rolls in.

5. Is this the year Northwestern reaches the Big Ten title game?

The idea that Northwestern could reach the Big Ten title game might still be laughable for some. Those people obviously haven’t been paying attention to what Pat Fitzgerald’s been doing in Evanston.

Now, yes, the Cats won just six games during the regular season last year, but they finished the campaign in style with a tremendous win over Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl, just the program’s third all-time bowl win and the second under Fitzgerald. If you watched that bowl game, you know Justin Jackson is the real deal. He’s been insanely productive in the first three seasons of his career, totaling 4,129 yards and going over 1,100 in each campaign. He’ll once again be a workhorse for Northwestern, and he might just be the best player in the Big Ten.

The Cats also have the quarterback position going for them, where Clayton Thorson is in his third season as the starter. Thorson improved dramatically from his first season to his second and is earning a bit of NFL buzz, too. The huge question for Northwestern’s offense will be whether Thorson can have another strong year without Austin Carr, who was the Big Ten’s top receiver a season ago and a Biletnikoff finalist. It’s unknown who will be able to step up and help replace that production, but Thorson has proven he can make plays with both his arm and his legs and if a few games in the middle of last season were any indication, this offense has the capability to be explosive.

That’s not to say the Cats are a title-game shoo-in with no hurdles to clear. Those are legitimate question marks in the receiving corps, and while the secondary should be a defensive strength — safety Godwin Igwebuike is very good back there — there’s a big hole at middle linebacker after the NFL departure of Anthony Walker Jr. Northwestern also makes tough road trips to Madison and Lincoln and has a home date with Penn State. The schedule’s a tougher one than what West rival Wisconsin will have to face. But the program’s come a mighty long way under Fitzgerald, and the pieces are in place for a season of new heights.

6. How will Michigan State respond from rough season, even worse offseason?

After building a program of national import, everything went wrong for Mark Dantonio and Michigan State last season. A team that one season prior won the Big Ten title game and reached the College Football Playoff was unrecognizable. Key players either left or were injured, and the Spartans shocked everyone with a disgusting 3-9 finish that included a string of seven straight losses immediately following an impressive road win at Notre Dame. You might remember, though, that Notre Dame turned out to be bad, too.

The defense was soft, allowing an average of more than 32 points a game during that seven-game losing streak. The offense was softer, with only Illinois and Rutgers averaging fewer points a game on the season. Sparty couldn’t get anything out of its quarterbacks, and only a date with league-worst Rutgers allowed Michigan State to look like itself. Dantonio’s reputation as an apparent program-builder was nicked, with the team sorely missing the likes of Connor Cook and Shilqiue Calhoun — not to mention the defensive backs who had slowly trickled out of East Lansing as NFL careers came calling.

And then things got worse, with the offseason dominated by things far more concerning than on-field performance as Michigan State’s football program was in the middle of a pair of sexual assault investigations. Players were suspended and dismissed, and a member of Dantonio’s staff left the team, too.

So the current state of Spartans football is about as far away from where Dantonio wants it as it can possibly be — and it didn’t take long to get there. And yet there’s still football to be played in 2017. Brian Lewerke will get another stab at quarterbacking after last season’s less-than-great results and an injury thrown in there, too. Running back LJ Scott will likely have to carry another heavy load. The rest of the depth chart is topped by a lot of new names. In that extremely tough Big Ten East, it might be another long year for the Spartans.

7. Will a new quarterback mean a big year for Mike Riley and Nebraska?

Tommy Armstrong was great fun to watch. Yeah, he had accuracy issues, but he had plenty of other things going for him. If you think he’s the reason Nebraska didn’t do too much winning in the first two seasons of the Mike Riley Era, you’re wrong.

But as easy as Armstrong was to root for, there’s something about getting your guy, and Riley seems to have his in Tanner Lee. Lee is a Tulane transfer, and he put up some big numbers for the Green Wave in 2014 and 2015: 3,601 passing yards and 23 touchdown tosses in 19 games. He also threw 21 picks and completed just 53.6 percent of his passes, but he’s two years older now and plays in a program with a good deal more talent.

There are more changes in store for Nebraska, too, as the team has a new defensive coordinator and a brand-new defense. There’s a new starter at running back, albeit one who had plenty of touches last season. And the familiar fleet of wide receivers has turned over, chiefly with the departures of Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly. Still, the team’s top two returning pass-catchers — Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El — should provide options for Lee.

However much like Armstrong couldn’t be blamed for all of the Huskers’ problems the past two seasons, Lee can’t be expected to fix all of them, either. And, yes, once again it looks like Riley’s team won’t be favored to win the Big Ten West. Heck, it looks like they could be picked behind as many as three teams in that division. For football-mad Nebraskans, when does the Mike Riley Experiment become tired? A jump from six wins to nine wins seems like a big deal, but Husker fans generally aren’t happy unless their team’s competing for championships. And the Huskers don't seem to be doing that right now.

8. How many game will Illinois win in Year 2 of Lovie Smith Era?

There can’t be a reasonable observer out there who thinks the answer to that question is anything but “not many.” As good a hire as Lovie Smith remains — it’s still somewhat shocking to think a program at Illinois’ level wrangled a coach as good as Smith, a continual credit to athletics director Josh Whitman — his program remains far from where he wants it to be. It also remains in an extremely challenging conference featuring some of college football's most powerful programs.

But this season, the non-conference schedule does Illinois as many favors as its conference schedule does: hardly any. South Florida could be “the” Group of Five team this season after winning 11 games last season and then replacing the departed Willie Taggert with Charlie Strong, and a road trip to Tampa on Sept. 15 doesn’t seem to bode well for the Illini. Plus, a week earlier, they play host to another Group of Five conference champ from last season, Western Kentucky (also with a new head coach).

Then it’s Nebraska and Iowa before a respite with Rutgers, but that’s followed by Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern in four of the final six games. That's a gauntlet.

Smith will be breaking in a newish starting quarterback, with Chayce Crouch — who played a bit last season — the first signal-caller out of the chute in the Post-Lunt Era. Kendrick Foster flashed at times at running back last season, and he’s back. But the offensive chatter will revolve around wideout Mikey Dudek, back for just his second year playing after back-to-back seasons were wiped out by spring ACL tears. He was fantastic as a freshman way back in 2014, but two serious knee injuries later, what will he be able to do? Someone ask Derrick Rose.

Announcements have been made about upgrading the Illinois football facilities. Couple that with Smith’s star power on the recruiting trail, and you’d have to think the future is brighter. But Smith has himself a long job ahead of him pulling this program out of the Tim Beckman-generated muck. Year 2 is a little early to be planning more than a couple victory parties on Green Street.

9. How will Minnesota benefit from the arrival of P.J. Fleck?

If the Land of 10,000 Lakes is seeming a little more energized to you these days, you can thank P.J. Fleck. A sensational hire by Minnesota brought in the Human Adrenaline Shot, and he’s already making everyone swoon with his catchphrases and high-octane personality and rowing of boats or canoes or whatever he’s rowing these days. He did a great job at Western Michigan, making them the most prominent Group of Five team in the country last season. What can he do in the Twin Cities?

Well, the big thing to note is that Fleck is not taking over some sunken ship that he has to crane out of one of those aforementioned 10,000 lakes. The Gophers won nine games last season and have 40 wins since the start of the 2011 season. They’re a perennial contender for a Big Ten West division title. But what Fleck can do is get everyone to know that. See, he’s a bit more of a brand than Jerry Kill or certainly Tracy Claeys was, and his personality mixed with a program on the rise could get Minnesota the respect they haven’t received in seasons past. (Fleck also has the quality of not being around for the sexual assault investigation/player strike that went down at the end of last season.)

While an advanced level of winning might have to wait a bit considering how Wisconsin keeps on cruising in the West each and every season, Minnesota also has itself a mighty favorable schedule, and it’s not difficult at all to see the Gophers heading into the battle for the Little Brown Jug on Nov. 4 with a perfect 8-0 record. That’s the start of a November gauntlet, though, featuring Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks.

Fleck is blessed with a formidable rushing attack that features a two-headed running back monster in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, and that should help take some pressure off the new starting quarterback. There are other important returning starters peppered throughout on both sides of the ball. But if Minnesota wins the games it’s supposed to — remember that its first three losses last season came by a combined 17 points — it will set up an exciting final month of the season. Like the Gophers need any more of an energy boost after Fleck rowed in.

10. And the rest?

No offense intended to the Iowa Hawkeyes, who I have yet to mention but regret to lump in with some of the Big Ten's lower-tier programs. But when you limit yourself to 10 questions, you’ve got to stick to it. That’s self discipline.

No, when I say lower-tier teams I mean the quartet of Maryland, Rutgers, Indiana and Purdue. Two of those teams were good last season, the Terps and the Hoosiers, and weren’t among the Big Ten’s worst. But as far as program strength goes, they’re not high among their conference peers quite yet.

Of course, DJ Durkin and Tom Allen are working toward changing that. Maryland had the fourth-best rushing attack in the league last season and won enough games to reach the postseason. Indiana went bowling, too, and had its usual high-powered offense plus a vastly improved defense. Both those teams have the unenviable task of trying to build on that success in college football’s toughest division. But Durkin’s had some real recruiting successes, while Allen has been handed the keys to the program after Kevin Wilson’s sudden and controversial exit.

There’s also a new regime at Purdue, where Jeff Brohm is ready to translate his successful tenure at Western Kentucky (and his awesome XFL on-field interview) into something with the Big Ten’s second-worst program. It’s a tough job. But perhaps not as tough a job as the one Chris Ash has himself in with the Big Ten’s worst program. Rutgers won just two games in his first season after his assistantship under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Neither the Boilers nor the Knights are expected to do much of anything in 2017. But if they do, well that’s why they call them surprises.

And as I circle back to those aforementioned Hawkeyes, there’s not much to get excited about there, either. Yeah, Akrum Wadley is back and that’s very good news for Iowa as he ran wild a few times in seasons past. But who is going to play quarterback? Neither Tyler Wiegers nor Nathan Stanley threw 10 passes last season backing up C.J. Beathard. Add that mystery to a potential blasting in the season-opener against high-powered Wyoming, which has the potential No. 1 draft pick, Josh Allen, at quarterback, and things could get off to a rocky start for the Hawkeyes.

Bonus: How will things play out this season?

All right, let’s play this thing out. How will they stack up at season’s end?

East Division

1. Ohio State
2. Penn State
3. Michigan
4. Michigan State
5. Maryland
6. Indiana
7. Rutgers

West Division

1. Wisconsin
2. Northwestern
3. Minnesota
4. Nebraska
5. Iowa
6. Illinois
7. Purdue

Penn State might be better than Ohio State right this second. If I were to do preseason power rankings, I’d rank Penn State at No. 1 because of that incredible 1-2 punch of Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley. But Urban Meyer has too much talent, and the game between those two teams is in Columbus, where the Buckeyes will want to exact some revenge for what went down last season in Happy Valley. Jim Harbaugh’s team, as good as it still will be, is going to need a year to get back to the level it was at last season, when it had all those veterans. For that reason, I’ll take Wisconsin to beat Michigan in the Badgers’ toughest game of the year and end the regular season undefeated. Northwestern has as good a team as it’s had in recent years, but there are too many pitfalls on that schedule to make a real run at Wisconsin.

Big Ten title game: Ohio State over Wisconsin

Kind of ho-hum, I realize, but there’s a reason for that: These coaches have built fantastic programs. The way Meyer has recruited and coached means his team gets to be the preseason favorite every year, and Paul Chryst, James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh get the same treatment. That’s just the way college football is.

But college football is also unmatched in its ability to surprise. So be on the lookout for that, too, and don’t be shocked if these predictions end up being completely wrong.

Now, to quote Big Ten newcomer Jeff Brohm: Let’s play football.

See how they stack up: Week 3 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 3 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 3 in the books, here’s my top 25.

1. Clemson (3-0)

The defending champs are looking like repeat candidates in the season’s early going, following up a lockdown of Auburn with a throttling of a Louisville team that boasts the reigning Heisman winner.

2. Oklahoma (3-0)

Baker Mayfield and the boys didn’t slow down the Sooner Schooner one bit after the win at Ohio State. Mayfield added 331 yards and four touchdown passes to his Heisman resume in a win over Tulane.

3. Alabama (3-0)

The Tide keep rolling, even if Clemson and Oklahoma have turned in more impressive wins. Bama blew out Colorado State this weekend and gets a surprisingly undefeated Vandy team in its SEC opener.

4. Oklahoma State (3-0)

The competition has been anything but fierce, but Okie State looks unstoppable. Mason Rudolph added nearly 500 yards and five more touchdowns to his Heisman resume this weekend. Bring on Bedlam.

5. Penn State (3-0)

The Lions have two Heisman candidates in their backfield, and they keep turning in monster days. Things could finally get tricky for Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley with Iowa in the Big Ten opener.

6. USC (3-0)

The double-OT win over Texas was one of the best games of the young season. You might have seen shaky play against a bad team. I saw the clutch-est of strips from Christian Rector, a season-saver.

7. Wisconsin (3-0)

The Badgers are absolutely blasting every team they come into contact with these days, the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten. And now they have a passing attack? Look out.

8. Virginia Tech (3-0)

Things didn’t start so hot for the Hokies against East Carolina, but they ended up dropping 64 points on the Pirates. Josh Jackson has nine total touchdowns and zero interceptions this season.

9. Georgia (3-0)

A 3-0 record and a true freshman at quarterback? Impressive. If the Dawgs can beat their fellow canines in Saturday’s matchup against Mississippi State, then they’ve got something special going on.

10. Michigan (3-0)

The Wolverines’ offense is making folks nervous, and rightfully so with Wilton Speight’s unit not doing much impressing. But the defense continues to look awesome, so stay away from the panic button.

11. West Virginia (2-1)

Since looking good in a one-possession loss to Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers have scored 115 points in their last two games. Will Grier is already over 1,000 yards on the season. In three games!

12. Mississippi State (3-0)

This was supposed to be LSU’s breakout game, but it was Mississippi State’s instead. A jaw-dropping pounding by the Bulldogs, who held the Bayou Bengals to 270 yards.

13. Ohio State (2-1)

If only the Buckeyes could play Army every week, right? The offensive problems have not been exorcised, one must imagine, but Ohio State has a star in running back J.K. Dobbins. Feed him the ball.

14. TCU (3-0)

So much for TCU’s defensive dominance, giving up 36 points to SMU. But the Frogs’ have an offense, too, scoring 56 points on 619 yards. TCU’s outscored opponents 147-43 in three games.

15. Oregon (3-0)

It’s becoming obvious that Josh Allen just isn’t very good when he plays good teams, but still give the Ducks credit for thumping Wyoming. This is really looking like the Oregon teams of old.

16. Vanderbilt (3-0)

Is it up to the Dores to stand in the way of Bama’s annual conquest of the SEC? Vandy's been a feel-good story so far and beat a very good Kansas State team to stay perfect.

17. Duke (3-0)

The Devils can’t stop scoring, and it appears they won’t stop scoring. Three games in and Duke has scored 135 points. Oh, and the Duke defense forced four turnovers in the win over Baylor.

18. Maryland (2-0)

An off week for the Turtles, but Maryland still has the No. 2 scoring offense in college football, averaging 57 points a game!

19. Louisville (2-1)

I don’t blame the Cards for losing to Clemson, but there’s clearly something up with the Louisville defense. It’s allowed 28, 35 and 47 points in three games against Purdue, North Carolina and Clemson.

20. Miami (1-0)
21. Florida State (0-1)

The aftermath of Hurricane Irma postponed what would’ve been a much-anticipated matchup between these two rivals. They’ve still only played one game apiece.

22. Washington State (3-0)

Mike Leach’s team has been predictably good at scoring points. In three games, it has put up 130 of them. A USC-Oregon-Cal stretch, however, lies on the other side of Saturday’s game against Nevada.

23. Iowa (3-0)

The Hawkeyes have been mighty impressive through three games. New quarterback Nathan Stanley leads the Big Ten with 10 touchdown passes, and Iowa has 99 points in three wins.

24. Cal (3-0)

It wasn’t the prettiest game between Cal and Ole Miss, with a bunch of turnovers. But the Golden Bears won the second half 20-0 and came back to move to 3-0.

25. Auburn (2-1)

Auburn’s lack of offense against Clemson is looking more and more understandable. But only beating Mercer 24-10 is going to take some explaining.

Others receiving votes:

San Diego State (3-0)

CSNChicago.com White Sox Insider Dan Hayes will appreciate the Aztecs love. They’ve got two wins over Pac-12 teams already this season, including a takedown of Stanford — Stanford! —this weekend.

Washington (3-0)

You’re almost there, Huskies. Win at Colorado like you won easy home games against Montana and Fresno State and you’ll be ranked.

Texas Tech (2-0)

The Red Raiders will never not score a million points. The strength of schedule has actually been decent, too, 108 points in two wins over strong FCS program Eastern Washington and Pac-12 foe Arizona State.

Memphis (2-0)

Through three weeks, the Game of the Year award goes to Memphis’ win over UCLA. The highly entertaining four hours featured a billion points — and some key defensive plays by Memphis.

Kansas State (2-1)

Narrowly missing out on a big road win at Vandy. K-State is still a good team and held a 3-0 SEC team to 270 total yards.

South Florida (3-0)

You don’t get too much love for beating up on the Illini, but USF’s offense has been very good so far in 2017 — despite the slow starts. Nearly 700 yards in Friday night’s win.

Purdue > SEC: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

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Purdue > SEC: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

Choo choo!

The Big Ten better look out because here comes the Purdue train rolling down the tracks.

We'll see if the to-this-point impressive Boilermakers can remain competitive once Jeff Brohm gets his first taste of Big Ten football. But through three games, Purdue has looked a new team and a new program, most recently going on the road and blowing out an SEC team.

So, yeah, Purdue > SEC.

Read on for more about the Boilers and the rest of the 10 big things from the weekend in Big Ten football.

1. It just means more

Allow me and the rest of Big Ten Country some schadenfreude when the Big Ten’s supposedly bottom-feeding program rolls into an SEC stadium and rolls out with a 35-3 blowout win … even if it did come against my alma mater.

While it’s clear the Chase Daniel-Jeremy Maclin glory days are long, long gone at Mizzou, could we be witnessing the dawn of a new golden era of Purdue football? Jeff Brohm has three games under his belt as the Boilermakers’ head coach, and his team has impressed in all of them. First there was the hanging tough with Louisville, followed by a Friday-night beatdown of Ohio and now a shocking 30-point smoking of an SEC team. Holy Boilermakers, Batman!

Sure, the Fighting Tigers are not what they used to be. This is a team that allowed 43 points to an FCS school in Week 1 and fired its defensive coordinator after a Week 2 loss to South Carolina. But Purdue hadn’t won back-to-back games in half a decade. Let that soak in.

With the Purdue defense keeping Mizzou completely out of the end zone, things get real interesting for Week 4’s conference-opener against Michigan, an offense that hasn’t been all that impressive through its first three games. Are the Boilers going to upset the Wolverines? A wild thought that you would have laughed at three weeks ago all of a sudden seems not that impossible.

Boiler. Up.

2. It’s getting hot in Lincoln … so fire your head coach?

Mike Riley’s hot seat is getting real hot. He can thank his hand-picked quarterback for that after Tanner Lee threw a pair of pick sixes in Nebraska’s ultra-embarrassing home loss to Northern Illinois on Saturday. While NIU has made a habit of going into Big Ten stadiums and coming out with shocking wins (four of ‘em in the last five years, to be precise), Nebraska had no business losing this one — and yet it did.

The problems have been myriad over the season’s first three weeks for the Huskers. They were defensively inept in their first two games, surrendering 78 combined points to Arkansas State and Oregon. Then came Saturday’s disaster, in which the offense fell off a cliff and was stopped on two late drives by a MAC team. Lee threw three interceptions in all, including one on fourth down on the team’s final possession, an absolutely abysmal quartet of plays.

And so Riley’s job status is obviously a big topic of conversation this week. Riley’s hiring is not aging well. Made the main man in football-mad Lincoln after a career of middling mediocrity at lowly Oregon State, Riley getting the gig was a bit of a head-scratcher then. And it’s still one now, meaning maybe athletics director Shawn Eichhorst has some blame to shoulder for the state of Nebraska football.

Rutgers and Illinois in back-to-back games to start conference play could turn a sour 1-2 start into a slightly more acceptable 3-2 beginning heading into the Wisconsin-Ohio State gauntlet in early October. But it’s hard to see Nebraska emerging from the other side of that with a better-than-.500 record. Meaning Riley’s seat is going to stay hot.

3. Best way to fix the Buckeyes’ offense

Truthfully, the best way to fix Ohio State’s seemingly broken offense was to play Army. Mission accomplished. A week after getting trucked by an unstoppable Sooner Schooner, the Buckeyes easily dispatched of the Black Knights from West Point. So, problem solved?

It unfortunately won’t be that easy, as the Big Ten doesn’t have too many Army-caliber teams for J.T. Barrett and company to beat up on. But there seemed to be one obvious solution reached in Saturday’s win: Give the ball to J.K. Dobbins. The true freshman running back is already starting over last year’s freshman sensation in the backfield, Mike Weber. Weber’s been a bit banged up at times, which partially explains Dobbins’ ascension, but Dobbins’ play likely did most of the convincing when Urban Meyer was given the possibility of Dobbins topping the depth chart.

Saturday, Dobbins got 13 carries and did incredible work with them, rushing for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Give the kid the ball. Like all the time.

Barrett was back, kind of, after that horror show against Oklahoma, completing all but eight of his 33 passing attempts, racking up more than 300 total yards and accounting for three touchdowns (two throwing, one rushing). He’s now the Big Ten’s all-time leader in touchdowns responsible for, a mouthful of a stat but a remarkable accomplishment, nonetheless. Guy whose record he broke? Drew Brees. Ever hear of him?

4. Lack of offense a reason to panic in Ann Arbor?

Last season’s string of blowout wins? That doesn’t look likely to be repeated by this year’s Michigan team, which through three weeks has an offense that can’t seem to move the ball or produce many points. Problematic, as those are the two main goals of a college football offense.

While Wolverines fans weren’t too enamored with Wilton Speight last season, he’s inspiring little to no confidence without last season’s cadre of pass-catching weapons like Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Instead, with a new receiving corps, Speight isn’t doing much of anything. The Michigan offense only accumulated 359 yards in Saturday’s win over Air Force. Through three weeks, the Wolverines rank an unimpressive eighth in the conference in scoring offense.

Now, do these offensive woes mean it’s time to freak out? Not at all, really, because it seems that Michigan’s defense is better than anyone could’ve hoped considering it had 10 starters to replace this season. That defense looks as good as any in the conference right now (it ranks second in the league, allowing 208 yards a game) and seems like it could win any game for the Wolverines.

Michigan is very much in the hunt for a conference title, especially with Ohio State looking so vulnerable. But get used to the reality that if wins start stacking up, they’ll come in sweat-em-out fashion as compared to last year’s blowouts.

5. Cats back!

After a couple of rough showings in the season’s first two games, Northwestern woke up and responded to a beatdown of a loss at Duke last weekend, crushing Bowling Green by six touchdowns on Saturday. Those ugly performances against Nevada (a win) and Duke (a loss) featured a struggling offense. In Week 1, the Cats were trailing in the fourth quarter. In Week 2, the Cats couldn’t do much of anything, with a banged-up Justin Jackson limited to seven carries and Clayton Thorson throwing two picks.

Well, those struggles were distant memories Saturday night, with the Northwestern offense doing just about whatever it wanted under the lights at Ryan Field. Jackson was back to his usual self, rushing for 121 yards and three touchdowns. Thorson was 23-for-30 for 370 yards and two touchdowns, a huge day. As for the preseason mystery of who’d be catching Thorson’s passes? Well, Thorson found a couple go-to guys Saturday: Garrett Dickerson went for 150 yards on nine catches, and Bennett Skowronek caught three passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns.

It might have just been a cleansing matchup against Bowling Green. Back-to-back games against Wisconsin and Penn State will be monumental challenges for this team. But the Cats looked far closer to what was expected in the preseason than what we saw in Weeks 1 and 2.

6. #TraceTheHeisman

Back at Mizzou, we had the phrase “Chase the Heisman” to support the now twice-mentioned Chase Daniel’s Heisman campaign. Well, maybe Penn State should adopt “Trace the Heisman” for its quarterback. While that phrase makes no sense, the notion that McSorley is one of the Big Ten’s more legit Heisman candidates does make some sense.

The Penn State signal-caller — and home run hitter — had another big day in the Nittany Lions’ 56-0 blasting of Georgia State on Saturday. He needed just 18 completions to rack up 309 yards and four touchdowns, also getting into the end zone on one of his three carries. Through three weeks, McSorley has led Penn State’s high-octane offense to the tune of 753 yards and nine touchdown passes, plus a pair of touchdown rushes.

Thing is, McSorley, as it’s well known, might not even be the top Heisman candidate in his own backfield. Saquon Barkley might have rushed for only 47 yards this weekend, but he’s an obvious threat in the passing game and he racked up 142 receiving yards and a touchdown catch. Let’s check in on Barkley’s Heisman resume through three games: 548 combined rushing/receiving yards and five total touchdowns. So, you know, pretty good.

7. Does Wisconsin have the Big Ten’s best offense?

Don’t look now, but the most electric offense in the Big Ten through three weeks belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers, who despite not really playing anyone terrific are blasting every team they come into contact with. You might not have believed your eyes this past weekend, with the Badgers doing work through the air.

While the Wisconsin ground game is the stuff of legend, the passing attack has been hit-or-miss in recent years. Not so Saturday at BYU, with quarterback Alex Hornibrook throwing four touchdown passes in the 40-6 romp. He was nearly perfect, too, completing 18 of his 19 passes.

Combine Hornibrook’s big day with a to-be-expected huge day from a Badger running back — Jonathan Taylor went for 128 yards and a touchdown — and you’ve got an offense that’s racked up 130 points in three weeks. Wisconsin’s offense is tops in the conference and 16th in the country with 511 yards per game.

8. The Illini continue to be young … and that’s about it

Illinois is going through some growing pains. The Illini are a very young team, and their trend of throwing that youth on the field continued this weekend. They started 10 true freshmen in Friday night’s loss to South Florida, breaking a program record set just a week earlier.

Thing is, that youth isn't having much success out there in its first taste of college football. Illinois was throttled by USF, losing by 24 points. A defense that started five true freshmen gave up almost 700 yards of offense. The Illinois offense didn’t fare much better, with starting quarterback Chayce Crouch plucked from the game and replaced with Jeff George Jr.

The point that I’ve been making throughout the season’s first three weeks remains the same: All this youth is a good thing, in that it shows Lovie Smith is recruiting guys who are better than the players who were there when he was hired. But the flip side of that is it takes those guys a while to get their footing. And in the meantime come games like Friday’s — games that haven’t necessarily been rare for the Illini in recent seasons.

9. Is Nathan Stanley already one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks?

Iowa’s quarterback position was a big ol’ mystery following the graduation of C.J. Beathard. But Nathan Stanley has solved that mystery in a hurry, and in three games he’s already become one of the conference’s most-productive signal-callers. He threw just nine passes in 2016, but he’s been pretty fantastic during Iowa’s 3-0 start.

The sophomore Hawkeye — who being from Menomonie, Wisconsin, managed to elude both the Badgers and nearby Golden Gophers — leads the conference with 10 touchdown passes in three games. He’s passed for 655 yards and only thrown one interception. And all the while the Iowa offense has kind of been a point-producing machine, scoring 99 points in those three games. That includes the 31 points and two Stanley touchdowns from this weekend’s win over North Texas.

10. No running on the boat

If you’ve yet to be impressed by Minnesota, that’s OK. The Fightin’ Flecks narrowly beat Buffalo in the season-opener and then blew out Oregon State and Middle Tennessee State. But they’re 3-0 and don’t figure to be in a game where they’re a big underdog until at least the end of October.

What you do need to know about the Golden Gophers, though, is that they have a remarkable run defense through three weeks. Again, that level of competition hasn’t been super great. But Minnesota is allowing an average of just 59 rushing yards a game, tops in the conference and fourth in the nation.

And the rest!

— Rutgers bounced back nicely after that embarrassing loss to Eastern Michigan, putting a 65-0 whooping on FCS foe Morgan State.

— Indiana’s game against Florida International was canceled in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

— Michigan State and Maryland were off this weekend. Both remain undefeated.