When I see tomorrow's college football schedule as it pertains to the Big 10 conference, I cant help but flashback to the second week of the 2005 season. That might have been the last time the conference was given any street cred by the college football fashionistas. Recall, the league had three teams--Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa--all ranked in the top 10, and, if you can believe it, there were many whispers that the Big 10 was biggest and baddest group in the land. That day all three heavyweights faced critical tests against brand names and bigtime rivals.
It was supposed to be a day of statements for the Big 10. Instead, the league spent the day telling everyone that the preseason hype was as fake as a Lou Holtz pep talk. Third-ranked Michigan listed their way through their match with Notre Dame, stumbling around like a Dave Wannstedt coached team in the red zone in a 17-10 loss. Iowa netted just a field goal in a 20-point beatdown in Ames against Iowa State. And, Ohio State, at home, did not have the fourth quarter chops to beat Texas, in a ballyhooed showdown that seemed to have had about ten times more the offseason hype than tomorrow's game with the Trojans does. The day began with the Big 10 owning the college football world. By the end, the Emperor had no clothes and the league proved itself a fraud, nothing more than a summer preview magazine creation.
The league has not been the same since. And, rather than securing its footing in the college football world, the conference has seen its stock continue to plummet since that late summer day of football four years ago. Sure, Michigan and Ohio State teased us with thrilling 2006 seasons leading to a #1 vs #2 matchup in The Game, but both teams were steamrolled in their BCS Bowl games, again bringing out the cries of fraud and mockery. We know whats happened since. Just about every outcome of the last two football seasons has further buried midwestern college football.
Michigan losses to an FCS school and then has their worst season in decades the following year. Ohio State keeps getting pantsed on the biggest stage. Iowa loses it mojo. Wisconsin hires Brett Bielema. Purdue's basketball on grass is figured out over night. Minnesota is no longer a darkhorse team with a stable of NFL ready tailbacks. Penn State has has been resurgent during this time, but they dont have a single OOC win that resonates among the masses and were completely outclassed in last season's Rose Bowl by USC. Michigan State has had two nice seasons in a row, but have lost to ACC and SEC teams in bowl games, looking like a stodgy, archaic Big 10 in the process. I think you get the picture.
I bring this up because this weekend's slate looks strikingling similar to that 2005 docket. Not only are the rivalries between Iowa and Iowa State and Michigan and Notre Dame renewed, but the Buckeyes are hosting a premier team, this time USC, under the lights at the Shoe. Unlike 2005, there are several other games on the docket important to the Big 10. Four years ago, the Big 10 was the top dog heading into a showdown weekend. Today, they're a weak link in a strong college football landscape. Saturday, the Big 10 has a chance to take a big step up the ladder in the climb back to respectively. If things break right, the Sunday morning storyline could be about a Big 10 Renaissance. Of course, league teams could again take the gas pipe, the conference will continue to take public perception hits and there will be viable discussion about the Mountain West Conference surpassing it.
Which way will it go? 50/50. I do hope, however, that the alley cat return of Big 10 picks is better than a 50/50 proposition.
First, two caveats: I am not playing all these games. If you'd like to see my card for the day, stroll over to the JCB as I'll have the card up by 9 tomorrow morning. And, as always, blindly following my picks can be hazardous to your wallet. Here goes:
Iowa State +7 vs Iowa (noon, FSN) Ames has become Waterloo for the Iowa Hawkeyes with the with four losses in five game at ISU, avering just 16 points per game in those contests and topping the 14-point mark just once. Iowa did not look good in last week's near miss against Northern Iowa. The culprit, as I saw it, was an offensive line, expected to be a major strength, that played poorly. Combined with the Hawks lack of a big time tailback the running game, this led to enough choppy offensive football to allow the Panthers to hang around. The line has been wrecked by injuries and suspension, but some of that was supposed to get ironed out this week. Think again. The news got worse for the Hawks up front with the announcement that Bryan Bugala has been felled with an illness and has been ruled out tomorrow. The prospects of more offensive line shuffling do not sound good. The Hawks are going to be what we saw last weekend all season until they get things ironed out up front. Also: the Cyclones are 10-1 ATS in this series. I have to ride those numbers.
Central Michigan +14.5 at Michigan State (noon BTN). This is not so much a pick against MSU as it is a pick on CMU. I have believed in this CHIPS! team for the last several years. And while they excell much better against the number in league games, than when they step out of conference, I like their chances of hanging with their, uh, big brother in East Lansing. I was impressed with CMU's defensive effort next week. When they have the ball, Central will face an easier defense in the Spartans than they did with Arizona last week. I dont think the Spartans lose, but I'll take CMU and LeFevour catching a two TD head start against most of the Big 10.
Fresno State +8 at Wisconsin (noon ESPN). The Great Fu Manchu arrives in Madison for another stop on his 'anyone, anytime, anywhere' tour. You cant say Fresno State is not afraid of challenges and September college football this decade has been marked in part by Pat Hill's Bulldogs taking on and scaring the hives out of bigger named foes. I am not sold on what Wisconsin is doing with their lineup right now. I cant shake the feeling that Bielema would have been better off going with Curt Phillips at QB. It took half a season for him to realize who his best QB was last year, and it looks like the same thing might happen this year. And, I know limiting Jon Clay's touches by making him second string means you're putting a less talented team on the field. I am fascinated to see how these decisions play out tomorrow against a real live team thats going to come at them with as much speed and talent as they have. Here is the killer number to keep in mind: In his Fresno State career, Pat Hill is 20-6-1 ATS as underdogs against BCS conference foes.
Michigan +3 at Notre Dame (3:30 ABC). The underdog in this series is 20-5 ATS. I'm interested and I'm already in. The dog is also 12-12-1 straight up, so the history in this series says the team catching points is as likely to win the game as the favorite. Speaking of the Wolverines, I dont think any other team in the country saw odds shift as much in their favor based on opening week. Consider the line movements trending towards the Wolverines in their games later this year against Illinois and Ohio State. Michigan was catching a full touchdown against both teams, but the impressive Michigan win and poor performances by the Illini and the Bucks caused a significant line drop. Michigan is just +3 at Illinois and +4 against Ohio State as of this morning. If they put another good performance in the books tomorrow, I wonder if those lines will move again?
Northwestern -21 vs Eastern Michigan (noon BTN). Obviously Ron Jonathon English will have his team looking ahead to his return next week to Michigan Stadium. More than likely, its Northwestern's defense, which you can make a case is one of the top three in the Big 10, will shut the Eagles down cold. They could barely score against Army. They wont reach double digits against the Cats as Northwestern rolls to its largest margin of victory of the season. We've proved that English's defenses struggle against mobile QBs, right? Kafka for NW is going to have a big day running the QB keepers.
Minnesota -3 over Air Force (7:00, BTN). I expect the Gophers to come out on fire in the opener for their brand new stadium. I like the overall talent Minnesota has in spots of its roster. I just wish Tim Brewster was known more for his coaching than tweeting. Dont look to much into the Gophers struggles against the Cuse. At least they won. But past bowl teams from West Virginia and Virginia have struggled in recent season openers at the Carrier Dome against eventually awful Orange teams and still had enough to rally for good seasons. Its a tricky place to play, especially early in the year when the Orange haven ot been totally demoralized by a long losing streak. This game will be close and entertaining, but I like the Gophers to win by at least a touchdown. Expect this game to be turned by the opportunistic Gopher defense creating a pair of momentum changing turnovers.
Penn State -28 over Syracuse (noon, BTN). Big step up for Syracuse in their second game. Playing at home against Minnesota is the opposite of playing Joe Pa's boys in Happy Valley. Greg Paulus will learn that tomorrow. There is a chance he can exploit the green PSU secondary, but I dont think he'll have any time to set up back in the pocket. Sometime in the third quarter, he will be planted by Navarro Bowman and come up begging for a charging call. Last week against the Zips, the Lions closed it down at the half. I expect them to jump out to another big early lead, but in the Game Two, Paterno will let them stretch their legs more in the second half. This will be a rout. Penn State is 14-9 ATS as a home favorite, 8-3 against non conference foes. They didn't cover in either role last week. Its called playing the percentages, Strawberry.
Indiana -1 over Western Michigan (noon, BTN). Here it is, the one time of the year I blindly take my Alma Mater without putting any thought into it. Neither club looked great last week. While WMU QB Tim Hiller wont be facing the speed and athletes he saw last week in Ann Arbor, the Hoosiers do bring a good pash rush and enough secondary playmakers to give Hiller and the Broncos the same type of fits. I also think this Pistol offense will break out a bit more in their second go around of the season. Dont you have to take the Big 10 team at home against a MAC team in a pick 'em game? Thats what I keep telling myself, anyway.
Purdue +13 over Oregon (10:15 FSN). I'm not sure the Ducks have the defense, especially in the back four, to trust laying a baker's dozen of points in chalk to anyone. And this anyone is the Boilermakers, who looked very good on offense last week and played the Ducks into overtime one year ago. I think some of that momentum can carry over. I'd think about the Over in this one, that is if I hadnt sworn off totals in the offseason. Want proof that I find a stat anywhere to support my play? The Ducks are 1-5 ATS as home favorites against a team playing with revenge of a straight up, against the spread win. Want proof that I can torpedo any stat the goes against my play? Even though Oregon has covered their last four home openers, the last time they didn't is when a second rate Big 1o came to town and the Ducks slept walked through the whole affair. That was in 2004 when Indiana remarkably took the Ducks down 30-24. And if you guessed that I only brought that up to highlight one of the five great moments of IU football in the last 20 years in a paragraph about Purdue, then what can I say? You know me well.
USC -7 over Ohio State (8:00, ESPN). I honestly cant believe I am not taking Ohio State in their own house with a touchdown headstart. In fact, I'm not. I am hiding this pick within the prose in hopes those goons I hired to beat me down if I ever picked against USC dont see it. Barkley will struggle on this stage and I think a strong possiblity exists that this game plays out a bit like the 2006 Texas game when the Bucks, on the road, stymied redshirt freshmen Colt McCoy in his first big game start. Here's why I am taking this chance: The line was -3 all summer, but leapt to -7 when it re-opened Sunday, in large part because of public reaction to Ohio State's close call against Navy. When it comes to football games, I just dont trust the volatile sways of the public opinion. Not even when it looks obvious. Or when the hired muscle men are wearing brass knuckles. But make no mistake: I'm not putting a single dollar or cent on it.