All Big 10 eyes on Ohio State-Michigan State
A look at what to watch in the Big Ten this weekend:
GAME OF THE WEEK: Game of the week? Try game of the Big Ten regular season when East Division heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State duke it out in East Lansing, Michigan.
The teams are both 7-1 overall and 4-0 in conference play. Barring a November collapse, the winner emerges as the likely division winner for a berth in the league championship game in Indianapolis in December.
The loser drops out of the discussion for college football's new four-team playoff.
Seventh-ranked Michigan State will get an emotional lift playing under the lights at Spartan Stadium. The 13th-ranked Buckeyes enter the night with four straight road victories in the series, dating to 2004.
The prime-time matchup might also add some luster to a conference that suffered early season losses in prominent nonconference games. Top players such as Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook and Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa could raise their national profiles with clutch performances.
BEST MATCHUP: Ohio State-Michigan State wins. But after that, there's an elimination of game of sorts, too, in the West Division with Iowa visiting Minnesota, each 6-2 overall and 3-1 in conference.
The winner stays in the mix among the one-loss teams atop the West, while the loser essentially falls out of the race.
Going by the schedule alone, this is a must-win more for Minnesota, which hosts Ohio State next week. Then comes a daunting two-game road stretch to end November with games at Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Iowa hopes to build off its 48-7 victory last week over Northwestern. The Gophers will need to stop senior running back Mark Weisman, who has rushed for at least two touchdowns in each of the last five games.
The last time Minnesota started 4-1 in the Big Ten was in 1990.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS: Maryland's Brad Craddock and Penn State's Sam Ficken are among the best kickers in the country. Craddock has hit all 14 of his attempts to lead the country in field goal percentage. Ficken is third in the country with 2.12 field goals per game. ... Ficken last week became the first Penn State kicker since 1982 to make three field goals of at least 45 yards in a game. ... Iowa RB Akrum Wadley ran for 106 yards last week against Northwestern, becoming the first Hawkeye to rush for more than 100 in his first game with a carry since 2009.
LONG SHOT: The general consensus around the league is that Purdue has improved through the season. It's probably of little comfort to the Boilermakers, who have lost three straight and face surging Wisconsin.
The Purdue defense is 11th in the Big Ten in rushing defense at 174.3 yards per game. That's not going to cut it against the Badgers' dynamic duo of Gordon and Clement.
On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin's defense has steamrolled Maryland and Rutgers in its last two games by a combined score of 89-7. The Badgers lead the nation in total defense at 253.8 yards per game. The Boilermakers are a respectable seventh in total offense (367.6 yards) in conference games. They also got within 38-31 of Michigan State with 6:19 left in last month's game before the Spartans returned an interception for a touchdown to seal the win.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Buckeyes freshman QB J.T. Barrett gets another shot in prime time. So far, the replacement for the injured Braxton Miller hasn't fared well under the lights in the passing game. Barrett threw three interceptions in the 29-9 upset loss to Virginia Tech in September. He was 12 of 19 for 74 yards with two picks against Penn State a couple weeks ago. Both games started at 8 p.m., as will Saturday's tilt at Michigan State.