The spotlight is on Penn State in the Big Ten for at least two very good reasons. Does anyone in the nation have a better pair of wins than the Nittany Lions’ upset 16-10 grinder at No. 12 Wisconsin and their 28-20 thriller over No. 22 Auburn?
Penn State was rewarded with a move up to No. 6 in the AP poll, one notch behind No. 5 Iowa, which earned its status by thumping Indiana and Iowa State.
The Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes sure look like the frontrunners for the Big Ten championship game, based on early returns.
Then again, there’s a ton of football to play.
While Iowa looks like the best bet in the West, the spotlight this week will be on No. 18 Wisconsin, which has an opportunity to get back on the horse against No. 12 Notre Dame on Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The Badgers’ loss to Penn State casts this game in a different light. And it remains more important for independent Notre Dame, which puts all of its marbles in the national championship basket, than Wisconsin, which can still have a fine season by enjoying Big Ten conference success.
But college players and coaches don’t look that far ahead. They are focused on this week’s matchup between Irish QB Jack Coan, who transferred after losing his job at Wisconsin, and Badgers QB Graham Mertz, who caught a lot of heat for struggling against Penn State. It ought to be a dandy.
And meanwhile, Penn State’s fortitude, combined with No. 10 Ohio State’s struggles, aren’t the only reasons the Big Ten East is shaping up as a season-long brawl.
Both teams in the Great Lakes State are looking very dangerous.
No. 20 Michigan State is quite the surprise team after an impressive 38-17 defeat of Miami. Mel Tucker has fashioned a hungry team with 41 new players this fall. Next assignment is to see if the Spartans can protect their shiny new No. 20 ranking by taking care of business against Nebraska, which acquitted itself well in a 23-16 loss at Oklahoma, where it was a 22-point underdog.
And look out for No. 19 Michigan. Looking like they have finally mustered the offense they have been lacking, the Wolverines have pounded three opponents by a combined 141-34. And while Washington, a 31-10 loser at Michigan, has been a big disappointment, Western Michigan, which lost 47-14 in Ann Arbor, just pulled off a 44-41 win at Pitt. And Northern Illinois stunned Georgia Tech 22-21 before getting drilled 63-10 in the Big House.
Who’s the best team in the Great Lakes State? The Wolverines’ trip to East Lansing on Oct. 30 promises to put the treat in trick-or-treat.
And while Indiana, which muffed a golden opportunity to beat Cincinnati, is not looking like a contender, it could be a spoiler. Mistake-prone QB Michael Penix Jr. may not be fully healed from major knee surgery. If he gets to 100 percent, the Hoosiers are going to be a dangerous opponent.
And has Jim Harbaugh finally put together a team that will end Ohio State’s stranglehold on one of the fiercest rivalries in college football?
Given that the Buckeyes, who only led Tulsa 27-20 with less than four minutes to play, seem to have major issues on defense, there are reasons to think Michigan can end its Ohio State nightmare.
Harbaugh has lost five straight to the Buckeyes, and most likely was spared a sixth loss by last fall’s COVID-19 cancellation.
Asked in July about getting the Ohio State monkey off his back, Harbaugh said, “We’re going to do it or die trying.’’
His chances look a lot better now than they did three weeks ago.