Big Ten Legends Division Race Heats Up Saturday

The Big Ten Legends Division will see its race kick off in earnest on Saturday. Contenders like Nebraska and Northwestern have played significant conference games, but none within the division. Michigan’s only important tests have come outside the league entirely. Iowa won an opening salvo over Michigan State in overtime last week. But on Saturday there are two head-to-head battles and tough cross-divisional game that will help give early shape to the Legends race.

Nebraska visits Northwestern, hoping to get some revenge for a Wildcats upset in Lincoln a year ago. Each team has lost on the road in Big Ten play, to Ohio State and Penn State respectively. Nebraska also has a win over Wisconsin.

One thing we don’t know if Nebraska has is a defense. After a shutdown effort in a second-half rally over the Badgers, the Huskers were positively torched two weeks ago by Ohio State. There will be a difference in that Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter won’t test the defense to the degree Braxton Miller did in Columbus. But Colter is versatile and can create problems. Just not as many as Taylor Martinez creates for opposing defenses, and I believe he’s enough to get Nebraska a win.

Michigan has revenge on its mind, as well as homefield when they host Michigan State. The Wolverines have torn apart Illinois and Purdue in league play, but I consider this misleading. When Michigan can spread a slow, bad defense out, Denard Robinson runs and throws at will. Michigan State has its problems, but the defense is good and Robinson won’t be able to do what he wants. Nor will Michigan run the ball in the conventional way.

The problem is that so long as Robinson doesn’t make mistakes, he’s still enough to put 21-24 points on the board, and I don’t see any reason to believe Michigan State is ready to match that. They can run the ball with Le’Veon Bell, but the passing game hasn’t improved enough to merit confidence, especially on the road in a rivalry game where revenge is working against you.

Iowa doesn’t play a divisional game, but the Hawkeyes do follow up their win over the Spartans by traveling to Penn State. The Lions are a better team—quite a bit better—and are coming off a bye week.

They also have the motivation of playing for a PSU season-ticket holding friend of mine who got married last week (a stunning coincidence his wedding fell on a bye week) and had a reception marked by a cake shaped like Beaver Stadium. If that’s not enough to stir Bill O’Brien’s troops to get a road win in a place that’s caused Penn state problems over the years I don’t know what is.

The team in the Legends Division that really needs to win is Nebraska. They’re the ones who already have a conference loss, and the schedule-makers did them no favors. The Cornhuskers also have to play Penn State, meaning they’ll play the three best teams on the other side of the conference, while Michigan only plays one.

We’ll take a look at Saturday’s biggest games in our regular Friday college football feature here at TheSportsNotebook. For now, here’s a look at the landscape in the other major conferences…

SEC: LSU can’t get too busy celebrating its win over South Carolina. The Tigers travel to Texas A&M for an early kick at noon EST, and the Aggies can put up points in a hurry. The rapid-paced offenses like the one run by new A&M coach Kevin Sumlin often struggle against real defenses, but that assumes said real defenses are ready to play. LSU needs to be fully engaged, because they’re a still a game back of Alabama.

The Tide travels to Tennessee, a team that has enough explosiveness to tease, but not enough in the way of fundamentals and toughness to compete in a game like this. And this conference’s big game—indeed the nation’s big game—is South Carolina-Florida, one that gets our attention tomorrow.

Pac-12: Oregon and Arizona State are the early leaders in each division, one of them being a surprise and the other less so (I’m going to assume if you’ve visiting a site like this you know which is which). The Ducks and Sun Devils meet on Thursday night in Tempe.

ASU coach Todd Graham and his staff have to find a way to slow Oregon down—dramatically so, because it’s asking too much of sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly to put 35-40 points on the board against an opponent with this kind of team speed. I have no sense of an upset in the making and Arizona State’s biggest games against divisional foes USC & UCLA are still ahead.

Oregon State came out 8th in the BCS rankings and is in position to make a major bowl game, even if they don’t beat Oregon in the season finale. What the Beavers can’t do is lose games like the one they have coming up at home with Utah. Another North Division rival, Stanford, plays archrival Cal in a must-win game, given the Cardinal already dropped a game to Washington.

The biggest question I have regarding this week’s Pac-12 card is this—why did Stanford and Cal move up their usual Rivalry Saturday game in late November to mid-October?

Big 12: Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege outgunned Heisman frontrunner Geno Smith last week as the Red Raiders blasted West Virginia. Now Doege takes the show on the road to TCU, a team not nearly as defensive as they’ve been in recent seasons. The winner keeps their conference losses to one and their title hopes alive.

Baylor travels to Texas in a game where the Over/Under is posted at 80.5, and given the way both teams play defense (or don’t play it, as the case may be) I might take one team to cover that number themselves. And the league’s biggest game is Kansas State-West Virginia, which gets covered tomorrow.

ACC: There aren’t any big divisional rivalries on tap, but two games that cross Coastal-Atlantic lines loom very large. Florida State gave away its margin for error in the Atlantic when they lost at N.C. State two weeks ago. Now the Seminoles visit Miami in a prime-time affair, where the Hurricanes are off a loss to North Carolina that’s put them under the gun.

Virginia Tech saved its season with a rally from 20-0 down to beat Duke and now goes to Clemson, who is tied with Florida State.

The Atlantic Division times—FSU & Clemson—are the ones under the most pressure. They are the better teams, meaning neither can count on its rivals to lose again. My guess is the Miami-Virginia Tech race might be a backpedal to the finish line, with Duke possibly still getting back into the picture (North Carolian is on probation), so if either the Hurricanes or Hokies slip a game back it’s not the end of the world.

Big East: It’s a light schedule, as is often the case for a league with only eight teams where the seven conference games are spread out from September to December. The big one of this week is Louisville hosting South Florida. The Cardinals are still undefeated, but the Bulls and B.J. Daniels have been a big disappointment thus far. The USF we’ve seen the last few weeks isn’t ready to win this game on the road.

Rutgers takes its show on the road to Temple, but while the Owls are rebuilding nicely in the wake of large graduation losses and an upgrade from the MAC to the Big East, they are a long way from being in the class of the Scarlet Knights and their swarming defense.

The Best Of The Rest: We’re actually going to wait for the Friday marquee feature to shower some love on the Sun Belt, with its big UL-Monroe-Western Kentucky showdown. The rest of the card in the midmajors is pretty bland, with Western Michigan’s visit to Kent State noteworthy, as the Broncos are good enough to hand the Golden Flashes their first league loss.

And the Notre Dame-BYU game, which had such promise when the schedule came out, doesn’t look so hot anymore. BYU is 4-3, with quarterback Riley Nelson and the defense seeming to regress a little each week.

We can’t rule out a letdown from the Irish after the dramatic goal-line stand in overtime against Stanford. Nor can we ignore the fact that Notre Dame’s lower-scoring physical style is something BYU will be comfortable matching up with.

But I consider that analgous to the Thursday night NFL game between the Seahawks and 49ers—if a team is going to pull a road upset they need to take the home team out of their comfort zone, not play into it. I don’t know how good Notre Dame will look on Saturday, but I’d expect a win.