Best of Week 3: All eyes on B1G vs. Pac-12

Last week was a dud. This week is a doozy. This is the best week of non-conference action with the highlights being four games vs. Pac-12 foes. The only unappetizing clashes: three games vs. the MAC, and two vs. FCS foes. Still, there’s lots to like with UCLA at Nebraska; Wisconsin at Arizona State; Ohio State at Cal; and Illinois vs. Washington in Chicago.

This Big Ten-Pac-12 challenge series will be the last time before bowl season for the conference to test itself vs. high-caliber competition on a wholesale basis.

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BEST GAME: This visit from Jim Mora’s ascending UCLA program will be challenging for Nebraska, which has experienced some bad (Wyoming) and good (Southern Miss). Last year’s trip to LA was a nightmare for Nebraska. The Huskers allowed 653 yards in a 36-30 loss in the venerable Rose Bowl. It was the first of three hideous performances for the Husker defense (at Ohio State; Big Ten title game vs. Wisconsin). UCLA is led by QB Brett Hundley, one of the best in the nation. Is Nebraska’s overhauled defense ready for this Bruin offensive juggernaut? The Huskers have a go-go offense like UCLA’s, but Nebraska could slice up a rebuilt Bruins secondary. Expect a close, high-scoring game.

UPSET ALERT: Not sure if it will be an upset, but Wisconsin needs to be ready for its visit to Arizona State. The Badgers’ rebuilt secondary and new 3-4 defensive scheme will be put to the test during a trip to Tempe. Todd Graham’s Sun Devils play a high-flying brand of offense that operates at a quick pace with a good quarterback in Taylor Kelly. The Badgers better be in shape—and ready to slow down the game with their running attack.

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QUARTERBACK MATCHUP TO WATCH: There will be few better all season than UCLA’s Brett Hundley vs. Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez. Hundley, a dual-threat sophomore, ranked second in the Pac-12 in passing in 2012 and is a star on the rise. Hundley registered 647 yards passing in a season-opening 58-20 win over Nevada. Martinez has gotten better each season and is off to a good start, hitting 71 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and just one pick. Also keep an eye on the clash between Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg and UCF’s Blake Bortles, a legit NFL guy.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Can the senior signal-caller stay hot vs. Washington? He is completing 74 percent of his passes for 728 yards with six touchdowns and only one interception. There hasn’t been a better quarterback in the Big Ten, as Scheelhaase has taken to new coordinator Bill Cubit’s short-passing offense. This will be Illinois’ first game in Chicago’s Soldier Field since dropping a 10-9 decision vs. Washington State in 1994. Scheelhaase has to keep starring for the Illini to have any shot of winning.

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KEEP AN EYE ON: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. Will he play on Saturday at Cal? He strained the MCL in his left knee in the first quarter last week and didn’t return. Reports indicated the junior sensation may be a game-time decision. The Buckeyes probably don’t need him to beat the Golden Bears, as Kenny Guiton is a nice backup who has proven he can lead Ohio State to victory. Still, if Miller plays, how will he look? He seemingly has a tough time staying healthy. The Golden Bears almost won in Columbus last season, as the Buckeyes didn’t score the game-winning touchdown until less than four minutes remained in a 35-28 victory. And the Bears have a new dynamic coach in Sonny Dykes, whose high-flying offense may pose issues for a retooled OSU front seven. The Golden Bears tallied 548 yards vs. Northwestern and 616 last week vs. Portland State, as Cal works at a hyper pace.

BEST COACHING MATCHUP: Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz vs. Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads. Ferentz and Rhoads are two of the best in the business who are in different phases of their career. Yes, this game lacks the sizzle of previous meetings for the Cy-Hawk Trophy, but it’s still a heated in-state clash with pride on the line. And the loser may be out of bowl contention. Rhoads is 2-2 vs. Ferentz and has won the last two meetings. Ferentz is 6-8 vs. the Cyclones. Iowa hasn’t lost three in a row to Iowa State since dropping five in a succession from 1998-2002.

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COORDINATOR MATCHUP TO WATCH: It will be fun to watch UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone match wits with Nebraska’s John Papuchis/Bo Pelini. The Bruins have one of the nation’s top offenses. That will put pressure on a Cornhusker defense with a re-tooled and young front seven that has a lot to prove. Are youngsters like Vincent Valentine, Greg McMullen, Avery Moss, Randy Gregory, Maliek Collins, Jared Afalava, David Santos, Josh Banderas, Michael Rose and Nathan Gerry—all true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores–ready? Mazzone is one of the best in the business, having pushed the buttons on offenses at places like Arizona State, Oregon State, N.C. State, Ole Miss and Auburn, among other stops.

RANKING THE GAMES

1. UCLA at Nebraska

2. Wisconsin at Arizona State

3. Ohio State at Cal

4. Washington vs. Illinois at Chicago

5. Iowa at Iowa State

6. Bowling Green at Indiana

7. UCF at Penn State

8. Notre Dame at Purdue

9. Western Michigan at Northwestern

10. Youngstown State at Michigan State

11. Akron at Michigan

12. Western Illinois at Minnesota

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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