Buy or Sell: The Big Ten could have two playoff teams?

Buy or Sell: The Big Ten could have two playoff teams?

Week 6 is in the books, meaning several Big Ten teams have reached the midpoint of their 2016 season.

Here is what I’m buying and selling as we enter Week 7.

The Big Ten could have two playoff teams?
Buy. I know it’s not even mid-October yet, but the Big Ten is poised to perhaps land two teams in the four-team playoff. Ohio State is projected by most pundits already to be in the field. Fellow unbeaten Michigan isn’t far behind in projections. If both the Buckeyes and Wolverines are unbeaten when they meet in their regular-season finale on November 26 in Columbus, the loser, assuming it’s a close decision, still could get a playoff slot. The Big 12’s struggles greatly help the cause, and the Pac-12’s depth could also provide assistance.

Jabrill Peppers can win the Heisman?
Buy. “In my humble opinion you’re looking at a Heisman Trophy winner,” Jim Harbaugh said with half a smile before adding the word “candidate.” Peppers has lived up to his rep as college football’s Swiss Army knife, dabbling in a little bit of everything—and dominating along the way. Peppers’ full array of skills were on display in Michigan’s 78-0 annihilation of Rutgers, running three times for 74 yards and two touchdowns. He added a couple tackles and half a TFL, for good measure. Peppers’ return to his native New Jersey would have been even more spectacularly stunning if a 44-yard punt return for a TD had not been called back by a penalty. For the season, Peppers has 98 yards rushing with two TDs, is averaging 17.8 yards on punt returns with a TD, 31.7 on kickoff returns and is No. 2 on the team with 37 tackles to go along with 10 TFLs and 2.5 sacks. Offense, defense, special teams … Peppers does it all and has no peer.

Michigan State is the third-best team in the East?
Sell. The wheels are coming off the Spartans, who have lost three in a row for the first time since 2009. And it could be four in a row with Northwestern visiting on Saturday. Michigan State has a number of issues, including injuries. The defense is last in the league in sacks with five in five games. And MSU is No. 13 in the league in turnover margin. But the offense has been the biggest problem. The line has struggled for consistency, as MSU is No. 11 in rush offense (153.2 ypg). And now there is a quarterback quandary. Tyler O’Connor was pulled late in last week’s loss to BYU. Damion Terry took over and did little to inspire. What’s next? Penn State looks like the No. 3 team in the East behind Ohio State and Michigan.

Ohio State’s trip this Saturday to Wisconsin will be its most dangerous road game of the year?
Buy. The Badgers have shown their mettle in 2016 with wins over top-five teams LSU and Michigan State. And they were off last week, allowing extra rest and prep time for the Buckeyes’ visit. Ohio State’s other remaining road games are at Penn State, at Maryland and at Michigan State, which when the season began looked like the Buckeyes’ most challenging road tilt. If the Buckeyes get by the Badgers, they should cruise into their Titanic season-ending showdown vs. Michigan with an 11-0 mark. The Wisconsin defense could pose issues for OSU, whose offense is coming off its worst effort of the season last week vs. Indiana with 383 yards (93 passing) and 38 points.

Minnesota is the best Big Ten team without a league victory?
Buy. Rutgers, Michigan State and Illinois join the Golden Gophers among Big Ten squads without a conference triumph. But Minnesota is best. Its two league defeats have been heartbreakers, falling 29-26 in overtime at Penn State and 14-7 last week at home to Iowa. The Gophers aren’t far from being on top of the West standings. And the schedule remains favorable. The big key for Minnesota is getting more offensive balance. And that means amping up a passing game that can be inconsistent and sporadic with a 56 percent completion percentage and a league-low five TD tosses.

Iowa saved its season with that win at Minnesota on Saturday?
Buy. That 14-7 triumph in Dinkytown lacked style points. Still, the Hawkeyes found a way to make plays and grind out a much-needed win a week after suffering a tough loss at home to Northwestern. Iowa is 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten. Plus, the Hawkeyes have a favorable schedule that will see West rivals Nebraska and Wisconsin both come to Iowa City. What’s it all mean? The Hawkeyes have a good shot to repeat as Big Ten West champs—as long as an offense that ranks No. 13 in the Big Ten (338.2 ypg) can keep improving.

Northwestern (2-3) will make a bowl?
Buy. The Wildcats need to win four of their last seven games to reach bowl eligibility. The remaining games: at Michigan State; Indiana; at Ohio State; Wisconsin; at Purdue; at Minnesota; Illinois. Do you see four potential wins in there? I do. But, it will be a close call. NU still struggles on offense, ranking No. 13 in the Big Ten in scoring (20.6 ppg), but the Wildcats did score 38 points in their last game (at Iowa). The rushing game is a big issue, as Northwestern is last in the Big Ten (126.0 ypg). Still, there is a lot to like about NU as it makes a push to return to the postseason.

Ohio State’s Mike Weber is the best running back in the Big Ten?
Sell. I think that honor goes to Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. Weber leads the Big Ten with a 113.2 rushing yard average, carrying 83 times for 556 yards and four TDs. But I think Barkley is better. He has carried a Big Ten-high 117 times for 582 yards. And his eight TDs lead the league. Barkley is the Big Ten’s best combination of size and speed among running backs, a workhorse with toughness who has go-the-distance speed.

Illinois will win a Big Ten game?
Buy. Yes, the Fighting Illini are struggling in their first year under Lovie Smith. Illinois has lost four in a row, coming off a hard-to-swallow 34-31 overtime loss vs. Purdue. Still, there is promise. The offense has some weapons, including emerging wideout Malik Turner. And Chayce Crouch looked good on Saturday when he took over when Wes Lunt got hurt. Don’t be shocked if Illinois wins next week when it plays at Rutgers, which has lost its last two games at Ohio State and vs. Michigan by a combined 136-0. Now, if Illinois doesn’t beat the Scarlet Knights, it may not win again.

Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.


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