Tom Dienhart's thoughts on Friday games, the race in the West & more
Friday night games. The race in the West. Ohio State’s muted offense. Doing a little thinking out loud as we head toward Saturday.
Congrats to the Chicago Cubs for ending a World Series drought that dated to 1908. It’s one of the most amazing sports stories in years. What would be an equally impressive and awe-inspiring feat in Big Ten football? How about Rutgers or Indiana winning the Big Ten and getting to the playoff? Yep, sounds about right. Who knows? It might happen one day.
Seeing the Big Ten move to play some games on Friday nights beginning in 2017 isn’t a big shock. The move gives the league a chance to move its product to another television window as it looks to bring more visibility and value to Big Ten football. The league is committed to playing six Friday games for the next six seasons. After that, it will be interesting to see if the Big Ten adds more Friday games to its TV menu after America has had a chance to become accustomed to them.
As for Friday nights, expect schools like Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, Minnesota, Rutgers and Maryland to likely have to play the most Friday home games. We already know of some schools that have gone public with the fact they want nothing to do with Friday football (Michigan and Penn State)—home or away games. And others have put conditions on its participation on Friday.
I am a firm believer that if Wisconsin wins out with a 10-2 record and Big Ten championship, the Badgers will be a cinch to take a playoff spot—even with two defeats. Wisconsin will have a resume that will be difficult to beat. The Badgers already have beaten three teams that were ranked in the AP Top 10 at the time they played. And if they get to 10-2, they also will have toppled Northwestern, Minnesota and the Big Ten East champ—maybe 11-0 Michigan. Oh, and UW’s two losses are “high quality” defeats: At home 30-23 in OT to Ohio State and at Michigan 14-7. Pretty impressive, especially when you consider the injuries the Badgers have had to deal with at linebacker while also breaking in a new quarterback.
Don’t count out Minnesota in the Big Ten West. The 6-2 Golden Gophers are 10 points from being unbeaten, losing by three in overtime at Penn State and by seven to Iowa. Minnesota’s ability to run the ball and play defense keep it in every game. Challenges loom, with games left vs. Purdue, at Nebraska, vs. Northwestern and at Wisconsin. Still, watch the Golden Gophers.
Rutgers will not go winless in the Big Ten. This team showed some life the last time out, pushing Minnesota to the limit in a 34-32 loss in the Dinkytown in which the Golden Gophers needed a last-second field goal to win. The Scarlet Knight offense showed some life under quarterback Gio Rescigno, who hit 22-of-38 passes for 220 yard with three touchdowns and helped RU tally 372 yards vs. the Gophers. Rutgers has games left vs. Indiana, at Michigan State, vs. Penn State and at Maryland. Don’t be shocked if the Scarlet Knights—who were off last week–win two of those contests.
Did Michigan show any vulnerability in last week’s 32-23 win at Michigan State? The Spartans ran for 217 yards en route to notching 401 vs. a Wolverine defense that is No. 1 in the nation in points per game, No. 1 in pass yards allowed per game, No. 1 in total yards allowed per game and No. 1 in third-down conversion percentage. Spartan back LJ Scott ran 22 times for 139 yards and a TD. And I still wonder if Michigan’s lack of legit No. 1 running back will become an issue. Karan Higdon, De’Veon Smith, Chris Evans and Ty Isaac all have shown flashes. But none is a stud like Penn State’s Saquon Barkley or Northwestern’s Justin Jackson.
The world continues to watch, wonder and wait for the Ohio State offense to rise from its slumber. Remember when the Buckeyes were torching opponents back in September? There were 77 points vs. Bowling Green … 48 vs. Tulsa … 45 at Oklahoma … 58 vs. Rutgers. But OSU’s attack has been stuck in neutral since those first four games of 2016 when it looked like a juggernaut. In fact, the last two games, the Buckeyes are 1-1 and have scored a combined 45 points. The passing offense has suffered the brunt of the blame, as OSU has the No. 8 passing attack in the Big Ten. More big plays are needed.
Maryland is sitting on five wins, one shy of bowl eligibility. And, the Terps may have to wait a while to reach No. 6. Maryland’s next three games: at Michigan, Ohio State, at Nebraska. What’s it all mean? Bowl eligibility may be riding on Maryland’s season finale vs. Rutgers on Nov. 26.
Casting our eyes on the bowl season, BTN research guru Harold Shelton notes that last year, four of the five power conferences had multiple teams in New Year’s six bowls. The Pac-12 was the only conference without multiple teams. The Big Ten was the only conference with three teams in those bowls. It appears that the Big Ten and the SEC will have the most opportunities to get at least three teams in these bowl games this season. Maybe the two heavyweight leagues will face off in the national title game. Perhaps, say, Alabama vs. Michigan? How sweet would that be?
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