Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, November 20, 2015

Two weeks are left in the season. Now, things are about to get interesting, with division races and playoff spots on the line. Here are some Hard Takes to prime the pump for Saturday.

Reminder: Seven games on Saturday, including Indiana at Maryland and Northwestern at Wisconsin. Full schedule is here. How different could the standings look by Saturday night?

1. Most experts agree that an unbeaten Big Ten champion will seize a spot in the four-team college football playoff. But what about a one-loss Michigan State squad? I think a 12-1 Spartan team probably still would get a seat at the exclusive playoff table. If Clemson and Alabama win out and the Big 12 has an unbeaten champion, Michigan State probably would be competing with a one-loss Notre Dame squad for the final playoff slot. And I think the Spartans? resume would win out compared to the Fighting Irish?s resume. Michigan State would have toppled Ohio State and Michigan on the road, beaten Iowa on a neutral field and whipped Oregon in East Lansing. That?s pretty strong.

2. There is a scenario where Michigan can win the Big Ten East-and the Big Ten. If the Wolverines win out, and Michigan State loses along the way, it?ll be Michigan that will go to Indianapolis from the East division. But could a two-loss Wolverine team make the playoffs? Maybe, but probably not. Michigan would need a lot of help. So, while a Big Ten title would be a great way for Jim Harbaugh to cap his debut season in Ann Arbor, it probably would be ruinous to the Big Ten?s hopes of landing a playoff team.

3. Speaking of Michigan, keep an eye on its rush defense. It?s softening. The unit still ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten vs. the run (103.2 ypg). But the Wolverines have allowed at least 128 rushing yards in each of their last three games with each team averaging more than four yards per carry. In the previous six games, the Wolverines allowed 58 rushing yards or fewer in five of them. Penn State?s Saquon Barkley-who averages 6.3 yards per tote and 104.5 yards rushing per game–could be in store for a big game on Saturday vs. an un-athletic Michigan front that is wearing down. Bottom line: Don?t be shocked if the Nittany Lions win.

4. Few defenses have been as good as Penn State?s when it comes to making sacks and tackles for loss. Coordinator Bob Shoop?s defense has 41 sacks, which is eight more than any FBS team. The Nittany Lions have recorded a sack in 32 straight games, which is the longest streak by any team since sacks became an official NCAA statistic in 2000. End Carl Nassib has 15.5 sacks on the season, tops in the nation which sets the single-season school record. But the defense has been soft vs. the run. Penn State has allowed 58 runs of 10-plus yards this season, the second-most in the conference ahead of only Purdue. And PSU also has allowed 16 runs of 20 or more yards. Only Indiana and Purdue have allowed more. The good news: Michigan doesn?t have much of a rushing attack.

5. The last two years, Northwestern has floundered to 5-7 finishes. But the Wildcats have rebounded big time and have a shot to win 10 games. What has been the difference between this year and the last two? One big change is an ability to win close games. NU?s last three wins have been by a total of 11 points. The Wildcats have won four games by seven points or less this season. They were 4-8 in games decided by eight points or fewer in the previous two seasons.

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6. While we continue to scrutinize every aspect of the Ohio State offense, the Buckeye defense has gone unnoticed. That?s too bad, because the unit is excelling. Last week at Illinois, Ohio State allowed just 20 rushing yards and 261 total yards. And the Buckeyes had 11 TFLs and three sacks, as Illinois was able to make only a field goal. Ohio State is No. 2 in the Big Ten in scoring defense (13.8 ppg) and No. 3 in total defense (298.4 ypg). LB Raekwon McMillan continues to emerge as a star. Safety Vonn Bell and end Joey Bosa look like All-Americans. Combine this defense with RB Ezekiel Elliott and, well, there is a lot to like about the Buckeyes-no matter who is the QB.

7.  Indiana is fighting for its bowl life. Why? Defense, as usual. That?s why the Hoosiers have seen a 4-0 start melt into a 4-6 reality thanks to a six-game losing skid. The fewest amount of points Indiana has allowed during this six-game losing streak is 29. The Hoosiers are allowing 42.2 points in that stretch.

8. Maryland?s season has been ruined by turnovers. The Terrapins had five against Michigan State last week. They have thrown at least two interceptions in nine straight games, which is the longest streak by any FBS team in the last 20 seasons. Maryland leads the nation with 35 turnovers and is averaging 3.5 turnovers per game. At that pace, the Terps would have 42 turnovers in 12 games, which would shatter the most by a Big Ten team in the last 20 seasons, which was 35 by Illinois in 2006 and Nebraska in 2012.

9. Purdue has had numerous issues this year. At the top: An inability to run the football and stop the run. But perhaps most stunning is the Boilermakers? inability to kick a simple field goal. Paul Griggs is 3-of-9 on the season. The last time he made a field goal? You have to go back to Sept. 19-two months ago. Since then, Griggs has attempted only three field goals-and missed them all. In Big Ten play, Griggs has attempted just one field goal, and it was last week ? a miss. So, there?s a chance Purdue could go the entire Big Ten schedule without making one field goal. Think about that for a moment.

10. How about some love for Wisconsin?s WR/S Tanner McEvoy? Yes, Michigan?s Jabrill Peppers and Maryland?s Will Likely are good two-way players. But McEvoy is stellar, too. For the second straight time last week, McEvoy made his presence felt. He picked off two passes against Maryland and has three in the last two weeks. McEvoy has four interceptions on the year and five in his career. He?s become an effective two-way player for the Badgers.


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