I started the season predicting Big Ten games with Sparty's help, so why not call on him for the final weekend of conference play?
The only problem is the Spartan "mascot" neglected to remind me that the Iowa-Nebraska game was today, not tomorrow. Then again, I should have remembered because the Cornhuskers have played on the day after Thanksgiving for the last 22 years. My bad.
Congratulations to Nebraska for closing their first Big Ten season with a 5-3 conference record and 9-3 overall record. They beat the Hawkeyes 20-7 earlier today to clinch third place in the Legends Division.
Another (more important) reason for putting Sparty on the lead slide of this article is Michigan State clinched the Legends Division title last Saturday with some help from their interstate rivals, the Michigan Wolverines. This week's Big Ten College Football Game of the Week (CFGotW) features the Penn State-Wisconsin game, which will decide who plays the Spartans in the conference title game in Indianapolis on December 3rd.
So for the last time this season, let's look at the:
- Big Ten CFGotW
- Big Ten Player to Watch
Reason No. 1: Wisconsin is the better football team.
Wisconsin (9-2) has the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten with a 44.8 points-per-game average. It features running back Montee Ball, who has scored 30 touchdowns, and quarterback Russell Wilson, who has thrown 26 touchdown passes.
The supporting cast is exceptional with wide receiver Nick Toon, running back James White, tight end Jacob Pederson and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.
The Badgers' defense is the second-best (behind Michigan State) in total defense. They have the two best linebackers in the Big Ten in Mike Taylor and Chris Borland.
Penn State's offense is rated in the middle of the pack, so they will have to rely on their defense to stop the Wisconsin offense and make it a low-scoring game.
Reason No. 2: Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has the best Big Ten record among active coaches in the conference.
Bielema is 32-15 against conference opponents. A win against Penn State (9-2) will keep him at his usual pace of winning two out of every three Big Ten games.
In his rookie year as head coach, he led the Badgers to a 12-1 record. They finished with a 17-14 win over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl.
Bielema is holding up two fingers in the picture, because he expects to be the second team in the championship game. He is the better head football coach and will lead Wisconsin to the first-ever Leaders Division title
Reason No. 3: The game is being played at Camp Randall Stadium.
One of the most consistent opinions in Big Ten circles is Camp Randall is the toughest stadium for a visiting team. Once the students and others in attendance start making noise, it's like having 12 (or 13) players on defense for Wisconsin.
Penn State has enough issues on offense, so dealing with the Wisconsin faithful will be a persistent distraction.
Reason No. 4: Revenge is a great motivator.
The Badgers have nothing against Penn State. They want to play Michigan State, who has beaten them two years in a row, and it's cost Wisconsin a great deal in the national college football ratings.
Bielema won't let his team think ahead about a rematch with the Spartans, because there's another piece of revenge to deal with as well. Do you remember the results the last time Wisconsin went to the Rose Bowl?
They lost to TCU, 21-19, on January 1, 2011. You bet that the Badgers want to win this game and the championship game to redeem themselves in the Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin 28, Penn State 14
Montee Ball is the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player (MVP) and a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
The Wisconsin running back has scored 25 touchdowns on the ground and has five touchdown catches. He leads the Big Ten in rushing with 1,466 yards.
Ball averages 133.3 yards per game and 6.6 yards per carry. He is short enough (5' 11") to hide behind the huge Wisconsin line, but sturdy enough (210 pounds) to punish defenders.
I expect Ball to finish the regular season with at least 32 touchdowns.
Ohio State (6-5) at Michigan (9-2) in The Big House
Michigan head coach Brady Hoke (pictured) will be applauding again for his Wolverine "O" (offense) after they lead U-M to a victory over archrival Ohio State.
If the team from Ann Arbor had beaten the team down the road in East Lansing (Michigan State), Michigan would be the Legends Division champion. There's always next year, though next year the Wolverines have a brutal schedule.
Here and now the "Victors Valiant" faces an Ohio State team that slipped from the driver's seat to the back seat of the Leaders Division race. However, 108 years of tradition can inspire the underdog as well as the favorite in this game.
Michigan is second only to Wisconsin in scoring offense in the Big Ten. The emergence of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will create havoc for the Buckeye defense, as they can no longer key only on Wolverine quarterback Denard Robinson.
Ohio State is ranked 11th in total offense and sixth in total defense in the Big Ten. They will need spectacular efforts from their offense, defense and special teams to beat Michigan before a sellout crowd in Ann Arbor.
Is it possible that Ohio State will lose the three Big Ten games in row? The answer is "yes."
Michigan 21, Ohio State 10.
Michigan State (9-2) at Northwestern (6-5) in Ryan Field Stadium
If you are a loyal Spartan graduate like me, you probably looked at the Big Ten schedule in July and marked this as a "chiller" or "trap" game.
It will be the last home game for the Northwestern seniors, including starting quarterback Dan Persa. The Wildcats are riding a four-game winning streak and would love to finish with a victory over the Legends Division champions.
Too much Michigan State history and the craftiness of Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald worry me. Why won't the Wildcats win this game?
This Spartan team doesn't play like the Michigan State squads of the previous decade. They have averaged over 400 yards of offense in their last three games and their opponents' defenses were on par with the Wildcat defense.
During the three-game winning streak, senior quarterback Kirk Cousins has completed 65 percent of his passes, thrown eight touchdown passes and avoided tossing an interception.
Northwestern's hopes ride on Persa and senior wide receivers Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore. Alternate quarterback, wide receiver and running back Kain Coulter may be the "wild card" in this game, but the strong Michigan State defense (ranked first in the Big Ten) will contain the Northwestern offense.
Michigan State 24, Northwestern 17.
Illinois (6-5) at Minnesota (2-9) in TCF Bank Stadium
The most exciting news in this game is Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins (pictured) needs 113 yards to break the school record for receiving yards in a season of 1,278 set by David Williams.
What else can you feature when an underachieving 6-5 Illinois team plays a 2-9 Minnesota squad?
The Fighting Illini seem to be bent on sabotaging themselves. Last week they had more total yards than Wisconsin, but threw three interceptions and lost a fumble.
Illinois head coach Ron Zook is probably tired of explaining the inconsistency of his team, but then a losing year in Big Ten games is hard to explain away.
Minnesota quarterback MarQeis Gray better throw the ball a lot to wide receiver DaJon McKnight, because Illinois' run defense is second only to Michigan State's run defense in the Big Ten.
Illinois 28, Minnesota 15.
Purdue (5-6) at Indiana (1-10) in Memorial Stadium
We conclude the 2011 Big Ten regular season with the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket.
If you're interested, Indiana beat Purdue, 34-31 in overtime last year.
This fact might prevent you from dozing off: Indiana has played 15 true freshmen thisseason, which is the most among Division 1 teams in the nation.
Purdue can become eligible for a bowl game if they beat Indiana and they should behind running back Ralph Bolden and quarterback Caleb TerBush.
Look for Purdue to win and regain possession of the "bucket."
Purdue 31, Indiana 14