It may still be October, but let's go ahead and say it: Penn State at Ohio State is for the Big Ten championship.
If the Nittany Lions win, they'll likely cruise to an unbeaten season, their first Big Ten crown since 2005 and spot in the BCS title game. If the Buckeyes win, they figure to romp through the rest of their schedule and claim a piece of their fourth consecutive Big Ten championship. A third trip in a row to the BCS title game? Not likely.
Lost amid the hubbub and hype entering Saturday night's game is that the rest of the Big Ten is average – maybe even bad.
Michigan doesn't know up from down in its first season under Rich Rodriguez. Four consecutive losses have Wisconsin woebegone and wobbly. Michigan State is a wannabe that showed it wasn't ready for prime time against Ohio State. Illinois is like a box of chocolates each Saturday. Iowa remains a work-in-progress that looks like Alamo Bowl material – at best. Joe Tiller's "victory lap" at Purdue has morphed into a death march. Indiana? Well, they're back to being the Hoosiers.
That leaves Northwestern and Minnesota. That perennial second-tier programs are being discussed tells you all you need to know about Big Ten football circa 2008.
The root of the Big Ten's struggles? Defense. Entering this weekend's games, Big Ten defenses rank fourth among the six BCS conferences in average national ranking. The average rank of Big Ten defenses is 46.3. By contrast, SEC defenses are best with an average ranking of 24.7.
Penn State (No. 8 in the nation, 263.3 ypg) and Ohio State (10th, 265.4 ypg) have the two best defenses in the Big Ten. Iowa (297.8 ypg) is 25th, but no other league team ranks higher than 44th.
That brings us back to Saturday night's huge clash in Columbus. With the defenses poised to dominate, it will be incumbent on the quarterbacks to crack the code. Which one will rise up?
Ohio State true freshman Terrelle Pryor is a Pennsylvania kid who will be facing the home-state school he jilted in the recruiting process.
BY THE NUMBERS
Average national ranking of BCS conference offenses and defenses:
1. Big 12: 34.5
2. Big Ten: 54.5
3. Pac-10: 59.3
4. Big East: 60.1
5. SEC: 74.8
6. ACC: 83.6
1. SEC: 24.7
2. Big East: 38.8
3. ACC: 40.3
4. Big Ten: 46.3
5. Pac-10: 57.9
6. Big 12: 70.8
"I think he is a heck of a player right now," said Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who hasn't won in Columbus since 1978 and whose Nittany Lions are 0-7 at Ohio State since joining the Big Ten in 1993. "I think he's got everything to be a great player. He's a good kid, he's got a lot of poise, he handles pressure, not only on the field but off the field. He knows what's going on, and each week he's getting better."
Penn State's Daryll Clark is an Ohio kid who has developed into a sleeper Heisman contender running the Nittany Lions' "Spread HD" attack that features myriad weapons.
"Daryll Clark has got a lot of people around him, and he's doing a great job of directing them and making plays for them and making sure they're doing what they're supposed to do," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
May the best quarterback win.
Penn State's offensive line vs. Ohio State's defensive line. Let the pushing and shoving begin. The Nittany Lions have the No. 1 rushing offense (234.6 ypg) in the Big Ten; the Buckeyes have the No. 1 rushing defense (97.1 ypg). This will go a long way in determining who wins.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Ohio State's Pryor. If Ohio State wants to topple Penn State, Pryor must play well. That could be an issue against a Nittany Lions defense that ranks first in the Big Ten in pass-efficiency defense, second against the rush and first in total defense. Pryor has had his moments and is improving, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency. Pryor's success against this Penn State defense will be helped by how well Chris Wells is running. Wells is coming on after being hampered by a toe injury earlier this season.
Ohio State's Wells posted season-highs in carries (31) and rushing yards (140) in the Buckeyes' win at Michigan State. ... Iowa RB Shonn Greene is the only player in the nation who has run for 100 yards in each of his first eight games this season. Last week, Greene became the first Hawkeye to rush for four TDs in a game since Tavian Banks in 1997. … Illinois freshman RB Jason Ford had carried 19 times for 15 yards entering last week's game against Indiana. He exploded for 172 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries against the Hoosiers. … Illinois WR Arrelious Benn has four consecutive 100-yard receiving games. … Minnesota is ranked No. 25 in both polls, marking the Gophers' first ranking since coming in at No. 22 on October 9, 2005. That season, Minnesota subsequently lost to Wisconsin and fell from the polls. … The Big Ten boasts five of the nation's top 30 rushers (Michigan State's Javon Ringer, Iowa's Greene, Penn State's Evan Royster, Purdue's Kory Sheets and Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton), a figure matched by only the Big East. … Iowa is tied for the national lead in interceptions with 14. Hawkeyes LB Pat Angerer is tied for the Big Ten lead with four interceptions. He had two picks and 16 tackles in a victory over Wisconsin last week.
Wisconsin QB Dustin Sherer made his first career start last week, going just 17-for-34 for 161 yards and two interceptions in the Badgers' 38-16 loss at Iowa. He'll start again this week against Illinois. … The Badgers are 0-4 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1996. Wisconsin, which was ranked No. 8 in the nation in late September, have been outscored 86-23 in the past two games. The Badgers have scored three offensive touchdowns in the past nine quarters. … Michigan State's 45-7 annihilation by Ohio State was the Spartans' worst home defeat since Nick Saban's debut in 1995, when they were whipped by 40 by Nebraska. … Ohio State cooled down Michigan State RB Javon Ringer, who was limited to 67 yards on 16 carries in a loss to the Buckeyes. His Heisman hopes likely are finished. … Indiana has scored 29 points in the past three games.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"Is it a program loss? It's not a program loss. If we lose the next six, this could be pointed to as a program loss. But we lost the football game, we are a 6-2 team, we need to move on and I'm getting testy, so I can't stand up here much longer."
– Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, on the Spartans' loss to Ohio State
"I thought we did a good job in warm-ups today." – Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, on the performance of his defense against Ohio State
– Purdue's Sheets, on whether QB Curtis Painter is capable of leading the team to a turnaround
"It was made reference that a couple comments were that people don't like my windbreaker on the sideline. I thought back to my (first year) when I was told by the merchandising people that they couldn't keep enough windbreakers in stock. It just goes to show when you're winning, everybody agrees with what you're doing. When you're losing, everybody's got all the answers because the right answer isn't out there. So I appreciate that, and thank God we have fans that care."
– Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, on fans grumbling about the red windbreaker he wears on the sideline
"You mean I have some? Dag-gone, I don't worry about a win relieving that. It would be nice to win just to enjoy the weekend, and for our players to have some success. But as far as the pressure from the critics – critics will be critics. They'll find something else to criticize even if you win sometimes."
– Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, on if beating Michigan State would relieve some of the pressure on him
Despite a bruised throwing elbow, Michigan QB Steven Threet is expected to play against Michigan State. … Northwestern received a huge blow with the loss of LB Malcolm Arrington to a season-ending knee injury. … Indiana QB Kellen Lewis is questionable for this week's game against Northwestern. He didn't play last week at Illinois because of a high ankle sprain. … For the third week in a row, 81-year-old Penn State coach Joe Paterno worked from the press box because of a bad hip/leg. … Minnesota is at Purdue this week. The Gophers haven't won at Purdue since 1990, dropping their last seven games in West Lafayette. ... Illinois' 55 points against Indiana last week was its most ever in a Big Ten game at home. … Michigan plays host to Michigan State this week. The Spartans haven't won in Ann Arbor since 1990, dropping their last eight there.