Pickin' On the Big Ten: Week 5, 2021 Season

By Mark Hasty on September 30, 2021 at 10:00 am
the next level
© Nicolas Galindo/The Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK
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I am wondering, for no particular reason, if you’ve noticed these things happening in college football over the past four to five seasons:

  • A lot of games are closer at halftime than you would ever expect them to be.
  • You see starters on Group of Five teams that you might, maybe, want to have as starters on your Power 5 squad, because they seem like clear upgrades over the ones your team has.
  • There are fewer 40-point blowouts than there used to be.
  • Those blowouts are as common in conference games as they are in non-conference guarantee games.

There are people who will spend hours with databases and spreadsheets searching for evidence to confirm or deny the above. I am not one of those people. I’m just a guy who’s been picking games for twenty seasons now. I know what I see, and what I see is what I told you.

The biggest change in college football that I’ve seen in my lifetime is in the field of strength, conditioning, and nutrition. Players are stronger, more fit, and just flat out bigger than they used to be, and this is true at every level of major college football.

I think it’s important to note that because, again for no particular reason, sometimes certain fanbases who are accustomed to winning eight, nine, maybe ten games might start to wonder what it would take for their team to consistently win ten, eleven, or twelve games. Such fans often look at some key positions like, maybe, quarterback or wide receiver, or perhaps at important staff positions such as, let’s say, offensive coordinator, and start to think that upgrading these positions alone will bring those extra few wins.

For reasons that I assume are obvious, the number of available wins for all teams is fixed at the beginning of the season to exactly one half of the total number of games played. It didn’t used to be like this, but the tie has been eliminated in college football. Over time, teams seem to settle into certain strata: the 10-12 win teams, the 8-10 win teams, the 6-8 win teams, and the homecoming opponents.

Many times coaching is the difference, but moving up from one stratum to the next requires something seldom considered by upwardly mobile fans: roster depth. That is the difference between Bama and Auburn. It’s the difference between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. And, I’m sorry to say it on this website, but it’s the difference between Ohio State and Iowa. The starters on all those teams are, for the most part, fairly good, if not quite equal. But the next guy in for those first teams is just a better athlete than the next guy in for the second teams. And this remains true every time a team from a higher stratum plays one from a lower stratum.

That’s why the games are closer than they used to be, particularly at halftime. And it’s why some teams seem to have ceilings: They can find one great player at all 22 positions, but the backups are quite a bit further behind in talent. I cast no aspersions on them. They’re better athletes than I am, though I would point out that’s not exactly something to put on your resume.

Again, I have no idea why I feel compelled to point this out. But there you have it.

Now, before we review last week’s picks, I just want to point out one more thing: I failed to notice that I didn’t pick the Indiana-Western Kentucky game, and so did the rest of you all. Had I picked it I would have picked Indiana to win by significantly more than two points, so I would have been right-but-wrong. But I didn’t pick it so I won’t count it.

  • Colorado State at Iowa: I said Iowa 38, CSU 6; actual score, Iowa 24, CSU 14. The news that many New Jersey high school coaches hate Steve Addazio is not exactly news, you guys.
  • Rutgers at Michigan: I said Michigan 30, Rutgers 21; actual score, Michigan 20, Rutgers 13. Rutgers is probably the best team Michigan has played so far this season.
  • Nebraska at Michigan State: I said Sparty 34, Nebby 20; actual score, Sparty 23, Nebby 20. The Huskers, I must admit, are better than they have been -- but they’re still not good.
  • Bowling Green at Minnesota: I said Minny 41, BGSU 14; actual score, BGSU 14, Minny 10. Sometimes when I’m wrong about a game I just have to laugh about it. This is one of those times.
  • Ohio at Northwestern: I said jNWU 24, OU 17; actual score, jNWU 35, OU 6. That’s great, Fitz, but you still got coldcocked by Duke.
  • Akron at Ohio State: I said aOSU 63, Akron 10; actual score, aOSU 59, Akron 7. I’d quit if I didn’t get to play against Akron too.
  • VIllanova at Penn State: I said PSU 44, Nova 10; actual score, PSU 38, Nova 17. Call me crazy but I’m not sure PSU’s resume is any more impressive than Iowa’s just because its offense is scoring more.
  • Illinois at Purdue: I said PU 23, UIUC 10; actual score, PU 13, Illinois 9. It seems like both teams should have lost this game.
  • Notre Dame vs. WIsconsin: I said Wisky 31, ND 28; actual score, ND 41, Wisky 13. I am starting to think Wisconsin may have kept the wrong quarterback.

Here are this week’s games. All are on Saturday except for one piddly, unimportant one that was shunted off to Friday night on FS1, which is like getting cancelled for a rerun of “Two and a Half Men.”

CHARLOTTE AT ILLINOIS (11 AM CDT, BTN)

Tickets for this game can be had for $3. Chips and queso at a burrito joint will run you a few cents more than that. You already know which of those is the better choice.

Illini fans will probably choose the game, though, because this might be their last win for the season.

Waiting For Guffman 23, The Parsippany of the Carolinas 17.

MINNESOTA AT PURDUE (11 AM CDT, BTN)

Here’s a philosophical conundrum for you: Which is worse, losing to Bowling Green or barely beating Illinois?

There is no rational way to answer that question. It’s like asking if you’d rather have your pinky toe chewed off by a rat or a squirrel. The only way to settle it is on the field. Whenever I’m as stumped about a game as I am about this one, I turn to a reliable source: Magic 8-Ball.

“Magic 8-Ball, will the home team win?”

“CANNOT PREDICT NOW”

“Okay, well, how about now?”

“ASK AGAIN LATER”

“Are you just trying to avoid giving an answer about two teams that either have lost to a MAC also-ran, or probably would?

“IT IS DECIDEDLY SO”

“... Magic 8-Ball, can a gopher crash a train?”

“AS I SEE IT YES”

The 8-Ball never lies, but obviously it has to be coaxed sometimes …

Monoraaaaaiiiillllllll! 30, Derailed 27.

#14 MICHIGAN AT WISCONSIN (11 AM CDT, FOX)

October in Wisconsin is a wonderful season, full of crisp air and crisp apples, trees going all Monet against the rolling hillsides, the scent of burning leaves and sizzling brats wafting into the skies. It’s a great time to go for a long walk on one of the many hiking trails that criss-cross the state, doing everything you can before the cold winds of November blow in, pinning you inside, where you’ll have all the time you need to ponder whether Graham Mertz’s reputation was really forged by a five-touchdown performance against Illinois.

Hail To The Victors 31, At Least We Have Giannis Last-Name-Unspellable 23.

#11 OHIO STATE AT RUTGERS (2:30 PM CDT, BTN)

Rutgers is, potentially, a great story in the making, while there’s a part of me that thinks maybe we shouldn’t all assume that the Big Ten champ will be someone other than the Buckeyes this year. The defense is tightening up and the offense is as dangerous as it ever was. I don’t think anything other than last week’s Akron game will be easy for the Buckeyes this season, but go re-read the intro to this column. The rest of the league is catching up, but aOSU is still ahead of the pack. It’ll show here.

Goodbye Columbus 38, Jersey Boys The Non-Musical 20.

WESTERN KENTUCKY AT #17 MICHIGAN STATE (6:30 PM CDT, FS1)

Okay, so I forgot to pick the Hilltoppers game last week. I guarantee there are as many people upset about that as there are people upset that I didn’t pick the Indiana game last week, and they were the same game.

It’s tempting to think that the Spartans “got exposed” by Nebraska last week, but that seems like simultaneously giving the Huskers too much and not enough credit. Nebraska is better but not coached well enough to “expose” anyone.

No doubt WKU smells blood after almost getting a Big Ten win last week. Unfortunately for them, this team is a lot better than the one they let get away.

Walker? More Like Runner! 28, The Other Bowling Green State University 20.

NORTHWESTERN AT NEBRASKA (6:30 PM CDT, BTN)

Odd-Year jNWU versus a team that is almost, but not quite, good enough to overcome a coach who isn’t afraid to blame them for their losses. This is either going to be a great, tightly-fought game, or a game that will be decided during a field goal attempt when the holder somehow fumbles the snap, which gets returned by the other team for a touchdown, only the whole thing gets called back for holding, then on the replay the kicking team misses the field goal.

Which team will be which?

I have no idea. But it seems like the Huskers are due to win one of these games.

See? We’re Actually Secretly Good Because Our Coach is That Awesome 24, Double The Ticket Prices Next Year 21.

INDIANA AT #4 PENN STATE (6:30 PM CDT, ABC)

This is an Iowa fansite, but I know there are some non-Iowa fans who read this column, so I apologize for viewing this actually important game through black-and-gold lenses.

Which outcome do you want, Hawkeye fan? A Penn State win so next week’s game has a chance of being (probably) no worse than #4 versus #5? Or an Indiana win to put a little extra mustard on that Week 1 boatrace? I’m not sure there’s a correct answer to that, but I’m thinking if you intend to beat both these teams, you’d want them both to be ranked as highly as possible when you did so. There’s a lot of up-in-the-airness involved in that, of course. Indiana has hit some hard luck recently but is still potentially a very dangerous team, and I’m not sold that Auburn is really all that great this year. But remember what I said about roster depth, and know which team has significantly more of it. Nits will win, but it’ll be close.

Clifford Notes 30, When’s Basketball Season? 26.

And, of course …

#5 IOWA AT MARYLAND (Friday, 7 PM CDT, FS1)

Last Saturday on Iowa Sports Review our own Adam Jacobi asked me how scared I was about this game on a scale of 1 to 10 and I didn’t hesitate: 9. Maryland has so far played much better than I expected it to, though it must be said that the Terps haven’t played a world-beater schedule. Yes, their offense is better than Iowa’s, a distinction it shares with half (or more) of  the FBS. And like I said on ISR, Mike Locksley is an aggressive coach who will see what Colorado State did on offense in the first half and know that he has a far better quarterback on his team than Steve Addazio does.

Yet up above I ragged on Purdue for only beating Illinois by four points. 

Maryland only beat the Illini by three.

Sure, there’s a common opponent between these two schools, and Maryland never seemed to be in any danger of stumbling against Kent State.

You know what I’ve noticed? When people talk about Iowa -- Hawk fans or not -- the offense gets all the attention, and the defense gets almost none.

The Iowa defense is a very, very strange thing to not talk about. It might be the best defense Kirk Ferentz has fielded. He’s had some great ones. And we weren’t expecting too much out of this unit.

Heard anything about Brock Purdy’s Heisman chances lately?

As usual, too close, too little offense, more complaining than celebrating afterwards. This is a game where everyone knows the defense is going to have to do all the heavy lifting for the Hawks to be victorious. This will certainly be the best offense the Iowa defense has faced this season. But this will be the best defense the Maryland offense has faced this season, and that gap is wider.

I like those odds.

Black-and-Gold Crush 20, Weird Helmets 10.

Last week: 7-2 (.778)
Season: 27-11 (.711)

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