- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
We’re entering our fifth week of Big Ten football for the 2020 season, and the biggest game to date is Saturday’s top-10 matchup between No. 9 Indiana vs. No. 3 Ohio State.
Don’t worry, you’re in the right place: This really is a weekly football preview. And while it’s not shocking that Indiana — which is coming off of one of the best seasons in school history — is good this season, not many people projected the Hoosiers to be top-10 good.
Said Indiana coach Tom Allen last week, on the Hoosiers typically being known for hoops: “I’m born and raised in Indiana. I understand it and I love basketball. I want us to win a national championship in basketball.
“But I think we can give you both.”
A victory over Ohio State (3-0) this weekend would put Indiana (4-0) in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten East, with its toughest game remaining a trip to Wisconsin.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Indiana is a great story, but with every great story comes a great heel. Ohio State is the third-ranked team in the country for a reason. The Buckeyes sit comfortably in a tier, with Clemson and Alabama, above the rest of college football. Plus, Indiana hasn’t won at Ohio Stadium since 1987.
Indiana’s defense (which, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information, has intercepted 7.6% of pass attempts — the highest percentage in the FBS) faces its toughest test of the season in Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who has completed 86.7% of his passes for 908 yards and 11 touchdowns through three games.
But it can’t just be the defense hoping to slow down the Buckeyes. Hoosiers QB Michael Penix Jr. likely needs to play the best game of his career.
If it all comes together, maybe Indiana can ruin the Buckeyes’ title dreams. And that would be amazing — even by 2020 standards.
What else to watch
Bedlam in the Big 12: Oklahoma has largely been an afterthought since losing back-to-back games against Kansas State and Iowa State, but the Sooners have now won four straight, scoring 62 points in each of the past two. Spencer Rattler now looks every bit the part of a Lincoln Riley QB, but he’ll get arguably the biggest test of his young career against Oklahoma State’s stifling defense. The Cowboys have held five of their first six opponents to 21 or less, but the lone exception came with a 41-34 loss to Texas. The Pokes haven’t held Oklahoma to fewer than 33 since 2011.
Big tests for the mid-majors: Do any of the teams outside the Power 5 really have a shot at the College Football Playoff? For now, it’s an interesting hypothetical, but Saturday could inject a hefty dose of reality. Cincinnati travels to UCF, where Dillon Gabriel will test the Bearcats’ talented defense. Liberty heads to NC State hoping to go 3-0 against the ACC this season. Coastal Carolina hosts Appalachian State looking to prove the Mountaineers are no longer kings of the Sun Belt. If the Bearcats, Flames and Chanticleers all come away with victories, it speaks volumes about the credibility of their playoff — or, perhaps more likely, New Year’s Six — chances. But odds are at least one big domino falls this weekend.
Kyle Trask’s Heisman campaign visits Nashville: Trask has vaulted himself to the top of the Heisman Trophy conversation, and rightfully so. The Florida quarterback had a standout game against Georgia’s stout defense earlier this month and continued to show out against Arkansas last weekend — completing 79% of his passes for 356 yards and six touchdowns. Vanderbilt has the 104th-ranked defense in SP+, whereas the Gators have the fourth-ranked SP+ offense.
Penn State tries to avoid making (bad) history: The Nittany Lions have had arguably the most disappointing 2020 of any college football team and will look to avoid starting 0-5 for the first time in 127 years playing football. Many thought they were the second-best Big Ten team on paper coming into the season, but they have looked like anything but. This weekend, they welcome Iowa to Happy Valley. And it won’t be easy. The Hawkeyes are coming off blowout wins over Michigan State and Minnesota and appear to have woken up after starting the season 0-2.
Catch up on your reading: The most recent time Clemson traveled to Tallahassee, Florida, the world was treated to arguably the greatest fan shot of all time — Florida State book guy. Bored during a blowout, FSU professor Bruce Thyer took off his shirt, sat in the sun and finished a mystery novel he’d been reading. It was perfect symbolism for the Seminoles’ fall, but this season’s installment could be even uglier. Attrition and injuries have ravaged FSU’s already fragile depth chart, while Clemson gets superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence back after two games out due to COVID-19. The Tigers are a five-touchdown favorite, so if you’ve been putting off finishing that biography of Teddy Roosevelt, here’s your chance.
Lyles: Appalachian State vs. No. 15 Coastal Carolina
We might be at the point where we can’t really call Coastal Carolina games “under the radar,” but I want to make sure this matchup gets some shine in this space. App State came into the season considered one of the favorites in the Sun Belt, and the Mountaineers are 6-1 overall and 4-0 in the league coming into this game. If Coastal wins, though, the Chanticleers will become the first team in Sun Belt history to start 8-0 — and will be in the driver’s seat for the East division.
Hale: No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 19 Northwestern
Believe it or not, this is a top-20 matchup, and if the Wildcats can pull off the win, they’d move to 5-0 and, with Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois remaining, would have a great chance to run the table and play for a Big Ten title. But while Northwestern managed to squeeze past Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue in its most recent outings, its offensive shortcomings will be a much bigger concern against a Wisconsin team that has won its first two games by a combined score of 94-18. For now, though, let’s assume the Wildcats have a real shot, and we can all dream of a Northwestern-Illinois title game that would be the most fitting conclusion to 2020 in the Big Ten.
Player to watch
Lyles: Oregon RB CJ Verdell
Verdell is arguably Oregon’s best player on offense — and the Ducks host UCLA at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, so regardless of what time zone you’re in, you’ll have no excuse not to check out one of the best running backs in the Pac-12. Last week against Washington State, he had 118 yards on 18 carries and one touchdown, along with five receptions for 36 yards.
Hale: Tennessee quarterbacks
Jarrett Guarantano returned to practice this week after leaving the Volunteers’ Nov. 7 loss to Arkansas with a head injury. Whether Guarantano starts or shares snaps with backup Harrison Bailey remains a big question. Guarantano has started every game this season, but his performance has been less than stellar, ranking 71st nationally in total QBR. Tennessee might be wise to start thinking about the future of the QB spot, but the Vols are also mired in a four-game losing streak and desperate to find something positive for a frustrated fan base. With three of Tennessee’s remaining four games coming against ranked foes, starting with Auburn on Saturday, the 2020 campaign could either be salvaged with a big win or collapse entirely.
Lyles: South Carolina over Missouri
I don’t think South Carolina is going to be consistently better after coach Will Muschamp’s departure, especially after a pair of opt-outs from cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu. Against a bottom-tier SEC team like Missouri, though, perhaps the Gamecocks can pull off the victory. Games following coaching changes go either really well or poorly. I’m banking on well enough.
Hale: Kansas State over Iowa State
The Wildcats’ offense ran into a back-to-back buzz saw against tough defenses at West Virginia and Oklahoma State, both losses. Iowa State doesn’t have that same dynamic D — good news for Chris Klieman’s club, which beat the Cyclones last season in Manhattan. In fact, K-State has won 11 of the past 12 meetings, the lone loss coming in Bill Snyder’s final game, a 42-38 shootout. Will Howard has struggled since taking over the QB job, but the tough lessons against two better defenses will prove valuable here, and the Wildcats will find their footing in an upset win.
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