Finally, some truly meaningful football games for the Big Ten.
Four of the six matchups Saturday should provide real definition entering the final month of the season. Up to now, it seems we knew less about the league after each week of play than more.
Here is what's worth paying attention to:
>> No. 9 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) at Penn State (5-2, 3-0), 4:30 p.m., ESPN: Yes, both teams are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions. But they are eligible to win the Leaders Division trophy.
This game also might decide the Big Ten and national coach of the year contests. The two first-year coaches — OSU's Urban Meyer and PSU's Bill O'Brien — are worthy candidates for creating order (and victories) out of the chaos they inherited.
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is coming off a scary whiplash injury last week. And besides pounding Nebraska, the Buckeyes' other three league wins are by one point, three points and seven points in overtime. Penn State is playing as solidly as anyone in the league, and will benefit from a frenzied, white-out home crowd.
The pick: Penn State 24, Ohio State 20.
>> Iowa (4-3, 2-1) at Northwestern (6-2, 2-2), 11 a.m., ESPN2: This is a de facto elimination game in the Legends Division. Iowa, amazingly, is still in the mix despite a miserable offense (only three touchdown passes, tied for second-to-last nationally). People are hammering senior quarterback James Vandenberg, but don't forget the hand of first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis for steering this thing poorly.
Northwestern would be undefeated if it had held onto double-digit leads in the fourth quarter against Penn State and Nebraska. The Wildcats got banged up against the Huskers last week, but should have plenty left to take care of business.
The pick: Northwestern 27, Iowa 13.
>> Michigan State (4-4, 1-3) at Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1), 2:30 p.m., ABC: The Badgers can sleepwalk to Indianapolis as the Leaders Division title-game representative. But winning out would be a big boost to the Big Ten's shoddy reputation. The Spartans — just six points away from being 7-1 — now are trying to find two wins to get to bowl eligibility.
The pick: Wisconsin 16, Michigan State 14.
>> No. 20 Michigan (5-2, 3-0) at Nebraska (5-2, 2-1), 7 p.m., ESPN2: If Michigan wins, it would have to stumble badly to not claim the Legends title. If Nebraska wins, the division race likely will go to the final weekend of the season.
This is a critical game for NU coach Bo Pelini. The opportunity has presented itself for Nebraska to climb up the Big Ten pecking order sooner than expected. A league title and a Rose Bowl bid in the second year of membership would put the Huskers in position to stay in the upper crust. A loss? Look for a Husker Nation meltdown, and pointed questions about the program's progress in Pelini's five years.
The quarterbacks will decide this one. Both teams have talented yet erratic playmakers at that spot. The one with fewer mistakes wins.
The pick: Nebraska 24, Michigan 23.
>> Purdue (3-4, 0-3) at Minnesota (4-3, 0-3), 2:30 p.m., BTN: After tanking in its three biggest games of the season, will Purdue keep playing or just go through the motions from here? Fourth-year coach Danny Hope is on the hot seat, as much for fan apathy as performance. Meanwhile, Minnesota has gone to the future by pulling freshman quarterback Philip Nelson out of a redshirt last week and making him the starter. The Gophers are much improved, but multiple injuries are hindering progress.
The pick: Minnesota 27, Purdue 21.
>> Indiana (2-5, 0-3) at Illinois (2-5, 0-3), 11 a.m., BTN: The good news is somebody here finally gets a conference victory. The Hoosiers have lost 11 straight over two seasons, but should break that string here. They are first in the Big Ten in passing offense, second in total offense and third in scoring offense. Illinois has lost four straight, giving up an average of 41 points a game.
The pick: Indiana 38, Illinois 21.
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