By Chris Emma-
(CBS) Is Week 2 too early to declare a must-win game? Perhaps it may be, but Saturday’s clash between Michigan State and Oregon is pretty close to that billing.
Putting the Big Ten’s best with a Pac-12 power is an all-in bet between two favorites for the College Football Playoff. The winner will be in an ideal position, while the loser will face an uphill battle. But that’s why top teams play each other in the nonconference — it’s a chance to jump in the express lane for postseason hopes and still have time to recover in the case of a loss.
For the fans, it’s just fun to watch. This is the kind of matchup a football junkie dreams of. It’s the unstoppable force against the immovable object, Oregon’s potent offense against Michigan State’s dominating defense.
Last season, Oregon posted 45.5 points per game, good for third in the nation. Michigan State surrendered just 13.2 points per game, also third overall. The Ducks racked up 565 yards per game, second in the country. The Spartans let up just 252.2 yards, second overall in the defensive rankings.
“Oregon is certainly cutting edge in terms of their offensive philopshy,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
“They have a rock-solid, one-thing-fits-all defense,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.
Did you catch the trend here? This is going to be some great football.
It may not be a must-win, but it’s certainly a must-watch.
1.) There are no winners with the end of the rivalry between Notre Dame and Michigan. It’s an annual classic in early September, a matchup of two of college football’s most storied programs. It’s a shame that Saturday’s showdown in South Bend may mark the final game between the two. This is a casualty of the ever-changing climate of the game — Notre Dame has ACC scheduling obligations, Michigan must play nine Big Ten teams. “It sucks this rivarly has to go,” Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner said. Hard to disagree with that.
2.) Nothing that happens in Evanston really seems to surprise anymore. The latest instance came this week, when coach Pat Fitzgerald admitted Northwestern had a typo on its defensive play call wristbands. “Sometimes things happen,” he said. “Guys got it corrected pretty quick.” Fitzgerald claims the mixup didn’t impact any plays in the game, though InsideNU.com reported the wrong wristbands were used for the first half. That would help explain how the Wildcats fell behind, 24-7. It seems like the drama in Evanston is 24-7, too.
3.) Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook caught a break. The cheap shot thrown by a Jacksonville State defender to his knee last week could’ve easily ended his season, caused great damage and crushed the Spartans’ season. It didn’t, but a lesson needs to be learned. Not for Cook, who was able to return to the game. But the officials need to enforce dirty hits to the knees, the same way they do with “targeting” to the head. There’s no place in the game for that kind of play. Cook was fortunate it didn’t finish his season in its opening game.
4.) Let’s be frank: Illinois and Purdue were lucky to win their Week 1 games. Both played weak teams — Illinois facing Youngstown State, Purdue playing Western Michigan — and were fortunate to come out on top. However, these are two programs that were buried in the Big Ten’s basement last season. Any win can be considered progress, no matter how bad it was. Both the Fighting Illini and Boilermakers appear poised to improve upon their win total from last season. Winning ugly is good enough for the two rebuilding teams.
5.) Sometimes, victories are sweeter than they seem. For Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s obliteration of Florida Atlantic qualifies as a feel-good win. The Cornhuskers pounded on the Owls, who fired Bo’s brother, Carl, last fall. Allegations of illegal drug usage is what forced Carl Pelini out from Florida Atlantic, that following a 5-15 run. However, he offered a strong denial to the claims. That had to be on Bo’s mind when the Huskers broke the half-century mark this past Saturday.
6.) The mystery in Madison has been solved, but with a sad ending to the story. Joel Stave wasn’t passed on as the Badgers’ starter, and he’s not hurt as coach Gary Andersen said this week. Stave is dealing with a case of the “yips,” where he’s unable to throw a football with accuracy. It’s a rare condition that results in a mental block or performance anxiety. Wisconsin needs its quarterback, and Stave certainly wants to play, but this is a tough task to overcome. It’s an unfortunate story brewing in Badger land.
7.) Now, a confession: I may have been wrong about Rutgers. I, like so many others, have laughed at the Big Ten’s newest member. The Scarlet Knights have been an embarrassment the past year, largely thanks to their dope of an athletic director, Julie Hermann. But their football team may be good. A season-opening upset at Washington State proved that Rutgers can play. Sift through its schedule and this season could be prosperous. Rutgers could easily be 6-0 entering its game with Ohio State in October. That surely would have caught many off guard in the preseason, myself included.
8.) Count me among the skeptics of the Braxton Miller-less Buckeyes. Yes, Ohio State pulled out a win over Navy, but it wasn’t the runaway many would have expected. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett looked like a redshirt freshman in his first start, and his ceiling doesn’t show that of a star. He has plenty of talent around — this is Ohio State, after all — but it’s going to be tough for the Buckeyes to find their place in the College Football Playoff. A nine-win season would be welcomed by many fan bases, but not in Columbus. That seems to be Ohio State’s fate this season.
9) James Franklin is never short on the sidelines antics — fist bumps, high-fives and hugs for all. He’s the engaging personality and program ambassador that Penn State fans wanted in their new leader. But can he coach? This observer says no. The Nittany Lions were just good enough to get by UCF in Ireland, and Franklin has quarterback Christian Hackenberg to thank for that. Still, his clock management was simply brutal, his play-calling was questionable and it nearly cost Penn State the game. There are no certainties in Franklin’s coaching abilities.
10.) It seemed as if Iowa was ready to become an air-it-out offense, which is like predicting snow on the sun’s surface. The Hawkeyes were throwing the ball plenty in preseason practices. But when they took the field for the first time, the passing game was far too conservative. Quarterback Jake Rudock threw the ball 41 times … and averaged just 6.1 yards per completion. It’s like he forgot you could run past the first-down marker. Iowa has the ability to be a dynamic passing offense (it sounds weird, I know) but must take more chances.
Quote of the week
“We won the Rose Bowl last year.” –Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, on whether the Spartans must prove the Big Ten’s worth against Oregon.
Big Ten power rankings
1.) Michigan State (1-0) — We’ll soon find out how good the Spartans really are when they travel to Oregon.
2.) Ohio State (1-0) — An ugly win against Navy has Buckeye fans worried about their season but feeling good about our armed forces.
3.) Iowa (1-0) — The Hawkeyes must do more in their Saturday contest with Ball State, because Week 1 wasn’t pretty.
4.) Nebraska (1-0) — Ameer Abdullah is the truth. As the lightning-fast running back goes, so do the Cornhuskers.
5.) Michigan (1-0) — The annual meeting with Notre Dame seems to either spark the Wolverines’ season or offer a bump in the road.
6.) Wisconsin (0-1) — A healthy Melvin Gordon makes all the difference for the Badgers. They could’ve used it against LSU. It’s time to move on.
7.) Penn State (1-0) — Christian Hackenberg carried the Nittany Lions to victory. That will be a common trend.
8.) Maryland (1-0) — The Terps should pounce on South Florida in the Sunshine State. If not, their season is in trouble.
9.) Minnesota (1-0) — There was dominating defense and a scuffling offense. That’s what to expect from the Golden Gophers.
10.) Rutgers (1-0) — Up three spots from last week’s power rankings, I’m buying stock in the Scarlet Knights.
11.) Indiana (1-0) — Even more impressive than Tevin Coleman’s monster performance, the Hoosiers’ defense played well.
12.) Illinois (1-0) — The Fighting Illini are vying for their second winning streak under Tim Beckman.
13.) Northwestern (0-1) — The Wildcats are more the group that sparked a comeback against Cal than the one which fell so far behind, but the good teams don’t dig into holes like that.
14.) Purdue (1-0) — A season-opening win matches the Boilermakers’ win total from last season. Let’s see if they can sustain success.
Western Kentucky at Illinois (-6) — Illinois, 31-27
McNeese State at Nebraska (Off) — Nebraska, 52-0
Akron at Penn State (-15) — Penn State, 34-14
Central Michigan at Purdue (-4) — Purdue, 42-31
Howard at Rutgers (Off) — Rutgers, 49-7
Western Illinois at Wisconsin (Off) — Wisconsin, 38-6
Northern Illinois at Northwestern (-8) — Northwestern, 31-30
Middle Tennessee at Minnesota (-16) — Minnesota, 24-13
Ball State at Iowa (-17) — Iowa, 41-20
Maryland (-14) at South Florida — Maryland, 38-14
Michigan State at Oregon (-12) — Oregon, 21-18
Michigan at Notre Dame (-4) — Notre Dame, 31-24
Virginia Tech at Ohio State (-11) — Ohio State, 28-24
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.