Badgers-Spartans, Gators-Vols clashes lead Week 4 Big Game slate
The game of the week in the Big Ten — and, going strictly by the rankings, on a national level — involves neither Ohio State nor Michigan.
Don’t get used to that.
Yet No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 8 Michigan State (11 a.m., BTN) is an awfully important affair. The 3-0 Badgers are the highest-ranked squad in the Big Ten’s West division. The 2-0 Spartans — who trail East rivals Ohio State and Michigan in the polls — are the league’s defending champs and have established themselves, though some around the country seem to need to be reminded of it, as one of the leading programs in the college game.
Each team has a marquee early-season victory under its belt, Wisconsin’s coming against LSU in the opener and Michigan State’s in most impressive fashion last weekend at Notre Dame. Sparty’s defining moments will come on later Saturdays against the Wolverines and Buckeyes. For the Badgers, it’s the start of a hellacious five-game gauntlet against MSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska.
And Bucky is still toggling between fifth-year senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook at quarterback.
“Both have to be ready to play, to be sure,” coach Paul Chryst said. “I’m positive of that. Both have to go. I told them there are going to be games where they’re both going to play.”
The Spartans, favored by 5½, have settled in with fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor under center in his first season as a starter. Neither team has great pop in the passing game. Both — no surprise — are strong defensively. This will be a line-of-scrimmage game, with turnovers likely playing a significant role. MSU gets the big one when it counts and holds on by a touchdown.
There’s no better rivalry game on the docket than No. 19 Florida at No. 14 Tennessee (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2). Both teams are 3-0, but the Gators will be without quarterback Luke Del Rio, who injured a knee in Week 3. That puts former Purdue starter Austin Appleby on the spot like he has never been before.
“I’ve come to the University of Florida to play,” the graduate transfer said. “That’s ultimately why I chose to come here. I want to be part of something special.”
Despite the Vols’ maddening 11-game losing streak in this series, they’re favored by a touchdown. The streak ends, but the Gators cover.
Also a full touchdown underdog: No. 12 Georgia at No. 23 Ole Miss (11 a.m., ESPN). It has been a tough go for the Rebels, who’ve lost to Florida State and Alabama and sit at 1-2. Can they take care of business at home against the 3-0 Bulldogs? If their morale is holding up, there’s no reason why they can’t. I wonder about that morale. Dogs in an upset.
Penn State at No. 4 Michigan (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7) smells like a mismatch, and not just because the Wolverines have fared well in this series through the years. They got a good lesson in falling behind against Colorado last weekend and should be ready from the jump. Michigan is favored by 18½ — a giant number — but this one gets ugly.
A tough one to call is Oklahoma State at No. 16 Baylor (6:30 p.m., Fox-32). The 3-0 Bears played a typically soft non-conference schedule, so we still don’t know how they’re really doing during a time of program turmoil and coaching transition. Still, they have the usual offensive stars — quarterback Seth Russell, running back Shock Linwood, receiver KD Cannon — and a defense that’s off to a strong start. The Cowboys are an unimpressive 2-1, but the Mason Rudolph-James Washington aerial combo is lethal. Bears win but fail to cover the 8½.
No. 7 Stanford at UCLA (7 p.m., Ch. 7) is a no-go for the Bruins unless they can protect terrific sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen. I don’t see that happening. The Tree gets to 3-0 and easily covers the three.
We’ll get big-time fun from No. 17 Arkansas vs. No. 10 Texas A&M (8 p.m., ESPN) in Arlington, Texas, with each team looking to get to 4-0. The Aggies have won four straight in this series — two of them at Jerry World — and are favored by six, but this should be down-to-the-wire madness. Hogs in overtime.
My favorite favorite: Indiana -7 vs. Wake Forest (2:30 p.m., BTN). The Deacons are 3-0, but they’re still the Deacons. It’s time for the Hoosiers to put their collective foot down at home against a weak Power 5 opponent.
My favorite underdog: Auburn +4 vs. LSU (5 p.m., ESPN). It’s time for Gus Malzahn to save his job … for now.
Last week: 7-1 straight-up, 4-3-1 vs. the spread.
Season to date: 18-6 straight-up; 10-12-2 vs. the spread.
DUKE AT NOTRE DAME
The facts: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 5; 890-AM.
The records: Duke 1-2, 0-1 ACC; Notre Dame 1-2.
The line: Irish by 20½.
The story line: Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer as much as declared after a Week 3 loss to Michigan State that the Irish won’t fall again this season. If that makes you roll your eyes or chuckle a bit, it’s understandable. Still, if the Irish are locked in for this particular “test,” they’ll win easily. Defensively, Duke doesn’t have much. Offensively, the Blue Devils are operating with a quarterback, Daniel Jones, who’s playing only because of an injury to Thomas Sirk. This feels like something close to a walk in the park for the home team — which sorely needs one.
Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 38-7.
WESTERN ILLINOIS AT NORTHERN ILLINOIS
The facts: 2:30 p.m., ESPN3; 560-AM.
The records: Western Illinois 2-0; Northern Illinois 0-3.
The line: Huskies by 7.
The story line: Let’s start with NIU’s defense, which has been — and there’s no nicer way to put it — horrifically bad. Western Illinois, meanwhile, seems to have one of its stronger teams of recent vintage. The Leathernecks put up 38 and 34 points, respectively, in victories over Eastern Illinois and Northern Arizona. Is an upset possible here? You bet. But NIU played pretty well last weekend against a very good San Diego State squad and should be motivated enough to hold off total disaster.
Greenberg’s pick: Northern Illinois, 41-30.
NO. 20 NEBRASKA AT NORTHWESTERN
The facts: 6:30 p.m., BTN; 720-AM.
The records: Nebraska 3-0; Northwestern 1-2.
The line: Cornhuskers by 7.
The story line: Big Ten fans have long tired of seeing the Huskers flail about in conference play. Are they the real deal or what? Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a big-play dual-threat at quarterback, and let’s face the fact — he and his skill partners are, on the whole, on a different level than Northwestern’s. But what about that Wildcats defense? We’ll need to see shutdown work from NU on that side of the ball if this is going to be a ballgame.
Greenberg’s pick: Nebraska, 24-14.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.