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Big Ten Preview: Northwestern Makes the College Football Playoffs

I've been struck by the vagaries of conference play in college football this year. By any objective measure, Alabama is a better team than South Carolina: they have better players and win more games. The talent differential between the two programs isn't especially close. But South Carolina can beat Alabama because of the familiarity they have from playing every year, and because the players, the school, and the crowd recognize that one Saturday has the potential of being the biggest day in the school's football history. And then that same South Carolina team can lose the following week to Kentucky, a team that now unbelievably holds the college football belt.

In fact, I'd argue that "Any Given Sunday Saturday"-esque parity is more pronounced within conference play in college football than it is in the NFL, regardless of Al Pacino movies. While that unpredictability can make college football intensely frustrating, it also makes it endlessly fascinating. Particularly because the lack of a college football playoff gives every game the potential of being part of the college football playoff.

Take our first game this weekend, for example. If the NCAA were to abandon the BCS system in favor of some 8 or 16 team playoff, Northwestern would virtually never participate. But this Saturday, they have the potential to dramatically alter the state of the 2010 college football championship by ending Michigan State's unbeaten streak and with it the odds that any Big Ten team plays in the MNC. Fair or not, the current college football system for determining a champion is unlike anything else in sports, and it helps to make the conference games even more intense and interesting than they otherwise would be.

Onto the games and the gambling:

Michigan St. Spartans at Northwestern Wildcats (12:00; ESPN)

61 and 40% chance of rain; MSU -5; O/U 53

The nation's most accurate passer, Dan Persa (78%), and his Wildcat teammates return from their bye-week to host a surging Michigan State team that plays just its second road game of the year. This game and next week's game at Iowa are the biggest obstacles stopping Sparty from being undefeated when they visit Happy Valley the last Saturday of November. Northwestern only has one loss this year, but that loss was against Purdue, which is arguably the toughest squad Pat Fitzgerald's team has played yet. Evanston can be a tricky place to play, and the Wildcats will give Kirk Cousins and his teammates a run for their money, but I think ultimately, Michigan State's is just too good at too many facets of the game for Northwestern.  Close through the first half; Sparty takes control by the fourth quarter.

Prediction: Michigan State 31 - Northwestern 17

Purdue Boilermakers at Ohio State Buckeyes (12:00; Big Ten Network)

69 and small chance of rain; -24; O/U 47

Terrelle Pryor and the rest of Buckeye nation look to rebound from last week's loss in Madison and avenge last year's loss to the Boilermakers at home on Saturday. Purdue's off to a frisky 2-0 start in league play. Their redshirt freshman quarterback Rob Henry is undefeated as a starter and arguably the best freshman qb in the league. He ran for three touchdowns and threw for another in the Boilermakers 28-17 win over Minnesota last week. Little doubt that Ohio State wins here, but 24 points seems too high.

Prediction: Ohio State 31 - Purdue 17

Indiana Hoosiers at Illinois Fighting Illini (12:00; Big Ten Network)

68 and 60% chance of rain; Illinois -14; O/U 55

The Ben Chappell Experience comes to Champaign Urbana in the latest version of the Zook Chronicles. The book is pretty much already written on this year's Indiana team: they can score points, but can't stop anyone else from doing so. They're a poor (and less arrogant) man's Michigan. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Illinois. The biggest obstacle to them winning out the rest of the way is a trip to Michigan in two weeks, and if they play as well as they did in their first two and a half conference games, they should make quick work of the Wolverines and this Indiana team. After an impressive and close fought first half at Spartan Stadium last week, however, they seemed to run out of gas. Doubtful the same happens at home against the Hoosiers.

Prediction: Illinois 31 - Indiana 17

Wisconsin Badgers at Iowa Hawkeyes (3:30; ABC/ESPN)

67% and 40% chance of rain; Iowa -5.5; O/U 48

The most high profile Big Ten game of the weekend is in Iowa City this week (and next week when Sparty comes to town). Wisconsin looked like an entirely different team last Saturday night with Nick Toon providing another dimension on offense and the defense holding the Ohio State in check. Iowa's defense showed signs of vulnerability against Rich Rod's dynamic spread, but Ricky Stanzi and the Hawkeyes offense were able to score consistently enough that the outcome was never too much in doubt. If Wisconsin can play as well as they did last week, they can certainly win this one. I think Wisconsin's enormous size in the trenches and Scott Tolzien's competence allows them to put some points on the board. This game will be decided when Iowa has the ball, and I don't think they'll be able to score with any regularity. Wisconsin beats Iowa at their own game.

Prediction: Wisconsin 31 - Iowa 17

Penn St Nittany Lions at Minnesota Golden Gophers

57 and 30% chance of rain; Penn State -9.5; O/U 49.5

See the staff predictions tomorrow.

BYE: Michigan Wolverines

Last week: 1-4 Against the Spread; 3-2 Picking Winners; Overall 5-10 ATS; 10-5 Winners