Not since Nov. 24, 1962, when No. 3 Wisconsin defeated No. 5 Minnesota 14-9 in Madison, has the Big Ten had a game between two top-five teams that didn’t include Ohio State, Michigan or both.
So, Saturday in Iowa City, when No. 3 Iowa hosts No. 4 Penn State, history, of sorts, will be made. It’s a rare moment for the Big Ten to be the center of college football with no maize, blue, scarlet or gray involved.
The Nittany Lions-Hawkeyes game was one of the featured contests in this week’s “Race for the Case” discussion on the College Football Enquirer. It features a full breakdown with picks (Iowa is -1.5 on BetMGM).
It also represents what could be a major storyline for the season — a series of major clashes in the Big Ten rather than the SEC, which still has the two best teams in the sport (No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia), but perhaps no one else who can realistically challenge them.
The Big Ten, however, is full of contenders with realistic paths to not just the conference title but the College Football Playoff. That includes Iowa (5-0) and Penn State (5-0) but also No. 9 Michigan (5-0), No. 11 Michigan State (5-0) and, yes, No. 7 Ohio State (4-1).
The Buckeyes have won the last four and five of the last seven Big Ten titles. It is the only league school that has won a game in the playoff. Even with a non-conference loss to Oregon, they should still be considered the favorites.
Unlike some years, you can’t just give Ohio State the trophy. There are contenders now. Lots of them. Which is why so many circle-the-date games are possible going forward. Penn State at Iowa is one that no one saw coming in the preseason.
But how about the possible Oct. 30 doubleheader of Penn State at Ohio State and Michigan at Michigan State? Or Nov. 27, when Penn State visits Michigan State and Ohio State is at Michigan? Or Michigan visiting Penn State on Nov. 13 or MSU heading to Columbus on Nov. 20?
For Iowa, this weekend may be the final major challenge of the regular season. Penn State is the only Big Ten East power on its regular season schedule. Win or lose the Hawkeyes have an inside track on reaching Indianapolis for the league title game, but a victory leaves them in an advantageous spot for their first-ever playoff appearance. It would essentially be a one-game season after that.
We’ll see if it all holds up, but the Big Ten — particularly in the East — appears top heavy, the way the SEC usually is. And with Alabama and Georgia not on each other’s regular season schedules, those two can’t meet until the SEC championship game in December, where both would be assured of a playoff spot if they arrive unbeaten.
The SEC will still be plenty interesting, of course (can Kentucky be a spoiler?). But this weekend is the start of the Big Ten being the playoff-chase focal point. And it begins without the Wolverines and Buckeyes even being involved.
Check out the discussion of Penn State-Iowa and all the other games (including a bonus UConn at UMass discussion) on the College Football Enquirer right here: