As an adolescent, I participated in numerous organized sports. The main two were basketball and soccer, and I played basketball through my senior year of high school and soccer through eighth grade, when I was forced to choose between the two because basketball and soccer had concurrent high school seasons. (Yes, soccer was played in the winter in the Los Angeles area because there was a better chance of seeing Rutgers upset Michigan in 2016 than seeing snow fall on the grass ... ever.)
Both of those sports have halftime, and a common refrain I heard from my coaches throughout the years was to begin the second half as if the score was 0-0. Whether my team actually led by a large amount or had dug itself a deep hole, my coaches did not want us to get too down or cocky. They wanted us to remain even-keeled and focused.
So, as we enter the second half of the season, I’ll just pretend my picks are tied 0-0 ...
Last Week’s Results
Pick: Minnesota -17 | Score: Minnesota 34, Rutgers 32 | Result: L
Pick: Wisconsin -3.5 | Score: Wisconsin 17, Iowa 9 | Result: W
Pick: Indiana +1.5 | Score: Northwestern 24, Indiana 14 | Result: L
Pick: Nebraska -24 | Score: Nebraska 27, Purdue 13 | Result: L
Pick: Maryland +3 | Score: Maryland 28, Michigan State 17 | Result: W
Pick: Ohio State -19.5 | Score: Penn State 24, Ohio State 21 | Result: L
Pick: Michigan -35 | Score: Michigan 41, Illinois 8 | Result: L
Last Week’s Record: 2-5-0
Season Record: 30-30-2 (50.0%)
Oh, my picks are tied just past the midpoint of the season. So much for pretending.
So let’s remain even-keeled and focused and pick some Big Ten winners this week.
This Week’s Picks
Byes: Iowa; Rutgers
Minnesota at Illinois
Line: Minnesota -5 | O/U: N/A
Minnesota and Illinois are two teams that have performed better away from the comfortable confines of their own stadiums recently. The Gophers are 4-0-1 against the spread in their last five road games, and the Illini are a perfect 3-0 against the spread in road games this season. However, the Illini are not playing this week’s game on the road. They are hosting Minnesota in Memorial Stadium, where they are 0-5 against the spread in their last five home games against FBS competition. These trends favor Minnesota, which, despite a scare from Rutgers last week, has the efficient running game (38th in S&P+’s Success Rate) to tear through Illinois’ run defense (119th in Success Rate). And, even though Illinois has a powerful pass rush (22nd in adj. sack rate), Minnesota’s offensive line is more than ready for the task (8th in adj. sack rate). Illinois may reel off a long run or two, but Minnesota will win in a methodical manner.
Pick: Minnesota -5
#24 Penn State at Purdue
Line: Penn State -11.5 | O/U: 56.5
Penn State just earned its biggest win of the James Franklin era by stunning Ohio State, 24-21, at Beaver Stadium, and the Nittany Lions have been celebrating the feat all week. In fact, it was the culmination of a very successful, month-long homestand for Penn State, during which the Lions edged Minnesota and routed Maryland. Now the question is whether the they will experience a hangover when they leave Happy Valley for the first time since September 24th to take on Purdue, who put a bit of a scare into Nebraska last week. The answer? No. S&P+ projects Penn State will win this game by 23.1 points, which is more than double the current spread. Plus, all four of Purdue’s losses this year were by at least 13 points. Do yourself a favor, and give away the 11.5.
Pick: Penn State -11.5
Maryland at Indiana
Line: Indiana -5 | O/U: 51.5
In their matchup last season, Maryland and Indiana combined for 75 points. It will be anything but that in this season’s matchup. These two teams have paired above-average defenses with offenses that hover around the top-75 mark. Plus, their offensive strengths (Maryland: 29th in Rushing S&P+; Indiana: 21st in Passing S&P+) will face their opponent’s defensive strengths (Indiana: 25th in Rushing S&P+; Maryland: 19th in Passing S&P+). And, where strength doesn’t meet strength, it’s the defensive unit that stands out (Maryland’s 82nd Pass Offense vs. Indiana’s 36th Pass Defense). Moreover, the Under has been a very successful play in both Terrapin (6-1 in 2016) and Hoosier (6-1 in 2016) contests this season. Expect this to be a defensive showdown.
Pick: Under 51.5
Northwestern at #6 Ohio State
Line: Ohio State -27 | O/U: 53
In September, Northwestern’s offense was pre-super-soldier Steve Rogers. It had heart, but it was frail, lacked stamina, and slumped around the field, averaging just 16.3 points in its four September games. But, on the eve of October 1st, the Wildcats’ offense was injected with a special serum to become Captain America because, in its three games since then, it has averaged 38.7 points per game. That average is supposed to decrease when the conference season begins, not improve. Yet the Wildcats are clicking offensively as they enter The Horseshoe to clash with an Ohio State outfit that is seething and needing to take out its frustration from the Penn State loss on them. The Buckeyes will do that by keeping the ball on the ground. They have not been explosive offensively (maybe give Curtis Samuel more than two carries, Urban), but they have punished front-sevens consistently. They are second in S&P+’s Rushing Success Rate, while Northwestern is 67th in that metric defensively. Ohio State will rebound with a win and get back on track, but both offenses will put up points.
Pick: Over 53
#7 Nebraska at #11 Wisconsin
Line: Wisconsin -8.5 | O/U: 43
I am a firm believer that Nebraska is this season’s version of 2015 Iowa. The Huskers are ranked No. 7 in the AP poll because they are undefeated, but a dive into the numbers reveals they have little business being that high. They are 22nd in S&P+ and 24th in Sagarin. This is a Power 5 team that has benefited from facing a soft schedule thus far, though that wasn’t its intention because it didn’t know Oregon would be a total sieve. Of the Huskers’ seven wins, only one has been against a team ranked in the S&P+ top 50: No. 47 Indiana. And now they must travel to Madison for an evening game against a Wisconsin squad that took Michigan and Ohio State down to the wire. Nebraska is in for a rude awakening when it realizes that Wisconsin is the West’s best.
Pick: Wisconsin -8.5
#2 Michigan at Michigan State
Line: Michigan -24 | O/U: 54
This is the pick for which you have been waiting. My brain and gut have engaged in a 15-round knock-em-out, drag-em-out fight to make this prediction. My brain sees all the data points from this season and claims that Michigan smashes the Spartans. The Wolverines have been a soul-sucking death machine week to week, while Michigan State has collapsed by losing five straight games despite being the favorite in each. On the other hand, my gut knows that this is not a typical week for either team. This is Hate Week. While Michigan has plenty of motivation to avenge the past eight years, including, particularly, last season’s excruciatingly painful loss, the Spartans always play their best game against Michigan. They bring it, no matter what. They are 8-0 in their last eight games versus the spread against Michigan, and they were one point away from making it 9-0 ATS against Michigan in all nine years under Mark Dantonio. It may seem like Michigan State has rolled over and died this season, but I do not expect that to be the case on Saturday. And, until I see Michigan dominate a Dantonio Michigan State team, I cannot assume that it will happen, especially when the game is in East Lansing. The Wolverines will improve to 8-0, but this will be closer than many expect.
Pick: Michigan State +24