Forget all the talk about Northwestern and the beeline it’s making toward a first-ever appearance in the Big Ten championship game. Forget the daydreams about December and a rematch with Michigan or a date with Ohio State, as well as anything else having to do with hanging a banner in Evanston.
None of it will come to fruition if the Wildcats (5-4) fail to win again this season. At the start of Northwestern (+10½) at Iowa (2:30 p.m., Fox-32, 720-AM) week, coach Pat Fitzgerald made that abundantly clear to his players by displaying the first two words of this column in big, bold type, where they wouldn’t miss them.
“This squad is only guaranteed 20 days together,” he said Monday. “What we earn every day will hopefully prepare us, then, for those three Saturdays that we have left collectively together.”
Minnesota and Illinois also await on the schedule, but Iowa is the biggie. Upset the Hawkeyes (6-3) at Kinnick Stadium and then — maybe — Fitzgerald will let down his guard for a bit. That would lift the Wildcats to 6-1 in the conference and bury the Hawkeyes at 3-4. Wisconsin and Purdue are deadlocked in second place at 4-2, but the Wildcats hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over each.
But there I go, ignoring the whole “20 days” thing.
Iowa has played better than its record indicates, but Northwestern is going for its third straight victory in the series and its seventh straight road win overall. That spread is too large. Hawkeyes, 24-20.
Wisconsin (+9) at No. 21 Penn State (11 a.m., Ch. 7) plays into Northwestern’s game significantly. Remember when Badgers were huge preseason favorites in the West division? They lose again, but cover.
Five other Saturday matchups of intrigue:
No. 8 Ohio State (-3½) at No. 24 Michigan State (11 a.m., Fox-32): No team has been a thorn in the side of the Buckeyes in recent years quite like the Spartans. Then again, is it too dismissive of Sparty to describe it that way? It wouldn’t be the first time a Mark Dantonio team lined up and outplayed OSU the old-fashioned way — toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose … yada yada. Buckeyes by 14.
No. 18 Mississippi State (+24) at No. 1 Alabama (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): Crimson Tide 30, Bulldogs 7. Why so “close”? Well, Alabama’s quarterbacks are hurt, there could be a bit of a letdown after last weekend’s giant win at LSU and — not for nothing — MSU is pretty good. Do you see how hard it is to pick against the Tide?
Oklahoma State (+20) at No. 6 Oklahoma (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): This isn’t one of the more highly anticipated “Bedlam” meetings, but this rivalry is all kinds of awesome no matter what. All the pressure’s on the Sooners, who win but fail to cover.
Auburn (+14) at No. 5 Georgia (6 p.m., ESPN): The Tigers haven’t played like the best three-loss team in college football, but they sure might be the most talented. It’s almost like a rubber match after the teams split a pair of huge games last season. Bulldogs, 31-20.
No. 2 Clemson (-20) at No. 17 Boston College (7 p.m., Ch. 7): Biggest night at Alumni Stadium since Matt Ryan was slinging the football for BC? This one’s all about the Eagles’ stop-us-if-you-can running game, led by bruising back AJ Dillon, and the Tigers’ move-us-if-you-can defensive front. The ACC Atlantic hangs in the balance, and both teams are hot. Keeping with the theme: another favorite wins, but doesn’t cover.
My favorite favorite: Georgia Tech (-3) vs. Miami (6 p.m., ESPN2): What happened to Mark Richt’s team? The Hurricanes are cratering. That’s no time to have to deal with the ever-ready Yellow Jackets run game.
My favorite underdog: Baylor (+15) at No. 23 Iowa State (2:30 p.m., FS1): The Cyclones are crushing life with Brock Purdy at quarterback, but don’t discount the steady progress the Bears are making. Give me ISU, but close.
Last week: 6-2 straight-up; 5-3 vs. the spread.
Season to date: 48-23 straight-up; 34-36-1 vs. the spread.
ILLINOIS AT NEBRASKA
The facts: 11 a.m., BTN, 670-AM.
The records: Illinois 4-5, 2-4 Big Ten; Nebraska 2-7, 1-5 Big Ten.
The story line: Reggie Corbin needs only 48 yards to become the Illini’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Mikel Leshoure in 2010. Corbin has been a big-play machine, with eight 50-plus-yard plays from scrimmage. Their record doesn’t reflect it, but the Huskers have played good football since the start of October. Just ask Northwestern, which was taken to overtime in Evanston. Just ask Ohio State, which eked out a five-point win in Columbus. It could be a huge day for Huskers freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, who has superstar ability. But who knows? These are, after all, the league’s bottom two defenses statistically. Both offenses might be in binge mode.
The line: Huskers by 17½.
Greenberg’s pick: Nebraska, 48-34.
FLORIDA STATE AT NO. 3 NOTRE DAME
The facts: 6:30 p.m., Ch. 5, 1000-AM.
The records: Florida State 4-5, 2-5 ACC; Notre Dame 9-0.
The story line: The Seminoles haven’t been a national title threat since Jameis Winston left, but now they’re actually in danger of failing to get to a bowl game for the first time in 37 seasons. First-year coach Willie Taggart has had a miserable time, in part because his defense is atrocious against the pass. Where have all the great FSU DBs gone? This sets up nicely for Irish quarterback Ian Book and his group of rangy, dynamic pass catchers. Why haven’t we mentioned the word “playoff” yet? The countdown is on for Brian Kelly’s squad — three more “Ws,” starting with this one, and it’ll be on to the CFP for the first time.
The line: Irish by 17½.
Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 34-14.
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