The mid-afternoon 3:30 EST slot will be juicy this Saturday, as Wisconsin visits Michigan on ABC and Purdue renews its rivalry with Notre Dame on NBC. And then in prime-time Penn State-Illinois will be one of the regional games shown by ABC.
The UW-Michigan is going to be a decisive test for the Wolverines. For all the talk about the struggles they expected to encounter as they transitioned to Rich Rodriguez's spread offense, this is still a program that returned a good amount of defensive talent. This is still a program that is playing on its home field and should be able to compete with--and beat--all but the very best teams in the country when they're in Ann Arbor. As long as they are focused.
Which begs the question--will they be focused? Does Michigan believe in itself enough to embrace the new start conference play gives, just as Lloyd Carr got them to do last year. Do the players have the pride necessary to rise up and give a superior effort against a Wisconsin team that aspires to replace them in the conference hierarchy? If Michigan can't get up for this game, I can't imagine they'll be able to for too many others.
For Wisconsin, this game starts an unprecedented stretch of playing the Wolverines, Ohio State and Penn State in succession to open the conference schedule. Because of UM's struggles and the subsequent two games being under the lights in Camp Randall, there may be the tempation to write this game off as the least significant of the trifecta. But the opposite is the case. This is the game Wisconsin must win to be viable as BCS team if they don't win the conference championship. As far as national title aspirations, UW would best be served by simply putting off discussion of that until the trifecta is behind them. If they're still unbeaten at that time, then go for it. For now, they need to focus on just winning two of three and while the next two are at home, it would be preferable for Bret Bielama not to face must-win games against the Buckeyes & Lions. One thing Wisconsin is doing well right now is protecting the passer. Jeff Potrykus of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel extols the virtue of the O-Line's work.
Saturday afternoon will also provide a benchmark test for another proud Midwestern program. Notre Dame has to get its offense going eventually. I think Jimmy Clausen is progressing fairly well, but the sophomore QB has absolutely no support. I was having a conversation with my brother-in-law earlier this week about the Irish, and I just began to analyze the problems. After I had gone through piece-by-piece and just said well, they don't really come off the ball and make holes, the backs aren't that good, there's no playmakers among the receivers and the defense isn't that good. At which point he laughed and said "What else is there?" Good question. If Charlie Weis is an offensive guru, he needs to start showing it. If it's not going to be against Purdue and it's traditionally weak defense, where does it happen? Although Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack defends his unit against its poor standing in the national defensive rankings.
I think Spack might be a little carried away in how well the defense is playing, but the article linked to does bring up a fair point. Purdue's defense is on the field for a lot of plays. But what's true of the ND offense and the Michigan program also apply to the Purdue D--if they can't succeed this week, where pray tell, do they expect to in the weeks ahead?
The prime-time show in Happy Valley looks to be a changing of the guard at the top. Illinois has looked the part of a rebuilding team after its Rose Bowl run last year. Penn State has the look of a team ready to re-ascend to the top of the league and into the BCS. I'm staying cautious on the Nittany Lions because I did jump on their bandwagon too quickly at this time last year. And with the Illini rebuilding, I don't know that winning this game will prove much. But how decisively PSU can win will be a key indicator as to what we can expect the rest of the way. Jeff Rice of The Centre Daily Times reports that Illinois will be trying to contain the Lions offensive gamebreakers.