Please excuse me while I bury the Big Ten lead.
The conference has its first can’t-miss game of the season this weekend, but let’s get back to it in a bit. Why? Because a pair of national matchups involving teams from not only the same conferences, but the same divisions, could have more say in how the College Football Playoff picture develops.
It starts Friday with No. 7 Stanford at No. 10 Washington (8 p.m., ESPN), a real milestone moment for the Pac-12 North in that the 4-0 Huskies are favored by a field goal. Can it really be that the North finally has a third program capable of occupying the same “contender” space as Stanford (3-0) and Oregon? Absolutely. Former Boise State coach Chris Petersen has it going in Year 3 in Seattle.
“Speed everywhere,” was Cardinal coach David Shaw’s on-the-money assessment of Petersen’s team.
Husky Stadium — hosting its first top-10 matchup in 19 years — will be lit. UDub by a touchdown.
Might No. 3 Louisville at No. 5 Clemson (7 p.m., Ch. 7) be the game of the year in college football? For now, let’s just say it’ll own Saturday’s prime-time stage in a huge way. Both teams are 4-0 and off to winning starts in the ACC Atlantic. Both programs have extraordinary momentum. And who among us isn’t going to sign up for a clash of the two biggest-name quarterbacks in the country?
It’s a heck of a statement about coach Bobby Petrino, quarterback Lamar Jackson and the fast, furious Cardinals that they’re actually favored (by 2) in this game. What have the Tigers — last season’s national runners-up — done wrong in 2016 to merit being underdogs in Death Valley? Nothing whatsoever.
Deshaun Watson is still an elite quarterback. Clemson’s defense can still run all night. The road environment gets no tougher for Jackson, who was unforgettably good against Florida State on his home field.
“We know it will be loud and tough,” Petrino said.
It’ll be that and more. Clemson re-asserts itself as top dog in the ACC.
But we should at least mention North Carolina at No. 12 Florida State (2:30 p.m., ESPN), right? The Tar Heels may again be the best the ACC Coastal has to offer. They have the talent to put a scare into the Seminoles, who are favored by 10 (and, undoubtedly, rooting for Clemson over Louisville). FSU holds on 34-30 and avoids falling out of the Atlantic race altogether.
OK, now we can get to it: No. 8 Wisconsin at No. 4 Michigan (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7). Raise your hand if you’re ready to stop underestimating the Badgers. They were big underdogs against LSU, but won anyway. They were underdogs at defending Big Ten champ Michigan State, but won anyway. Now they’re 4-0, loaded to the gills on defense — and still a double-digit underdog?
There is little doubt the Wolverines jump off the screen as the more talented, more dynamic team. Michigan’s passing game is more explosive, its running game more productive thus far and its offensive line far more experienced. Defensively, the Wolverines are more athletic than the rock-solid Badgers.
There’s also the Jabrill Peppers factor — Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst calls the do-it-all dynamo the best player in college football — and the sizable reputation gap between the coaches. Chryst is respected by all, but Jim Harbaugh is a superstar.
“If someone can’t get along with Paul Chryst,” Harbaugh said, “there’s probably something wrong with them.”
This isn’t a buddy flick. Michigan puts its foot down and covers the 10.
No. 11 Tennessee at No. 25 Georgia (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2) already feels like a chance for the 4-0 Vols — who stormed back from a 21-3 halftime deficit to swamp Florida last weekend — to effectively put away the rest of the SEC East. The Bulldogs (3-1) looked same-old-soft in a blowout loss at Ole Miss.
“The silver lining is you get another opportunity to play a good team this week,” said first-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
That’s not always such a good thing. Rocky Top covers the 3½.
Let’s not get too wrapped up in the Big 12 — a real letdown of a league to this point — but No. 22 Texas at Oklahoma State (11 a.m., Ch. 7) and Oklahoma at No. 21 TCU (4 p.m., Fox-32) will help sort out contenders from pretenders. The Cowboys and Sooners are slight favorites. I’ve got Texas winning small and Oklahoma winning big, setting up a nice Red River rivalry game at the Cotton Bowl next week.
My favorite favorite: No. 16 Ole Miss -14 vs. Memphis (6 p.m., ESPN2). Payback time for last year’s stunning Tigers victory in Memphis.
My favorite underdog: Arizona State +10 at USC (7:30 p.m., Fox-32). Two run-of-the-mill teams, but at least the Sun Devils are winning games.
Last week: 4-5 straight-up, 4-5 vs. the spread. Ouch (again).
Season to date: 22-11 straight-up; 14-17-2 vs. the spread. Good riddance, September.
NORTHWESTERN AT IOWA
The facts: 11 a.m., ESPNU; 720-AM.
The records: Northwestern 1-3, 0-1 Big Ten; Iowa 3-1, 1-0 Big Ten.
The line: Hawkeyes by 13½.
The story line: Iowa’s offense hasn’t done much of anything. An interception here or a strip-sack there could turn the tide of the game for a Wildcats defense that’s still trying to establish its mojo. Last year in Evanston, Iowa embarrassed NU. Somehow, though, the pressure seems off the Wildcats; they’re not in contention in the Big Ten this season, nor are they going to be. At least they should be able to play free and easy.
Greenberg’s pick: Iowa, 24-17.
NOTRE DAME VS. SYRACUSE
The facts: East Rutherford, N.J., 11 a.m., ESPN; 890-AM.
The records: Notre Dame 1-3; Syracuse 2-2, 0-1 ACC.
The line: Irish by 11½.
The story line: Irish coach Brian Kelly emphasized all week that everyone in the program — players, assistant coaches, even himself — is on notice. Will that inspire a focused, determined Irish effort on both sides of the ball? Offensively, the Irish should move up and down the field almost at will. Defensively, they’ll have to contend with quarterback Eric Dungy and the Orange’s big-time passing attack. Better pressure Dungy or it’ll be a long day.
Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 38-24.
ILLINOIS AT NO. 15 NEBRASKA
The facts: 2:30 p.m., ESPN-2; 670-AM.
The records: Illinois 1-2; Nebraska 4-0, 1-0 Big Ten.
The line: Cornhuskers by 20½.
The story line: Need we remind you that the Illini actually beat the Huskers in 2015? A year later, a repeat of that feat seems beyond far-fetched. But Lovie Smith’s defensive ends will pin their ears back and try to make Huskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. even more inaccurate than usual. Illini quarterback West Lunt will try to stand tall in the face of pass-rush danger and make clutch throws. Look, Illinois won’t mail it in … but it probably won’t matter.
Greenberg’s pick: Nebraska, 34-17.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT BALL STATE
The facts: 2:30 p.m., ASN; 560-AM.
The records: Northern Illinois 0-4; Ball State 3-1.
The line: Cardinals by 4.
The story line: Maybe the MAC opener will give the Huskies the fresh start they desperately need. All banged up and on a seven-game losing streak dating to last season, though, NIU has lost its traditionally fine standing in the conference. A 2016 doormat? Maybe. It would be an important win for the emergent Cardinals, who are trying to break an eight-game losing streak against in the series.
Greenberg’s pick: Ball State, 41-24.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.