As the Michigan football team heads into this weekend, fans already feel like their fortunes have turned.
With an upset over Notre Dame, a top-25 ranking and two straight games where the Wolverines are likely to be favored by double-digit points, all signs point to a breakthrough season. But around the Big Ten, the questions that haunted the Wolverines a year ago – quarterback play, whether or not they were legitimate contenders and head coach job security – have been passed to their brethren.
This week’s slate of games will go a long way to answering some of those concerns.
Michigan State at Notre Dame
The Spartans head to South Bend with the same blank expressions that the Irish wore last week, as both teams try to figure out what happened in their previous last-second losses. They both know they can’t afford another. The loser of this game will probably head into a downward spiral for the rest of the season.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio continues to field the most prominent question posed to Michigan’s coach Rich Rodriguez: Who is the starting quarterback? Kirk Cousins took a majority of the snaps in the loss to Central, but Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol has the legs and arguably more talent.
Whoever plays the majority of the snaps will be forced to put up some big numbers to make up for a weak secondary that gave up 352 passing yards to the Chippewas. If Notre Dame can get huge performances from their two NFL-caliber wideouts, Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, the Irish could go beyond the 400-yard mark again.
Even with all that offense, expect this one to still be hard-hitting as both teams fight for their seasons.
Rating: 4 out of 5 footballs
No. 8 Cal at Minnesota
Minnesota has chosen to go down the path Michigan took last year.
The Wolverines upset ninth-ranked Wisconsin at home, and many wondered whether it was a sign of things to come or a lucky outcome against an overrated team.
If Minnesota can beat No. 8 Cal approximately a year later, many of those same people will wonder about which way the season will go.
On paper, Cal’s Jahvid Best should run around, over and through Minnesota’s defense. However, the Gophers have all upperclassmen starters on defense, and no piece of paper can value veteran leadership. Look for them to make life tough for Cal quarterback Kevin Riley.
In addition, it will be the first big game in the newly-opened TCF Bank Stadium, which means the crowd will be as loud as it has ever been for the Gophers. Throw in the jet lag the Bears are sure to experience after a near cross-country flight and this has all the makings for an upset.
Rating: 3 out of 5 footballs
Arizona at Iowa
Even in a matchup of 2-0 teams, both coaches face a dangerous question: are they secretly on the hot seat?
Arizona’s Mike Stoops is in his sixth year with the Wildcats but has given them just one season over .500. On the other sideline is Kirk Ferentz. After two conference titles in three years, the Hawkeyes have fallen into the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
The expectations were high this year, with many pundits predicting a top-three conference finish for Iowa. That finish, along with Ferentz’s job security, could be in jeopardy after needing two blocked kicks to squeak out a one-point victory over Northern Iowa.
Both teams are in similar situations with young squads trying to replace star players. Iowa’s Shonn Greene has jumped to the NFL only to be replaced by 5-foot-9 Adam Robinson at running back. Arizona must replace its three-year starting quarterback, Willie Tuitama, with sophomore Matt Scott. Scott threw just 11 passes a year ago.
The game might be close, and it certainly matters, but it probably won’t be well-played.
Rating: 2 out of 5 footballs