Week 9 Picks: The Big Ten is at its Big Tenniest before it all changes next season
Thanks to new clock rules, scoring is down across college football but it's really down in the Big Ten.
Two weeks ago, Nebraska coach Matt Rhule was asked about Iowa’s 15-6 road win over Wisconsin.
He said football fans see a game like that “and say it’s a bad football game or it’s an ugly football game. I think it’s a beautiful defensive football game.”
Rhule must’ve seen beauty in last week’s results, too. Not only did his team beat Northwestern, 17-9, but Minnesota beat Iowa, 12-10, without scoring a touchdown, and Ohio State out-defended Penn State, 20-12, in the Big Ten’s biggest game of the week. The Nebraska and Ohio State games were under the total by nearly two touchdowns (-13.5), while Minnesota-Iowa somehow went under (-8.5) an already laughably low 30.5.
In its last season before adding four schools from the Pac-12—three of which are among the seven teams averaging 40-plus points per game this season—the Big Ten is really dialing up its Big Tenness.1 On the season, Big Ten teams are 60-45 to the under (.571).
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The Buckeyes are 6-1 to the under, as everyone struggles to square a defense-first Ohio State. It’s not hard to conceive of low-scoring Iowa, but the Hawkeyes are 6-2 to the under, finding creative ways to undercut increasingly small totals. Nebraska is 5-2 to the under, the third-highest percentage in the league. Only Indiana is more than a game under .500 against the under (2-5), largely a reflection of the Hoosiers giving up a lot of points.
Scoring is indeed down in the Big Ten in 2023. In conference-only games—removing varying nonconference schedules offers a better point of comparison across years—the average Big Ten team is scoring 21.6 points per game, down from 23.9 (-9.7%) last season.
It was reasonable to expect scoring to be down in college football with the new clock rules this season, and it is. On average, FBS teams are scoring 26.3 points in conference games, down from 27.2 in 2022 (-3.3%). The Big Ten’s dip in scoring still stands out as nearly three times as large as the sport as a whole to this point.
Why? There are no short, certain answers in football, so I won’t even try to have one, but it does make me think a couple of things. One, if you wanted to blindly bet (friendly or otherwise) a college football game, you could almost certainly do worse than just taking the under in any Big Ten game (minus maybe one involving Indiana).
Two, Rhule’s a-big-baseball-score-is-beautiful-football approach to the game may have been perfectly timed for his arrival at Nebraska. For now.
“I want to score one more than the other team,” Rhule said prior to the Northwestern game. “That might be old school and kind of boring nowadays but it will result in good things in the long run.”
I’m actually more sure of it producing results in the short run, in this season when the Big Ten is at its ploddingest.2 The addition of four more schools, all strong football programs to one degree or another, will change the conference in ways that are hard to predict.
Yes, “one point more” always works, it’s just a question of if 20 points is enough to be one more or if a team might need 30 in the future. But, that’s a longer discussion for the offseason.
For now, can the Huskers have one point more against Purdue on Saturday? If they do, it won’t be enough to cover a line that remained at -2.5 on Thursday. I was a bit surprised when Nebraska opened at -1 on Sunday. Most of the power rankings would have it higher, from -2 by FPI to -3 by the Prediction Tracker Average all the way up to -7 by SP+.
None of those models are specifically accounting for injuries, but neither was the line that opened on Sunday. Rhule didn’t officially announce the injured Huskers until Monday. Immediately after he did, I checked the latest line and it was Nebraska -2.5, and that’s where it has stayed so far.
Maybe there will be some late steam on the Boilermakers (🚂 ) and the line will flip, but at the current number there’s too much uncertainty for me to pick Nebraska against the spread. As I wrote in this week’s game preview, which you can click over and read below, we won’t know how impactful those injuries are until the game is played, but it doesn’t look good on paper. Put it this way, a team would never voluntarily chose to play without three starters on the line and its leading receiver, so it stands to reason that having to do so isn’t ideal.
Even without some key players, Nebraska can absolutely win Saturday. The injuries aren’t instantly fatal for the team’s chances, but they are a handicap. In terms of making a pick, it only seems logical to take the team with the lesser handicap. Pick: Purdue +2.5
On to the rest of this week’s games in the Big Ten.
The Conference of Broad Shoulders (and Low Scores)
Season Record: 33-29-3 (.531)
Thanks to Michigan obliterating Michigan State 49-0 (and hitting the over on its own), I was able to salvage a 3-3 week in the night slot last week. With only five conference games on the slate, there will be no treading water this week, so let’s get at least three out of five, shall we?
Indiana at Penn State -32 (Prediction Tracker Average: PSU -34.5)
The total on this game is 47, meaning for Penn State to cover -32 you’re looking at a 40-7 score. Maybe the Nittany Lions are spurred on by a week of discussion about James Franklin’s inability to get past the top two in his division. Maybe quarterback Drew Allar uses the first bad game of his career as motivation. Or, maybe, remnants of those things linger for a sleepy, never-in-danger win. Penn State has scored 40-plus points against one Power 5 team this season, and they were a fortunate 41 points against Northwestern. Indiana’s worse than Northwestern, but if the Hoosiers can get at least one touchdown on the board (far from a given against this defense) that might be enough for a cover. Pick: Indiana +32
Maryland -13.5 at Northwestern (PTA: Maryland -11)
With a total of 48.5, this game models to something close to 31-17, which feels about right. For that reason, I’ve only got one angle on this game—the hell that is playing at Ryan Field. Kidding two ways there. It’s a perfectly nice college football stadium and it often hasn’t been hell on visiting teams. Those with big fan bases—Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan—swarm the place, turning road games into de facto home games. Maryland won’t do that, and the Wildcats have been quietly decent at home this year. Northwestern beat UTEP and Howard in Evanston, as very much expected, but it also completed a wild comeback against Minnesota and was tied at the half with Penn State on its home turf. The Terrapins will win here, but I like the Wildcats to stay under the number. Pick: Northwestern +13.5
Michigan State at Minnesota -7 (PTA: Minnesota -9)
It’s hard to have much faith in Michigan State until it does something to indicate that it hasn’t already cashed in all of its 2023 chips since losing the head coach. Playing close against Iowa and Rutgers doesn’t meet that threshold for me, but I think I’m going to take a flyer on the Spartans anyway. With a total (40.5) implying a score in the 24-16 range, I just don’t know if Minnesota can get there. The Gophers have scored 13 points or less in three of four Big Ten games this season, beating Nebraska 13-10 and Iowa 12-10. Michigan State can still play a little defense, and on a cold day with snow showers possible, give me the team I don’t trust. Pick: MSU +7
Ohio State -14.5 at Wisconsin (PTA: Ohio State -15.5)
Ohio State has already passed two big tests (Notre Dame, Penn State), and probably has the best résumé in college football at the moment. The cognitive dissonance of a Buckeye team with a superior defense and a quarterback who is merely good (instead of instantly a Heisman contender) has people, I think, undervaluing this team a bit. Meanwhile, Wisconsin might be slightly overvalued at this point in Luke Fickell’s first season. The Badgers aren’t bad at 5-2 and 3-1 in the Big Ten, but that’s probably a win short of what it should’ve been against a schedule to date that FPI rates 104th in strength of schedule. Wisconsin’s remaining schedule ranks 20th. I can’t take all of the underdogs this week. Pick: OSU -14.5
Not a word, I know, but as I’ve come to realize that maybe the cost-to-benefit ratio wasn’t in my favor on a couple of humanities degrees, so I feel better by telling myself I’ve purchased the right to make up words from time to time.