Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Conference play kicks off next week with several exciting matchups, but five Big Ten teams are trying to round out the non-league slate on a good note. For the second straight year the league is shaping up to have more bowl-eligible teams that available slots, so winning these early games is paramount for squads like Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota. The Hoosiers get back into action after a week off, and Ohio State returns to the field, hoping to turn the page on the USC flop.
Here's a look at what's on tap Saturday.
Ohio at Northwestern (noon ET)
Don't be fooled by Ohio's 0-3 record. The Bobcats built leads against Ohio State and Central Michigan the last two weeks and could be Northwestern's toughest non-league test. The Wildcats are fighting some history, as they haven't had a perfect nonconference season since 1963. Non-league stumbles kept Northwestern out of bowl games in 2004 and 2007, so a win here would be huge. The Wildcats' improved defense will have to contain Bobcats quarterback Boo Jackson, who set a school record with 413 total yards last week.
Florida Atlantic at Minnesota (noon ET)
The Gophers should have plenty of motivation in this one after losing to the Owls last fall in Miami. After going 1-11 in 2007, Minnesota would be two-thirds of the way to bowl eligibility with a victory. But it won't be easy, and the Gophers shouldn't expect to see the same Rusty Smith who completed just 8 of 34 passes in a downpour last week at Michigan State. Smith will challenge a Gophers defense that missed tackles against Montana State and allowed 463 passing yards in last year's contest with the Owls.
Troy at No. 13 Ohio State (noon ET)
It will be an interesting day along the banks of the Olentangy River. How will Ohio State be received after crumbling at the L.A. Coliseum? Will there be a hangover or a new fire with this team? The Buckeyes might take out their frustration on Troy, a solid Sun Belt team that is 2-0 despite losing its star quarterback (Omar Haugabook) and its star offensive coordinator (Tony Franklin). Regardless of who plays running back, it's important for the offensive line and quarterback Todd Boeckman to settle into a good rhythm. Terrelle Pryor likely will continue to see more playing time as Ohio State tries to build momentum before league play.
Temple at No. 16 Penn State (noon ET)
It's been a tough two weeks for Temple, which lost on a Hail Mary against Buffalo and an overtime touchdown against Connecticut. The Owls won't get much sympathy from a Penn State team that has won three games by an average of 43 points. At least the Lions should be tested by a solid Temple offense led by quarterback Adam DiMichele, who leads the team in both passing (204.7 ypg) and rushing (39 ppg). Former Penn State captain Al Golden will make his first appearance at Beaver Stadium as Temple's coach.
Iowa at Pitt (ESPN2, noon ET)
The Hawkeyes have looked fabulous at home, particularly on defense. Their first voyage away from Kinnick Stadium brings new challenges, namely a Pitt team that desperately needs a win to avoid being branded a bust and putting coach Dave Wannstedt on the hot seat. The game's key matchup pairs Pitt star running back LeSean McCoy against an Iowa defensive line anchored by four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul. The Hawkeyes remain unsettled at quarterback and should get some answers -- good or bad -- at that position against the Panthers.
Central Michigan at Purdue (noon ET)
These teams have to be sick of one another. Saturday marks their third meeting since Sept. 15, 2007, with Purdue winning both previous contests. The Boilers' big-game blues continued last week against Oregon, but another matchup with a quality team provides a chance for redemption. Central Michigan's defense struggles against BCS foes, so Curtis Painter should be able to get on track. The key will be whether Purdue's defense continues to make plays in the red zone against Dan LeFevour. A victory makes Joe Tiller Purdue's all-time winningest coach.
Notre Dame at Michigan State (ABC, 3:30 ET)
The Spartans look like the better team, but in this series it rarely matters. The road team has won the last seven meetings, stretching back to 2001, and Michigan State must only remember its 2006 collapse in the rain to recognize that anything can happen. Notre Dame's improved offense will challenge the Spartans, who shut out Florida Atlantic but will need a strong performance from a patchwork secondary to stop Fighting Irish deep threat Golden Tate. Expect another big game from Spartans running back Javon Ringer, but quarterback Brian Hoyer will have to make a few big plays as well.
Ball State at Indiana (7 p.m. ET)
This should be one of the day's most exciting games, as Indiana gets tested for the first time this season. Ball State quarterback Nate Davis ranks sixth nationally in passer rating (189.4) and will look for Dante Love, the nation's leading receiver (144.3 ypg). Indiana counters with Kellen Lewis, who has been terrific so far, averaging 248 yards of total offense per game. Add in the subplot of Hoosiers coach Bill Lynch facing the team that fired him in 2002, and this is a game you don't want to miss.
Byes: Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois