The smell of pumpkin spice is in the air, the days are getting colder and -- OK, actually, it's not all bad news with October approaching. Breathe easy, optimists. The nonconference slate is finally over.
It's Week 5 of the season, and it's the first time we don't have to worry about Group of 5 teams or FCS opponents. This is the first week where it's all Big Ten. Finally.
Plenty of storylines and questions abound at this early point, so, without further ado, we take a closer look at what to watch on this B1G-filled Saturday:
Whether Wisconsin starts off its brutal October on the right foot: The Badgers have already shown themselves to be a College Football Playoff contender, beating two top-10 teams in one season for the first time since 1962. The only problem here is that it's not going to get any easier. Wisconsin travels to No. 4 Michigan on Saturday, then has a bye before dealing with No. 2 Ohio State, Iowa and No. 15 Nebraska. No other team in the nation will experience a harder month. According to ESPN Stats & Info, based on FPI, the average FBS team would have a 0.02 percent chance to escape October unscathed with Wisconsin's schedule. For comparison's sake, the average American has a 0.03 percent chance to be struck by lightning sometime in his or her lifetime.
Granted, the Badgers have proved they are not an average FBS team. But it's obvious that winning all four games won't come easy. They should still stay alive in the playoff race if they drop just one, so beating Michigan would offer this team some much-needed breathing room.
How Iowa's offense operates without wideout Matt VandeBerg: Kirk Ferentz announced Tuesday that VandeBerg would be out indefinitely with a foot injury. A senior, VandeBerg isn't a flashy player, and he won't wow you after the catch, but he fits the role of possession receiver perfectly. He was the only returning Big Ten wideout who had at least 40 catches in 2015 without dropping a single ball. In other words, his impact will definitely be felt.
Riley McCarron, Jay Scheel and Jerminic Smith will have to step up at receiver to fill VandeBerg's role. But they just don't have the hands or talent of VandeBerg. The three have combined for 14 catches and 184 yards this season; VandeBerg has 19 receptions for 284 yards. Tight end George Kittle and running back Akrum Wadley could take off some added pressure, but this passing offense just isn't going to be the same. Said LeShun Daniels Jr.: "You can't really describe how much he means to our team. With him not being out there, it's just a different feel."
If Penn State can fix any of its mounting issues: Go ahead, take your pick: The constant struggle of the offensive line, which has been among the Big Ten's worst for three years running. A defensive line that has gotten little to no push against good offensive lines. Or a linebacking corps in which the three starters are all injured. Said coach James Franklin: "In my 22 years of doing this, I've never been part of a team that's lost three linebackers."
Penn State was exposed in a 49-10 loss to No. 4 Michigan, but Franklin was quick to reiterate several times Tuesday that his team's issues were exacerbated by the talent level of the Wolverines. His defense should experience some semblance of a break this week against Minnesota, which is ranked No. 64 nationally in total offense despite playing an FCS team, a Group of 5 squad and the Oregon State Beavers. If Penn State gets embarrassed again this weekend, quarterback Trace McSorley might not be the only one apologizing.
Whether the QBs in the Michigan State-Indiana game can bounce back: Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow is coming off a five-interception performance, and Spartans quarterback Tyler O’Connor is attempting to come back from a three-interception game in which he completed fewer than half of his passes.
O'Connor is obviously in much better shape to rebound. The Hoosiers' defense is a far, far cry from Wisconsin's, and O’Connor should be able to let playmaking receivers such as R.J. Shelton turn a lot of short throws into long gains a la Notre Dame. For Lagow, it's not that easy. Running back Devine Redding might not be able to take any pressure off Lagow, because offensive linemen Dan Feeney and Dimitric Camiel are both questionable for Saturday's game. Indiana can't beat a team like Michigan State if it turns the ball over, and it's hard envisioning a turnover-free game if Lagow is forced to throw it 47 times again.