Five Things We Learned about Big Ten Football in Week 9

If Northwestern wanted to be geographically correct, it would change its name to ``Midwestern.'' But don't expect that to happen.

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What you can expect is that Northwestern is looking forward to its appearance on the Notre Dame Road Show. The Wildcats are peaking for the Irish. NU also seems ready for its big showdown in Iowa City.

The Trace McSorley legend grows. The Illini shirk. And the Big Ten needs Michigan to stay in bloom.

Five Things We Learned about Big Ten Football in Week 9:

1, Northwestern is in position for the Big Ten title game[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Thanks to a four-game winning streak, Northwestern has gone from under the radar to in the spotlight.

When it started 1-3, NU looked like it was in for a rough ride. But after posting their fourth straight win against Wisconsin on Saturday, the Wildcats (5-1) are alone atop the Big Ten West. They own the head-to-head tie-breaker against the Badgers (3-2) and Purdue (3-2).

The 5-1 start is NU’s best in league play in 18 years.

Northwestern’s Nov. 10 trip to Iowa (3-2) shapes up as a winner-takes-all contest, with a berth in the conference championship game on the line.

``We’re in the driver’s seat in the West,’’ linebacker Paddy Fisher said.

2, Northwestern is capable of giving Notre Dame a game

Before heading off to Iowa City, the Wildcats will take a shot at unbeaten Notre Dame, which comes to Evanston on Saturday night.

``Somebody has to beat ‘em,’’ freshman tailback Isaiah Bowser said. ``Might as well be us.’’

I’m guessing the Wildcats won’t get a lot of traction, except among Irish worriers. But maybe they should be taken semi-seriously. NU is 12-1 in its last 13 Big Ten games, losing only a taut contest to Michigan.

QB Clayton Thorson, who is big, strong-armed and reasonably mobile, has the experience to stay calm under fire. NU’s running game is wobbly. But the defense has some talented players who won’t flinch.

And for Northwestern, this is an opportunity. An exciting opportunity that has no bearing on its Big Ten championship hopes.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, will need to deal with the pressure to stay unbeaten and handle an upset-minded NU.

Oh, and by the way, Northwestern has won the last two meetings: 43-40 in 2014 and 17-15 in 1995. Both were major upsets in South Bend.

3, The Big Ten really needs Michigan to be its playoff standard-bearer.

The Wolverines had the week off to rest up and prepare for Penn State. I wouldn’t be surprised if they used their open date to make a few notes on their Nov. 24 trip to Ohio State.

What’s becoming apparent as we look around the nation is that if Michigan stumbles, the Big Ten’s chances of missing the College Football Playoff for the second straight season soar.

Ohio State is the only other team that’s even a possibility. And the Buckeyes’ ugly loss at Purdue is potentially a deal-breaking blot on their resume.

We’ll see how Tuesday’s first official playoff ranking stacks things up. But I would be shocked if a12-1 Michigan is not in excellent position for a playoff berth.

Clemson and Notre Dame have very favorable schedules. And while the Alabama-LSU showdown on Saturday will tell a lot, the SEC could have two strong playoff candidates if the dominoes fall the way they did last year. Which means those who live outside Waffle House turf should be rooting for the Crimson Tide.

A lot of things can happen. But this is unlikely to change: It would be pretty difficult to keep a one-loss Michigan out of the Final Four. And Ohio State is likely to be a risky proposition even if it wins out.

4, Do not under-estimate Penn State QB Trace McSorley

After injuring his right leg while being smacked around by a couple of Iowa defenders in the second quarter, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley missed two offensive series.

He then returned to lead the Nittany Lions past Iowa 30-24, highlighted by a 51-yard touchdown run from McSorley.

“Trace McSorley is the best football player in college football,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I don’t care what anyone says because he is as tough as it gets.”

McSorley will need to muster all of that toughness again on Saturday, when Penn State travels to Michigan, which will be rested after a bye week. And fired up to to maintain its perch atop the Big Ten East.

5, Progress at Illinois? It’s more like Regress

Nobody expected a fistful of wins at Illinois this fall. Even though this is Lovie Smith’s third season, the party line is that he needed more time because he was hired in March, and missed a recruiting class

This year’s sophomores, who played as freshmen, supposedly just needed to show some progress this fall. When Illinois beat Rutgers after holding a third-quarter lead against Penn State, the Illini looked like they could reach their goal of progress.

After that, though, they were drilled 46-7 by Purdue, disappointing a homecoming crowd that thought Illinois had a chance. Then the Illini were pounded 49-20 by Wisconsin, a team that got whipped a week later at Northwestern.

Then the Illini went to Maryland and gave up 712 yards in a 63-33 disaster on Saturday. It was a blowout in which Illinois trailed 49-12 late in the third quarter before throwing up a few meaningless TDs.

In other words, if the Illini didn't have Rutgers, they wouldn't have no luck at all.

This is not progress. If Illinois can’t even show progress in Lovie Smith’s third season, that’s pretty troubling.

At the time, I thought Lovie was a good idea. He had taken the Bears to a Super Bowl. Even if he hadn’t been around the college game in a long time, he brought credibility to a program that needed a complete facelift.

I never thought he was the answer. Illinois football had fallen so far. And the trend in college football is to find a bright and energetic motivator—the next Jeff Brohm or P.J. Fleck. Or at least a proven college coach.

Patience still the word as Lovie tries to put fight back in Illini

" target="_blank" rel="noopener">I mentioned this in a pre-season column, that Lovie is a Moses-like bridge but not the guy to get to the promised land. I think that’s true more than ever now. Lovie Smith isn’t going anywhere. I fully expect him to have 2019 to see if his recruits can pull a messy program up by its bootstraps.

If that doesn’t work, though, it should be back to the drawing board.[/membership]