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Big 10 Preview

   by ASA - 10/04/2007

Illinois looks to surpass its win total for the last two seasons combined. Penn State and Iowa square off in a battle between programs that are winless in conference action. Unblemished records are on the line when Purdue hosts Ohio State. And Wisconsin looks to maintain its undefeated record despite numerous close calls.

Here’s a look forward to the week that will be in the Big Ten.

The Illini won the biggest game of the Ron Zook era with their 27-20 upset of Penn State last weekend, matching their combined win total of the previous two years. They’ll have a chance to top that win this weekend when they host the 5th-ranked Badgers as 2.5-point home favorites.

Much of Illinois’ success this year has been the result of a dominating ground game. Running back Rashard Mendenhall and quarterback Juice Williams lead an offense that is sixth in the country with 255.6 rushing yards per game. Wisconsin allowed 241 rushing yards on 6.5 yards per carry against Michigan State last week. If the Illini can match that, and they easily could, they could post their second consecutive huge win.

Illinois very nearly upset Wisconsin last year, taking a 24-10 lead into halftime before being outscored 20-0 in the second half. The Illini were 22-point road favorites in that matchup and are 2.5-point home favorites this time around. They haven’t been favored over the Badgers since 2001 but are 4-2 ATS during that stretch. Dating back to 1981, Illinois is 6-1 ATS versus Wisconsin following a win.

Indiana improved to 4-1 with its 38-20 road win over Iowa, marking just the second time since 1994 that it has gone 4-1 to start a season. The Hoosiers will aim to improve to 5-1 for the first time since 1994 when they host Minnesota Saturday as 14-point favorites.

Hoosier quarterback Kellen Lewis is coming off a career-best 322 passing yards and now gets to pick apart Minnesota’s nation-worst pass defense. The Gophers are allowing 368 passing yards per game so Lewis and lanky wideout James Hardy, who has caught seven of Lewis’ 14 touchdown throws, should have a field day.

This meeting marks the first time since 1998 that the Hoosiers have been favored over Minnesota. Indiana has lost the last two meetings by an average of 29 points but has won three of the last four meetings in Bloomington. This game also marks the first time since 2000 and just the second time since 1994 that the Hoosiers are double-digit home favorites in conference action. Indiana has lost the last four contests under that scenario.

Kirk Ferentz was once considered a strong candidate for an NFL coaching job. That candidacy has probably lost all steam after the Hawkeyes lost their seventh straight conference game and third straight overall. They’ll trap to snap both streaks this weekend as 9.5-point road dogs at Penn State.

The Hawkeyes were, at the very least, competitive through four weeks behind a stellar defense that allowed just 29 points. Then the Hoosiers came into town and dropped 38 points in one game. The Iowa offense isn’t explosive enough to score that many points so the defense will have to return to its previous form if the Hawkeyes are to stay close with Penn State.

Iowa has had Joe Paterno’s number over the years, going 6-1 both SU and ATS since 1996. The Hawkeyes have won all four meetings, both SU and ATS, in Happy Valley. They were underdog in each of those four games, covering by an average of 13.1 points per meeting.

The Wolverines won their third straight game, albeit in ugly fashion, in Chad Henne’s successful return to the lineup. Michigan was outgained in its 28-16 win over Northwestern but five forced turnovers made the difference. They’ll turn their attention away from conference action this week when they host Eastern Michigan as 30.5-point favorites.

Henne started the game, gave way to backup Ryan Mallett late in the first half, and returned to lead Michigan to 21 unanswered second-half points. The Wolverines, namely Henne, will have a chance to get healthy before returning to Big Ten action when they host a bad Eastern Michigan team. The Eagles are 115th in the country in total offense and will have little chance of moving the ball against a Michigan defense that has allowed an average of just 8.3 points per game over its last three outings.

This game marks the third time since 1998 that these programs have met with the Wolverines winning both games by an average of 47 points per game. Additionally, Michigan has never lost to a member of the MAC, going 12-0 SU and 7-4 ATS. Finally, the Wolverines have been favored by 30 or more points 22 times since 1980 but are just 8-14 ATS in those games.

Michigan State
The Mark Dantonio era in East Lansing finally saw its first loss after winning its first four games. Now the question becomes whether Dantonio repeats former Spartans coach John L. Smith’s history of letting the season unravel or it he quickly gets the team back on track. Michigan State fans everywhere will find out this weekend when the Spartans host Northwestern as 14.5-point favorites.

Last year’s meeting with Northwestern was home to the biggest comeback in college football history. The Spartans trailed 38-3 midway through the third quarter but scored 38 unanswered points in just 22 minutes of game action to pull out a 41-38 win. Dantonio would prefer if they didn’t go that route this time around.

Michigan State has been favored in the last three meetings between the programs but has failed to cover each game and are 1-4 ATS in the last five meetings overall. Conversely, the Spartans have been double-digit favorites in conference play 11 times since 1998, going 7-4 ATS in those contests.

The Minnesota defense showed signs of improvement but the offense regressed from previous performances. Head coach Tim Brewster is just 1-4 in his inaugural season at the helm and needs both units to come together if the Gophers are to turn things around. Brewster will be hoping for just that when Minnesota plays in Indiana as 14-point dogs.

The sad of state of affairs for the Minnesota defense can be exemplified by the fact that the 30 points and 459 total yards allowed both marked season-lows. The Gophers still remain among the nation’s worst in almost every defensive category and will have their hands full against Indiana’s 23rd-ranked scoring offense.

Minnesota hung 63 points on the Hoosiers in last year’s meeting en route to a 63-26 win. Minnesota is 4-0-1 ATS in its last five Big Ten contests, a stretch that started with its win against Indiana. The Gophers have won the last two meetings by an average of 29 points and have covered six of the last eight meetings. This game marks the first meeting since 1998 that Minnesota is receiving points and the first time since 1997 that it has been double-digit dogs.

The Wildcats put forth a spirited effort but dropped their straight game in a 28-16 loss to Michigan. They were once again without running back Tyrell Sutton, who has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons on his resume, and could very well be without him for the remainder of the season. Northwestern will try to move on when it plays Michigan State as 14.5-point road underdogs.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Northwestern’s two wins to open the season and its current three-game skid has been the play of quarterback C.J. Bacher. The junior QB threw four touchdowns and no interceptions in the season’s first two games but has thrown for zero scores while throwing seven picks in the last three games. Bacher threw three touchdowns in last year’s meeting with Michigan State and will need a similar effort in this meeting if the Wildcats are to compete.

Northwestern has lost two of its last three games against the Spartans but has covered each and has done so as underdogs of 9.5 points or more. The Wildcats are 5-2 ATS in their last seven games overall as the dog and are 8-1 ATS in their last nine games following a double-digit home loss. Michigan State, meanwhile, is just 1-5 ATS in its last six games as a home favorite and 3-13 ATS in its last 16 conference battles.

Ohio State
The Buckeyes extended two winning streaks with their 30-7 win over Minnesota, lengthening their regular season streak to 23 straight and their conference streak to 16. They can match the school record for consecutive Big Ten victories with a win over Purdue as 7-point road favorites this weekend.

The Ohio State defense continues to stymie opposing offenses, holding a potent Minnesota offense to just seven points and 277 total yards. The Buckeyes are now second in the country in total defense, third in scoring offense, fourth in rushing defense and sixth in pass defense. They’ll get their first real test when they take on Purdue’s eighth-ranked offense this weekend.

These two programs haven’t met since the 2004 season, a meeting that saw the Buckeyes lose 24-17 as 5.5-point dogs. Prior to that meeting, though, Ohio State had gone 9-1 SU and 7-3 ATS in the previous 10 meetings. The Buckeyes have fared very well recently both on the road and as favorites, going 8-2 ATS in their last 10 road contests and 17-6 ATS in their last 23 games as the favorite.

Penn State
Any slim hopes the Nittany Lions had of winning the Big Ten conference were completely eliminated when they fell at Illinois to drop to 0-2 in conference action. Penn State will look to get one in the win column when it hosts Iowa, also winless in conference action, as 9.5-point favorites.

The Penn State running game has averaged fewer than four yards per carry the last two weeks and won’t fare much better against Iowa’s 14th-ranked rush defense. That puts the offensive load of the shoulders of quarterback Anthony Morelli, which is a scary thought for Nittany Lions fans. Morelli has completed just 52 percent of his passes the last two weeks with three interceptions compared to just one touchdown. He has thrown eight touchdowns with just one pick in Penn State’s three wins so the Nittany Lions need him to be careful with the ball.

Joe Paterno has struggled against the Hawkeyes recently, going 1-6 both SU and ATS in the last seven meetings, including losses in all four home games. The Nittany Lions were favored in all four of those contests but lost all four outright. Both teams have struggled in conference action, though, with Penn State going 0-4 ATS in its last four Big Ten contests and Iowa going 1-6 ATS in its last seven conference battles.

The Boilermakers improved to 5-0 for the first time since the start of the 2004 season. They proceeded to lose their next four games during that campaign and will look to avoid a repeat this year. It won’t be easy as Purdue hosts fourth-ranked Ohio State as 7-point underdogs.

The high-octane Purdue offense, which is averaging 45.4 points per game, will get its first real test when it takes on an Ohio State defense that is allowing just 7.2 points a game. The Boilermakers have scored at least 33 points in each of their five games while the Buckeyes have allowed just 36 points all season. Purdue needs to prove that its previous five games, all coming against weak defensive units, weren’t flukes if it is to remain undefeated.

Purdue is just 4-16 SU and 9-11 ATS versus Ohio State since 1981 but has fared well lately. It may just be 2-3 SU in the last five meetings but is 4-1 ATS in those contests, including a SU and ATS win the last time these teams squared off in 2004. Overall, the home team has gone 5-1 ATS in the last six meetings.

All signs point to the currently undefeated Badgers to fall eventually as they have looked less than impressive in each of their last four wins, squeaking out fourth-quarter wins in three of those four victories. That loss could come this weekend when Wisconsin travels to the play the upstart Illini as 2.5-point underdogs.

The usually stout Badger defense hasn’t been quite the same as previous editions. It is 53rd in the nation with more than 360 total yards allowed per game and must tighten up its run defense against Illinois. Wisconsin allowed Michigan State to run for 241 yards last week and must now try to contain the Illini’s sixth-ranked run offense.

Wisconsin has won the last four meetings between the programs SU but has lost the last two ATS. The Badgers needed a big second-half comeback to beat Illinois last year and won’t be able to fall behind early in this year’s meeting. This game marks the first time since 2001 that Wisconsin has been the dog in this series, which doesn’t bode well. The Badgers are just 4-7 ATS as the underdog versus the Illini since 1981.

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