Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck

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Chen: What To Watch For In Week 9 In Big Ten

The races in each Big Ten division are beginning to take shape.

Mike Chen
October 25, 2019 - 12:37 pm

(670 The Score) Let's break down the most important Big Ten storylines of the week and what awaits this weekend.

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Road to Indy

Illinois put a wrench in Wisconsin's path to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game with an upset win last Saturday. The lone unbeaten team in the Big Ten West now is Minnesota, which has a realistic chance to win its division. While they haven't been impressive statistically, the Gophers deserve a little more recognition. Minnesota hosts Maryland on Saturday, then the tough tests really await later. Minnesota hosts No. 6 Penn State on Nov. 9, plays at No. 20 Iowa on Nov. 16 and hosts No. 13 Wisconsin on Nov. 30.

The final matchup between the Gophers and Badgers has a quality chance to decide who wins the West and goes to Indianapolis. 

The Big Ten East has an even clearer picture. No. 3 Ohio State and Penn State are both 4-0 in Big Ten play, and everyone else in the division has at least two losses. The Buckeyes are the only school in the country with a top-three scoring offense and defense. The Nittany Lions haven't been as explosive offensively in recent weeks, but their defense is one of the best in the country. Their matchup in Columbus on Nov. 23 should decide who advances to the Big Ten title game.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire 

Earlier this week, a rumor surfaced regarding Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his flirtation with the NFL once again. Harbaugh's representation has an eye on the NFL as his next destination, as FootballScoop.com first reported. 

The former coach of the 49ers, Harbaugh quickly refuted the rumors with ... wait for it ... a letter. Yes, a letter that he sent to recruits stating that the rumor was "total crap" and that he's committed to the program. 

The rumors haven't stopped recruits from pledging to the Wolverines, as they currently have the ninth-ranked class nationally, according to the 247Sports composite. Harbaugh believes his recruiting success is a reason the NFL rumors continues, with other programs wanting to cast doubt in the minds of the next wave of talent. 

No. 19 Michigan (5-2) hosts No. 8 Notre Dame on Saturday. Harbaugh and the Wolverines could really use a win, as they're 1-9 against top-10 teams in his tenure. 

I have long thought that this is Harbaugh’s last go-round as the Wolverines leader, and the latest rumor only fuels the fire. 

Lost luster 

Wisconsin's loss to Illinois took some of the luster off its game at Ohio State on Saturday. The Badgers tumbled to No. 13 in the AP poll. 

The game will still feature the top two scoring defenses in the country. The Buckeyes' offense has been better, averaging 49.7 points per game, which ranks No. 3 in the country. If the Wisconsin defense can slow the Ohio State offense, this one should be close -- but stopping the Buckeyes offense is a tough task.  

Going bowling?

The Fighting Illinois' 24-23 win against the Badgers on a last-second field goal last Saturday was one of the biggest upsets in Big Ten history and in recent college football memory. The effort was noticed nationally, as Lovie Smith was named the Dodd Trophy Coach of the Week. He called it a "signature win" for the program four years into his tenure.

It was the kind of win that could propel Illinois back to a bowl game, as the Illini now sit at 3-4. It could also have a huge effect on Smith's future with the program. Jeremy Werner of IlliniInquirer.com joined 670 host Laurence Holmes on the LoHo Daily podcast this week and believes if Illinois can earn wins against Purdue and Rutgers in the coming weeks, Smith's job will be much less in jeopardy.

Future 'Cats 

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald had high praise for Ohio State after the Buckeyes pummeled his team 52-3 in Evanston last week.

"They’re the best team in the country right now, and they’re playing that way too," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald's Wildcats have now fallen to 1-5, putting a bowl berth pretty much out of reach. With that in mind, it's time to turn an eye to the future. Fitzgerald needs to see if Aiden Smith or Hunter Johnson is the quarterback of the program's future. Smith has ascended to the top of the depth chart, as Johnson rode the pine against Ohio State. 

Both players are set to return to Northwestern next season. If the Wildcats can firm up the most important position on the field, they'd be better positioned to start 2020 strong after their struggles this season.

Mike Chen is a producer at 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @mfc2123.