Big Ten Week 8 viewer's guide: Pecking order coming into focus

James Franklin previews Ohio State, addresses supporting Julius (4:23)

Penn State will host No. 2 Ohio State in primetime Saturday in a White Out game. James Franklin joins ESPN's Anish Shroff to discuss preparation for the Buckeyes and how the program has helped kicker Joey Julius through an eating disorder. (4:23)

Break out the measuring sticks, Big Ten fans, because this weekend should reveal a lot about where teams stand in the conference.

Indiana-Northwestern might be the tightest matchup, pitting the Hoosiers’ steady defense against a Wildcats offense that scored 92 points the past two games. (Amazingly, that sentence was not written backward.) Michigan State-Maryland should help us decide how far the Spartans have fallen/Terps have risen, while Wisconsin-Iowa should help determine the West.

The No. 10 Badgers need a win if they want to keep their conference title hopes alive. If Wisconsin comes up short Saturday, not only will its third conference loss keep it out of the B1G championship, but it’ll surely tumble in the rankings. Iowa, on the other hand, remains a mystery – and its performance against Wisconsin should bring some clarity.

“Our team’s improved the last couple weeks,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said, “but we’ve got a big step in front of us. Certainly a big challenge with Wisconsin. They’re an excellent football team.”

Iowa might have been written off too soon, following losses to FCS North Dakota State and Northwestern. But it’s not going to have an easy time against the nation’s No. 13 run defense, especially considering that tight end George Kittle and Iowa’s two offensive tackles might all be out for Saturday’s game.

The Badgers have won seven of their past eight games as a ranked team against an unranked opponent. That lone exception? Iowa last year.

On to the other storylines:

Underdog déjà vu? Can Penn State and a tough home crowd surprise No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday night?

Well, probably not. Then again, the Nittany Lions were almost entirely written off in 2014 as well, and that game went into double overtime before Ohio State rallied. Urban Meyer recalled earlier this week how he was actually bracing for a loss after Penn State seized the overtime lead.

“The script was written,” Meyer said. “I just remember thinking, ‘What am I going to say to this team afterwards?’ It crossed my mind.”

Of course, an injured J.T. Barrett rose to the occasion, and the rest is history. But there are some parallels to draw between 2014 and 2016. Most were projecting a big win for Ohio State because the Nittany Lions had lost 63-14 the year before. Penn State entered the game a two-touchdown underdog. This season? A big Ohio State win is again expected after Michigan trounced the Lions 49-10, and Penn State’s heading into this one as a three-touchdown underdog.

On top of that, PSU is hosting another stadium-wide “White Out” for an 8 p.m. kickoff. And Penn State was 4-2 in 2014 before meeting Ohio State, and it’s 4-2 now.

Really, that’s where the comparisons and coincidences end. But Penn State has shown a lot of progress the past two games.

Oh, baby: It’s been quite the past few weeks for Purdue's Gerad Parker.

His third child was born Sept. 7, and he was elevated from receivers coach to become the Boilermakers’ interim head coach on Oct. 16, when Darrell Hazell was fired. He compared being a new head coach to being a new father.

“It’s kind of been spotted sleep,” he said. “It’s like having a newborn, and I have a newborn as well. It’s been pretty crazy.”

Parker won’t get any rest this week. His Purdue squad is set to take on No. 8 Nebraska on the road, and the Boilermakers haven’t beaten a top-10 team on the road since 1974.

Parker said he’s going leave the offensive and defensive schemes alone for the most part.

Extra points

  • This is the first time Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines will take on Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini, but this isn’t the first time the coaches have played one other. On Nov. 19, 2012, Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers bested Smith’s Chicago Bears 32-7 in a Week 11 NFL game. The 49ers’ defense dominated, limiting the Bears to 143 total yards.

  • The quarterback carousel continues in the Big Ten, as Rutgers coach Chris Ash named Gio Rescigno his starter for the game against Minnesota. The move follows QB switches at Illinois, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

  • If Ohio State beats Penn State, the Buckeyes would become the third major-college program since 1900 to win 21 straight road games. The last team to accomplish that was Alabama, from 1970 to 1975. Oklahoma holds the record with 25 straight road wins from 1953 to 1958.