To say that the Big Ten has taken its lumps in the non-conference schedule would be a severe understatement. Most of the high-profile matchups involving the Midwestern powers have ended with a tally in the loss column for a ranked Big Ten school.
As the conference looks to right the ship in the third week of college gridiron action, these three players will be under extra pressure to perform:
1. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
The Spartans are the only Big Ten team to survive a ranked opponent—their home opener over Boise State—but that was a nailbiter even with Le'Veon Bell's astounding 210-yard performance. If the 10th-ranked Spartans want to stay unbeaten against No. 20 Notre Dame, they'll need another monster effort from their star tailback.
The Irish offense may not be as impressive as their spot in the polls would suggest—witness last week's anemic 20-17 win over Purdue—but the Manti Te'o-led defense is a punishing unit. Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell, still more than a little green after two collegiate starts, will need all the support Bell can give him to keep the ball moving in this matchup.
2. Noah Spence, Ohio State
Cal coach Jeff Tedford has an impressive pedigree when it comes to quarterbacks (see Rodgers, Aaron), and Zach Maynard is a worthy successor to that lineage. Ohio State can't afford to let Maynard sit back in the pocket and dissect its secondary, and that means someone will have to step up in the pass rush.
The Buckeyes have just three sacks in their first two games, but one of them belongs to prize freshman Noah Spence (pictured), one of a pair of budding star defensive ends in Urban Meyer's inaugural recruiting class. Spence can go a long way toward justifying the hype he brought to Columbus by stepping up with a big day in the pass rush against a Cal squad that can put points on the board in a hurry.
3. Gerald Hodges, Penn State
It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect Matt McGloin or some other member of the Penn State offense in this spot, considering that the Nittany Lions have scored a grand total of 30 points during an 0-2 start. Against Navy, though, the biggest challenge for any offense is getting the ball away from the Midshipmen and their own triple-option attack.
The key to defending an option team is disciplined linebacker play, and that puts the onus on senior leader Gerald Hodges. A playmaker a year ago with 10 tackles for loss, Hodges must contain quarterback Trey Miller and the rest of the Navy backfield if Penn State wants to secure its first win of 2012.