THURSDAY, SEPT. 28
TEXAS AT IOWA STATE
SATURDAY, SEPT. 30
Northwestern at Wisconsin
TOM HERMAN'S FIRST Big 12 game as Longhorns head coach comes on the heels of a massive matchup at USC the previous week. With two straight road games, Texas may be tired, and Iowa State, though hardly the cream of the conference, could be a trap. Still, the Longhorns should be stronger in 2017 with one of the most talented young coaches in the country bringing his passionate approach downstate after a successful run at Houston, and with quarterback Shane Buechele, who led all true freshmen in '16 in passing yards with 2,958. Collin Johnson, a receiver who played a year ago as a true freshman, is also poised to elevate his game under the new staff. It won't hurt, either, that Buechele will have junior Connor Williams, one of the better left tackles in the game, protecting him.
This offseason, Iowa State embarked on an ambitious plan to turn its quarterback from last year, Joel Lanning, into a linebacker. The team had switched to junior Jacob Park under center in Week 9, but coaches believed Lanning was too good a football player to ride the bench. The solution: Transition the 6'2", 235-pounder into a hard-hitting defender. It will be interesting to keep an eye on how he settles in.
Grab a meal at Olde Main Brewing Co. while you're in Ames, and then hit the road. Madison beckons, and it's only 4½ hours northwest.
NORTHWESTERN AT WISCONSIN
Get to Madison by lunchtime on Friday, and enjoy the afternoon with a meal and sightseeing around Lake Mendota or Lake Monona. Tour the beautiful capital building too. But rest up: Saturday will be a big day of football, and Camp Randall Stadium offers perhaps the most festive game-day atmosphere in the U.S.
Wisconsin's defense should be as good as it was a year ago, when it ranked No. 4 in points per game in the FBS. Senior linebacker Jack Cichy missed time after tearing a pectoral muscle against Iowa, but he was the most electric player on the defense in 2016, and he's back at full strength. The Wildcats' quarterback, Clayton Thorson, a junior, is going into his third season as a starter. He has improved from year to year, and threw for 3,182 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions in '16.
Make sure you pick up some Spotted Cow beer on your way out of Madison, and you can't leave without some cheese curds and burgers at Dotty Dumpling's Dowry near campus. From there, make the three-hour drive to Chicago. It's touristy, but the view from the Willis Tower can't be beat. The Chicago Architecture Foundation's boat tour is also a can't-miss activity before it shuts down for the winter. Have hot dogs or Italian beef at Portillo's, and if you're a deep dish pizza person, make a stop at Pequod's. Try to get into chef Stephanie Izard's Girl & the Goat for dinner. The Cubs are out of town until Friday, which means you can go on the expanded tour of Wrigley Field, which includes a visit to the home dugout.
Then, head for Columbus. Stop at the 3 Floyd's Brewpub in Muster, Ind., on your way for the salt-baked pork belly sandwich.
BACON STEAKS AT LASALLE KITCHEN AND TAVERN
South Bend, Ind.
Bacon has few weaknesses. Still, if we were forced to criticize the finest piece of the pig, it would be that the mass-produced version tends to be a little flimsy. Perhaps this is because America's bacon producers don't seem to believe the general population can handle the pleasure a thick, juicy slab would provide. Perhaps they worry that the resulting euphoria would cut nationwide productivity. The proprietors at Lasalle Kitchen and Tavern have no such concern. They serve bacon strips so thick that the "steak" descriptor is accurate. If you prefer your bacon thin and crispy, you might change your mind after a few of these bricks. The slab develops the same delicious crust as thin bacon, but because it's so thick, it stays tender inside. That makes the bacon steak both crispy and chewy. Usually bacon steaks are only available at steakhouses where dinner will set you back a few hundred bucks. But Lasalle's is reasonable, and because they love us, they're now serving the steaks with redeye gravy.