Commentary: Big Ten Picture Begins to Take Shape
by Jonathan Hodges

It's hard to believe, but one third of the college football season has already passed.  Of course, the most important part of the schedule remains for most teams, and the bigtime Big Ten matchups are still to come.  But, things are at least starting to take shape across the conference as the front-runners step up and the pretenders begin to fall.

National Contenders:

Ohio State (4-0, 1-0): OSU has rolled thus far and has played at least a respectable schedule, winning soundly against Youngstown St. and Akron while showing off their stout defense, and racking up the points against a solid Washington team on the road (using their running game to put it away in the second half) plus the big rout against our own Wildcats this past weekend that served as notice to the rest of the conference.  The offense has answered a lot of questions, and while they may not be at last year's caliber they have shown themselves to be effective both on the ground and in the air.  The defense looks as good as ever and should be one of the top in the nation.  And special teams, although off to a shaky start, has started to turn it around.

Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0): The Badgers still garner an undefeated record and a top 10 ranking, but things look really shaky at this point.  Being tied with the Citadel at halftime and down to a mediocre Iowa team in the 4th quarter (both home games) leave a lot to be desired.  The offense has yet to prove itself (outside of RB PJ Hill), and the real tests are yet to come.

Big Ten Title Contenders:

Michigan (2-2, 1-0): Yes, they lost to Appalachian State and got blown out by Oregon - both at home.  But, they have turned it around in a big way with a strong defensive turnaround, allowing only 3 FGs after that big loss to Oregon (where they gave up 39 points).  While the offense still doesn't have the expected output, Mike Hart has shown the ability to carry the entire team.  Mallett is serviceable as a replacement for Henne, although it is just a matter of time until he returns.  The Wolverines' biggest tests lie at the end of the season with Wisconsin and Ohio State in back to back weeks - the conference could be decided between those two games.

Purdue (4-0, 1-0): No, they haven't really played anyone and won't for at least another week (they face the now lowly Notre Dame this week), but their offense is for real and have scored 45 or more points in every game this season.  Two of those games have been on the road - at Toledo and at Minnesota - and although their defense still leaves some to be desired they should be considered a dark horse candidate right now if the offensive production can continue.  They face OSU and Michigan in consecutive weeks on Oct. 6 and 13, and of course that will be the real test.

Middle Tier:

Penn State (3-1, 0-1): Their offense looked inept against Michigan, but that game may very well have been an aberration because as you may have heard, PSU has lost to Michigan 9 times in a row now.  Their defense is pretty strong and allowed only 14 points to a Michigan team that was determined to run the ball with Hart.  They could still move their way up the rankings although the lack of offense will probably halt their attempt to come out on top of the conference.

Michigan State (4-0, 0-0): Their first test comes this week when they play at Wisconsin and we find out if they can live up to their 4-0 mark thus far.  They look far better than many expected coming into the season as Dantonio has them playing inspired yet disciplined football.  Their run-centered pro-style offense seems to be giving them more consistency than the spread did under John L Smith.  After this week everyone will have a better gage on where MSU stands.

Iowa (2-2, 0-1): They came within a few points of knocking off top 10 Wisconsin on the road, yet they lost to a horrible Iowa State team (who has now lost to Kent State, I-AA/FCS Northern Iowa, and Toledo).  Their defense looks really solid and may be near the top in the conference, yet the offense is lacking - to say the least.  Outside of the 35 points they put up on Syracuse they haven't topped 16 points.  Their schedule gets easier, though, with OSU and Michigan missing from their slate this year.  A key date against Penn State comes up on Oct. 6, although their offense will need a lot of work to get past even the lower tier Big Ten teams.

Fighting for a Bowl Berth:

Illinois (3-1, 1-0): Right now they are only a few turnovers (against Missouri, a game they only lost by 6) away from being undefeated.  Of course they haven't really played any great teams (so far their wins are over Western Illinois, Syracuse, and Indiana), but they are half way to bowl eligibility.  Their schedule becomes a lot tougher as they face PSU and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks with Michigan and OSU still on the slate.  Their defense looks for real and is probably in the top half of the league, their running game looks very solid, but their passing game is a big question mark.  Once they face better defenses we should tell if they can survive with a one-dimensional attack.

Indiana (3-1, 0-1): They look a lot more solid than many expected early this season, but their offense relies almost exclusively on QB Lewis between his passing and running.  Their defense is suspect and they will face more formidable opponents coming up.  Still, they are half way to bowl eligibility and have a shot at putting up points so they remain a threat.  They miss OSU and Michigan so their toughest stretch will be late October when they face Michigan State, Penn State, and Wisconsin over the span of 3 weeks.

Northwestern (2-2, 0-1): We all know of the 'Cats' deficiencies - an inconsistent offense that overly relies on the pass, a defense that allows yards by the bunch (and has allowed tons of points in the first halves of games), and being flat-out coached on multiple occasions so far.  On the flipside, NU has lost one game that it shouldn't but otherwise stands about where most people expected the 'Cats.  The key will be how NU responds to the OSU and Duke losses and if they can keep it close at home against Michigan, with the most important games of the season to follow: at MSU and at home against Minnesota.  If Northwestern can pick up 2 wins it will definitely put the 'Cats in the middle of the conference pack.  If it can't then the rest of the season will be a struggle.

Minnesota (1-3, 0-1): Their only win thus far was a 3 OT win over Miami OH, and they even lost to Florida Atlantic.  Despite their trials thus far, their offense is putting points on the board (their smallest point output has been 31, on two occasions), but the fact is that their defense is bad.  And if their offense doesn't get rolling and gives up turnovers (like against FAU), then things get ugly.  This year definitely looks like a rebuilding year - and once they face some defenses with a pulse (like this week against OSU) the blowout losses may start to come.

Key Games Remaining:

September 29
Michigan State @ Wisconsin: Is MSU for real and can Wisconsin continue its winning streak?

October 6
Ohio State @ Purdue: Probably the biggest matchup of the Big Ten season thus far that will either establish or eliminate Purdue as a legitimate conference contender.

October 13
Wisconsin @ Penn State: Who of the two teams who started the season highly regarded will remain in the Big Ten title hunt?
Purdue @ Michigan: Michigan will face a big test against a potent offense - have they rebounded from those first 2 games?

November 3
Wisconsin @ Ohio State: These teams meet again for the first time since 2004 with Wisconsin looking like the best challenger for OSU right now.

November 10
Michigan @ Wisconsin: This game could eliminate someone from Big Ten title contention with only one week remaining for the season.

November 17
Ohio State @ Michigan: This game always has title implications, and a rejuvenated Michigan may very well be playing for the conference crown the last week of the year.


Despite the much-publicized falter of Michigan at the beginning of the season, along with losses by NU (against Duke), Minnesota (against FAU and Bowling Green), and Iowa (against Iowa State), the league looks relatively solid.  Ohio State looks better than most people expected and is suddenly in national contention.  Wisconsin has had its ups and downs but has been resilient thus far.  Purdue can score a ton of points and Michigan is rebounding.  Meanwhile, even teams with lower expectations like Michigan State, Illinois, and Indiana are finding a way to rack up some wins.

OSU and Wisconsin will probably only have shots at the national title game if teams above them falter during the year and one of them can find a way to win out.  Unfortunately, though, parity looks like it may rule in the Big Ten this season as most of the top teams face each other and so far nobody stands out head and shoulders above the rest.  It would be challenging to yield an at-large BCS berth for a Big Ten team, although it is still in the realm of possibilities if 2 teams of OSU or Wisconsin or Michigan can find a way to finish the season with only one additional loss.  That would open the door for some of the middle to low tier teams who is eligible, and it looks like the Big Ten may have as many as 9 teams eligible (with the 6-6 requirement) if the cards fall right.

There is still a long way to go, though, and the picture will only clear up substantially after a few more weeks.  The key to the 'Cats season still looks to be the stretch against MSU and Minnesota where NU can establish itself among the pack at the middle of the conference or fall to the bottom.

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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