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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Michigan State @ Wisconsin:
Is MSU for real and can Wisconsin continue its winning streak?
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.
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
Wisconsin @ Ohio State: These teams meet again
for the first time since 2004 with Wisconsin looking like the best challenger
for OSU right now.
Michigan @ Wisconsin: This
game could eliminate someone from Big Ten title contention with only one week
remaining for the season.
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.
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