Commentary: Big Ten Rundown
by Jonathan Hodges

After the first 3 weeks of the 2008 college football season, everyone has at least a little better idea of where teams stand this year.  Although the Big Ten standings don't tell one much, the performances on the field certainly do, and I'll take a quick run through the conference to check in on the teams and what NU has in store once conference play rolls around in less than two weeks.

Conference Title Contenders

Ohio State (2-1, 0-0):  Yes, they were basically embarrassed by USC last Saturday in probably the biggest regular season game that any Big Ten team will play this year.  But, they still have a solid defense and some heavy hitters on offense (including Beanie Wells who will be back on the field before too long) that will cause Big Ten foes some heartache.  No, they won't be in the national title discussion (barring a lot of upsets, like what we saw last year), but they will still be tough to beat in the conference and are likely to fight their way into a BCS bowl spot.

Penn State (3-0, 0-0):  Apparently the new "SpreadHD" offense is as good as advertised, as they've racked up over 55 poings/game, but they are still untested against top tier competition.  Expect them to compete for the Big Ten title, although they have a relatively tough road, having to travel to both Wisconsin and Ohio State.  Their defense looks as stout as usual, giving up only 12.3 points/game (coincidentally the same as NU to this point), and may be the key to helping them get to a Big Ten title.  If they can survive those two key road dates unscathed, don't count them out of the national title picture.

Wisconsin (3-0, 0-0):  This past Saturday, the Badgers survived probably the second-toughest Big Ten nonconference road game, which was a trip to Fresno State.  So far, they have done what they do best, and that is play very solid defense while running the ball well on offense and churning out physical victories.  They get Ohio State, Penn State, AND lllinois at home, which puts them in a very favorable position to compete for the title.  The biggest question will be if their offense is up to the task if opponents can shut down Hill and their running game.

Everyone Else

Iowa (3-0, 0-0):  Their offense performed much better than expected over the first two games (averaging 44 points/game), although they fell back to earth against Iowa State (17 points), but don't expect them to be the same pushover on that side of the ball as they were for most of last season.  Their defense, meanwhile, has only allowed 2 FGs on the year, and looks to be very solid.  The only qualm so far is their strength of schedule and the fact that all of the games were at home, but they will be tested this week with a trip to Pittsburgh.  The ability of their offense to put points on the board will be the biggest question once tougher competition rolls around.

Northwestern (3-0, 0-0):  If you're reading this, you know NU's story well.  The offense has been taking care of business, although not impressing anyone, especially by recent NU offensive standards.  But, the defense and special teams have been stellar as NU is only giving up 12.3 points/game.  The momentum is definitely favoring the 'Cats, and the schedule is set up for them to build even more going into Big Ten play.

Minnesota (3-0, 0-0):  They've already tripled their win total from last year and have a solid looking offense (36 points/game), but their defense is already suspect - and will be tested right away in Big Ten play as they must face OSU.  In fact, they have to face OSU, Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin on the road which is a tough Big Ten road slate.  Their only consolation is not facing Penn State, but they defenitely have a tough road ahead despite a solid start to the year.

Michigan State (2-1, 0-0):  Their one loss was on the road against a tough Cal team, but that Cal team just went on the road and lost to Maryland, who is mediocre at best (and they lost to Middle Tennessee State) - if anything that proves how tough road games are.  MSU boasts a very strong running attack led by Ringer and a question mark at defense (they gave up 38 to Cal but haven't played any offense of note since).  They definitely have a chance to make some noise down the stretch but the question for them, as always, is can they avoid a late season meltdown?  While they held up admirably last year, they definitely cooled off down the stretch.

Illinois (2-1, 0-0):  The biggest issue with the Illini is their defense, who have definitely shown that the loss of key components to graduation and injury is significant.  Missouri is a good team, but the defense did not impress there; and Louisiana Lafayette came within 3 of an upset in Champaign.  The offense has also cooled off since week one and the question is, against tougher defenses, can Juice carry the offensive load on his shoulders alone?

Indiana (2-0, 0-0):  With Lewis at QB and some up and comers at the other skill positions, their offense looks to continue the upward trend started last year, and with some talented players their defense looks solid as well.  As with other Big Ten teams, though, the level of competition doesn't tell one all that much.  Their real tests will come in Big Ten play, and although they should be a tough opponent, they don't look like they have enough fire power to keep up with the top tier teams.

Purdue (1-1, 0-0):  They gave Oregon a very close game, but once again they showed that they're about the same team as usual: they beat the teams that they should and lose to ranked opponents.  Their offense put points on the board early and then seemingly took the rest of the game off as the Ducks fought back to take the game to OT and win.  Their offense should be able to move the ball and score often on lesser opponents, and their defense is serviceable, but they have shown they aren't ready to take that next step up.  The toughest part of their schedule is the opening of Big Ten play, facing PSU and OSU in back to back weeks.

Michigan (1-2, 0-0):  Michigan at the bottom of the Big Ten standings?  Once again, the Wolverines are off to a poor start, except this year don't expect them to have a big turnaround - their offense just doesn't have it in them.  They lost a tough season opener against a solid Utah team, limped to a win against Miami (OH), and then got beat badly in South Bend thanks to a slew of turnovers and an inept offense.  And their defense hasn't been the unit that their team can solely rely upon for wins.  They have a bye week now to try and get things together, but have a tough start to the Big Ten slate, facing Wisconsin, Illinois, and Penn State in 3 of the 4 weeks following next.

There are still quite a few questions to be answered in the Big Ten, many because teams just haven't been tested in nonconference play.  But the conference slate of games will definitely test each team, including those projected to be near the top of the Big Ten standings, and I expect to see some interesting results as the season progresses.  Although the league doesn't seem to have any big national title contenders, it is fairly balanced from top to bottom, and the real fight will be for bowl berths as most teams will have racked up at least 3 wins once conference play begins.  I'll check in at mid-season to see if the logjam has been broken.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.