Well, that was a terrible non-conference season. There's simply no other way to put it. With only two irrelevant games for the Indiana schools remaining against other conferences before bowl season, the national perception of the Big Ten is locked in a negative state for the remainder of 2012.
So what does that leave us with? A hell of an entertaining conference race, for starters. There is a legitimate chance that Northwestern and Purdue could end up playing one another in Indianapolis for a spot in the Rose Bowl, which is a shocking possibility. But both of those teams have played as well as anybody else in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
We also are left with these weekly conference power rankings, which should continue to be very fluid if the first four versions are any indication. No team has been able to stay at the top or the bottom of the rankings for more than one week at a time. Just when a team seems to be figured out, it goes out and puts up an unexpected performance. Which is exactly why Big Ten football should be a blast to follow the rest of the season.
But now, conference play begins and the best nine weeks of the year are here. So because we are waxing romantic about conference play and feeling the blues of non-conference play, Dwight Yoakam has brought his brand of country ballads to be our soundtrack this week. Let's get right to it, with the Honky Tonk Man strumming us through the next 12 slides.
Theme Song: "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere"
Although the opening weekend win seemed to prove otherwise, Illinois has a long way to go under new coach Tim Beckman. Now that a blowout loss at Arizona State has been followed by a meaningless win against Charleston Southern and another blowout loss at home to Louisiana Tech, the Illini are nowhere near where they need to be to compete for a Leaders Division championship.
Even this season, which will look like a big opportunity lost if Ohio State recaptures the glory under Urban Meyer quickly. Looking for four wins in conference play seems like a hard thing to do, now that the Illini have proven that the defense will not stop most teams with decent talent at the skill positions and a coherent offensive plan.
The Illini defense actually played well enough to win in the first half on Saturday, but the sails were immediately deflated when Quinton Patton threw a 78-yard touchdown pass less than a minute into the second half. With the offense stumbling behind the combined efforts of Riley O'Toole and Nathan Scheelhaase, the defense will have to do more than give up 40 or 50 points against Big Ten competition.
This week will bring an interesting test against a Penn State team that probably still feels a bit spurned by the efforts of the Illinois coaching staff to recruit them away the week that the NCAA sanctions were levied. Matt McGloin has thrown the ball effectively to a lot of targets, and that does not bode well for the Illinois defense. If the secondary steps up in coverage this week, Illinois will have a chance to rebound and get back out of the basement.
Until then, the Illini are a thousand miles from nowhere.
And this happened...
Theme Song: "It Only Hurts When I Cry"
Just looking at the statistics of this weekend's game against Central Michigan would be relatively misleading. The Hawkeyes forced Central Michigan to rely mostly on the pass to approach 400 yards of offense, and the Chippewas were only 4-for-13 on third-down conversions. Indeed, when Iowa FB Mark Weisman added his second touchdown of the day with two minutes to go in the game, the eight-point lead looked pretty safe.
But the meltdown was just beginning. The Chippewas managed to score within a minute and a half, then recover an onside kick on a third attempt, then win on a last-second field goal. Just like that: another massive upset for the MAC, and another disappointing performance for the Hawkeyes. If not for the late comeback finish against Northern Illinois, Iowa would be 1-3 right now.
As a result, the Hawkeyes now look like a long shot to reach six wins and a bowl game in the tough Legends Division. The game against suddenly-strong and 4-0 Minnesota does not seem to favor the Hawkeyes either, and this could be the game that keeps Iowa out of the basement in the division standings.
James Vandenberg has finally found some reliable help in the rushing game thanks to Weisman, but the Hawkeyes will need to continue performing well against the better defenses in the Big Ten. If Iowa does not win this week, it could be a long season in Iowa City (with no Floyd of Rosedale, to boot).
Trying to Avoid Heartbreak Hotel this week
Theme Song: "Fast As You"
Well the "I" teams in the conference may have it rough right now, as Indiana climbs out of the basement in these rankings thanks to not having to play last weekend, while Iowa and Illinois threw up bad losses. One only has to go back a single week, though, to remember that Indiana is also coming off a bad loss to Ball State before the bye last week.
The week off should help Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld learn the offense and get on the same page with the corps of receivers. However, a talent like Tre Roberson will not be easily replaced, especially in the pass-happy offense that Kevin Wilson is running in Bloomington.
Heading into the season, this week's road trip to Northwestern looked like a winnable game for the Hoosiers. While it still may be a possible win, Northwestern has proven itself against tough BCS conference competition already this season in a 4-0 start. Therefore, coming out of Evanston with a win will be a tall task for the Hoosiers.
However, don't count out this offense in a likely shootout. It should be a fun game full of fireworks on Saturday and hopefully a close game. Indiana will only win if the Hoosiers can prove that they are as fast as the opponents in putting up points.
Putting Their Heads Together
Theme Song: "Try Not To Look So Pretty"
Remember when everyone thought it was so shocking that Wisconsin let FCS team Northern Iowa come back and make a game of the opening weekend tilt in Madison? Now that does not seem so far-fetched after Wisconsin lost to Oregon State and struggled to beat two overmatched teams Utah State and UTEP at home.
Despite being 3-1, there are so many problems with this Wisconsin team that a 7-1 finish in conference play seems improbable now. At the beginning of the season, I projected this weekend at Nebraska to be Wisconsin's only conference loss. The Badgers will have to shock everyone again with a strong effort on the offensive side to avoid that loss, as well as others coming up in conference play.
Apparently the Danny O'Brien project is over in Madison, as Bret Bielema and Matt Canada build this offense for the future with freshman QB Joel Stave. Stave will need to continue to manage games and hope that the offensive line plays better to open up the running game for the stable of great running backs Wisconsin has.
Of course that depth at running back was tested with Montee Ball knocked out in the middle of the UTEP game. With Ball looking ready to practice late this week, there is a chance that Wisconsin will have multiple running backs to throw at the Blackshirts defense on Saturday night. However, Nebraska will likely load up the front and force Stave to beat them.
Payback is coming for last season's beatdown in Madison. Unless Wisconsin plays a lot better, this weekend will be the first of multiple losses in conference play.
These guys have learned to be dominant again
Theme Song: "Things Change"
Of all the teams in the Big Ten, the progress in the Nittany Lions has been most pronounced from Week 1 to conference play. After being completely dominated and showing a lack of depth against a good Ohio team, the Nittany Lions have played better and better each week. Non-conference play was capped off by a dominant performance in a beatdown of rival Temple.
Matt McGloin has completed his resurgence as a quarterback in the system put in place by Bill O'Brien, and perhaps this should come as no surprise from a coach who mentored Tom Brady. WR Allen Robinson continues to play like the best receiver in the Big Ten, and he is now opening up easier coverage schemes for the other receivers.
The threat of the passing game has also finally opened up the running game as well. FB Michael Zordich brought a different style of running this weekend against a good Temple defensive front. If he can stay healthy, Penn State may have one of the more dynamic offenses in the division.
This week, the grudge match with Illinois comes to pass. Will the Nittany Lions pay the Illini coaching staff back for the recruiting visits a couple months ago? With Illinois looking vulnerable on defense, Penn State should score more than enough points to win. Especially if the defense keeps improving as well behind two of the best linebackers in the conference Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti.
Not this time, Mr. Robinson
Theme Song: "Same Old Train"
Although Michigan fans might believe otherwise, this Michigan team was bound to step back from the 11-2 surprise in Brady Hoke's first season. A tougher schedule has proven to be too much for the Wolverines in the early going, as Alabama and Notre Dame have just outclassed Michigan in non-conference play.
For the Michigan defense, surrendering only 13 points despite six offensive turnovers has to be considered a winning effort. Notre Dame only managed a paltry 239 yards of offense in the game and could not capitalize on great field position all game. That will bode well as Michigan goes through another run of conference play, this time with a little tougher road schedule.
However, Michigan has to play better on offense. Running a trick play throwback pass may look flashy, but it cost the Wolverines points that proved to be vital in a low-scoring game. Then Denard Robinson threw four more interceptions on the next four pass attempts. These mistakes have to be eliminated because better teams will take Michigan's defense to task when that many turnovers occur.
The Wolverines get a break this week heading into conference play, and that may prove fortuitous with a tough road game at Purdue to kick things off next week. Purdue plays against Marshall in non-conference play this week, so the bye may not be as big an advantage as it looks. Michigan better be ready because road trips to West Lafayette are never easy, especially with a team that has struggled away from Ann Arbor in 2012.
Theme Song: "I Got You"
How do you let a bad MAC team come into your home field and lead for most of the game despite only converting 2-of-14 third downs and gaining 183 total yards of offense? That is what Michigan State fans and coaches are asking this week as the Spartans needed two fourth-quarter touchdowns to put away Eastern Michigan a week after being dominated by Notre Dame.
Now Big Ten play arrives with a bang, as the third huge home game of September comes to pass with Ohio State coming to East Lansing. Michigan State has relied nearly exclusively on RB Le'Veon Bell to defeat Boise State and Eastern Michigan, but Andrew Maxwell will need to find some openings against the Buckeye secondary to keep that defense honest against the running game.
Meanwhile, the Michigan State defense still looks pretty dominant after four games. Notre Dame proved that there may be openings to throw downfield, but Ohio State is not built to exploit that weakness. If the Spartans play sound assignment football and keep Braxton Miller contained like in 2011, then Michigan State will start with a big win in conference play.
Assuming, of course, that the offense puts up more than three points. Even in a likely defensive slugfest, the Spartans need to cross the goal line at least once or twice to start 1-0 in conference play. This will be an interesting weekend in East Lansing, to be sure.
How Do You Like Me Now?
Theme Song: "Suspicious Minds"
Minnesota may have started 4-0 with an impressive win against Syracuse to close non-conference play, but pundits and poll voters remain wary of the Gophers. With a rock-solid defense and a relatively easy conference opener against rival Iowa, the Gophers could be headed to 5-0 for the first time in a decade.
If that happens, then bowl eligibility is almost assured, which makes for a successful second season of the Jerry Kill era. Kill has these Gophers playing strong defense, as evidenced in the opener against UNLV and this latest effort against Syracuse. The Orange and their prolific quarterback Ryan Nassib was bottled up until garbage time at the end of the game. Minnesota is also winning the turnover battle consistently, which takes the pressure off the offense.
Speaking of that offense, QB Max Shortell is serving well in relief of starter MarQueis Gray. Although he did not throw any touchdowns and only achieved about 50 percent completion rate on Saturday, he is picking up third downs and avoiding mistakes. That is all that will be necessary if this defense stays dominant.
Minnesota knows the game plan against James Vandenberg. Rush him and see if he can beat you in limited amounts of time. As long as the defensive secondary continues to play good coverage like it did against Syracuse, this weekend should continue the winning ways. That won't stop the suspicious minds thinking this is a fluke, but the Gophers will not care if a bowl game is on the way.
Theme Song: "Sitting Pretty"
After a bye week, Purdue gets another warm-up act with Marshall coming to town before the big conference games begin with Michigan and Wisconsin at home. The sample size is still a bit small to evaluate just how good these Boilermakers are, but the dominant wins by Notre Dame the past two weekends over the Michigan schools make Purdue's close loss in South Bend look great.
In addition, Purdue has taken care of business against bad teams like Eastern Michigan, unlike Michigan State last weekend. If West Lafayette stays as tough a place to play as it has been in previous seasons, then Purdue could very well end up in Indianapolis. When the only other three eligible teams in the Leaders Division are ranked in the bottom four of the power rankings, the time is now for the Boilermakers.
Look for continued improvement in the running game this weekend. Purdue has two good running backs splitting time in Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom. Akeem Shavers also sees some carries, and therefore the pressure is off QB Caleb TerBush to do too much to win.
This week will likely not tell us much, but Purdue is sitting pretty heading into conference play. With a 2-0 start in conference play, Purdue will be on the inside track to a conference championship. Danny Hope has to keep his players focused, as a letdown against a team like Marshall could open up doubts and problems down the road.
Let's Take This Show on the Road!
Theme Song: "Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose"
After four weeks of play under Urban Meyer, it is clear that the offense still has a lot of learning to do. While the Buckeyes have had a quarter or a half in each game where they have exploded for multiple touchdowns, there always seems to be a lull waiting around the corner with a ton of three-and-outs.
Part of the problem has been the leashing of QB Braxton Miller as Meyer's staff tries to protect their most important weapon from any injury. Miller is still among the conference leaders in rushing after putting up another 64 yards against UAB, but he has tried to let Jordan Hall take a lot more of the carries since he returned in the California game from a summer injury. Co-starting RB Carlos Hyde should also be healthy this week, which can only help against a strong Michigan State defense.
Miller will have to prove he has learned from last season, when Michigan State shut him completely down in both the running and passing games. Miller has been good about spreading the ball around to various receivers depending on the game, so the Spartans will be forced to cover many weapons on a lot of different plays.
However, to win games like this on the road, Miller will have to have the killer instinct that led Terrelle Pryor to run for first downs and touchdowns that helped OSU win conference titles in 2009 and 2010. go ahead, Urban, turn him loose and see what happens.
Theme Song: "Nothing's Changed Here"
After earning the first three wins for the conference against BCS conference foes, Northwestern carried the banner for the Big Ten by tuning things up against the cupcake on the schedule: South Dakota. Northwestern dominated throughout the game and played a conservative game plan to keep players healthy heading into conference play.
This week the defense may again hold the opposition to a low rushing total, but Indiana has a far better passing game than South Dakota did. The Hoosiers might force Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter to keep up with their passing game. The Wildcats proved they could do that against Syracuse, and I suspect it will happen again this weekend.
That would set up a huge game with Minnesota where both teams could be fighting to keep an undefeated season while obtaining bowl eligibility.
I could say more, but really nothing has changed except that Nebraska well enough to grab the top spot back. The purple power was fun at the top for one week, but now Northwestern has to start proving it against the teams they have struggled against the past few seasons.
Back At The Top!
Theme Song: "You're The One"
After paying penance for the UCLA loss for two weeks, Nebraska is back in the top spot just in time to play two big games against the Leaders Division. Nebraska has readily handled all challenges at home and never puts the game in doubt. That allows the offense to relax and play loose, which should happen again this week in Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska is rushing for over 300 yards per game and can attack with Ameer Abdullah just as well as with Rex Burkhead. With QB Taylor Martinez also still being a threat to run, there are a lot of players that a defense has to worry about keeping track of up front.
The only loss for Nebraska was caused not by the offense, which still put up 30 points against UCLA, but by the defense that could not stop the Bruins. Wisconsin has a freshman quarterback and a weak offensive line, and this sets up similar to when Ohio State came to Lincoln a season ago. Of course Braxton Miller dominated the Huskers before he was injured, but Nebraska should still take advantage of this situation in the conference opener.
Then a compelling game follows against Ohio State. If the Buckeyes defeat Michigan State, that could be the biggest game of the regular season in the Big Ten.
Yes Nebraska, you are the one again this week. Let's see if that can remain for more than one week.
Thanks for reading! Please follow David on Twitter, and keep the discussion going there and below!