We're in the thick of things in the Big Ten now, and the most pivotal week of action thus far is coming up in Week 6. It won't be time to start sending invitations to Pasadena or Indianapolis just yet, obviously, but we should know a lot more about who's legit and who's...well, what, illegit? Seems like that should be a word too. Fair's fair. Anyway.
So here's what to look for and here's what we'll find out.
Is Taylor Martinez a big-time quarterback?
It's hard to argue with the numbers that Taylor Martinez has put up this far: 11 touchdowns, one interception and a Big Ten-leading efficiency rating of 169.63 (over 50 points higher than Martinez's 2011) mark. The guy said he was going to improve his passing over the offseason, and that's exactly what he did.
That being said, the competition Martinez has faced thus far isn't exactly the 1985 Chicago Bears. Southern Miss has the third-worst pass efficiency defense in the nation, Arkansas State is barely in the top 100 and Idaho State is...Idaho State.
Who will win this game?
UCLA has a good passing defense, and to that end, Martinez struggled substantially, throwing his only pick of the season thus far and being held without a touchdown through the air.
You know who else has a good passing defense? Ohio State, who hosts the Huskers on Saturday.
Not to belabor the obvious, but this is going to be a major test for Martinez. If he can avoid reverting to 2011 form and chucking armpunts with impunity, Nebraska has a real shot to come away with a win, and that would be huge for the Huskers' division title hopes.
A bad day for Martinez and a loss, though, and all of a sudden, that division is wide-open yet again. In a bad way. In a "nobody is good" way.
Contenders or pretenders?
The other marquee matchup of the day is Michigan going to Purdue in an afternoon showdown that's absolutely worth watching. Neither Michigan nor Purdue is ranked, but the game is still going to have significant impact on both of the division races.
Who will win this game?
As it stands right now, there is no favorite in the Leaders Division to get to Indianapolis, but it's probably going to come down to Purdue and Wisconsin, seeing as how Illinois and Indiana don't even look like bowl teams at all this year. So if Purdue can pick up a win here, all of a sudden, we've got a front-runner—especially since Wisconsin dropped its first game to Nebraska.
Meanwhile, Michigan's stuck at 2-2 and looking well off its 2011 pace. The Wolverines' road struggles are well-documented, but all the same, it's the Wolverines who are a three-point favorite in this game, according to VegasInsider.com. Don't bet on college football, folks. But do pay attention to lines, because they're interesting.
If Michigan picks up this win, it's big not only for the Wolverines' Big Ten title hopes, but for their confidence away from the Big House as conference play ramps up.
But they can't both win, and we'll see one of these two teams start off its conference race on the wrong foot. Which one will it be?
Pride of Lions
The Penn State season looked to be going off the rails early in the season when a nightmarish outing for kicker Sam Ficken led to a 17-16 loss at Virginia that pushed Penn State to 0-2 on the year. Expectations weren't terribly high to begin with, but salvaging even a .500 record was going to be tough with a hole like that to dig out of.
Who will win this game?
Consider Penn State out of that hole. The Nittany Lions are up to 3-2 after a 35-7 demolition of Illinois, and a winning season is now absolutely a possibility. Standing in the way is visiting Northwestern, who hasn't lost a game yet and would love to be the first and only bowl-eligible Big Ten team (if only for a week or two). And hey, who's to say Northwestern's not firmly in the Legends Division mix?
So there's a lot on the line here, and we'll see if Bill O'Brien really has a solid team on his hands or if Northwestern's putting together another one of its unexpectedly great seasons.
Small B1G at Large
One of the tough things about having a conference struggle en masse like the Big Ten has thus far is that it makes it increasingly unlikely that the Big Ten can put a second team in a BCS Bowl outside of the Rose Bowl (or national championship, but who are we trying to kid here?). And that matters for more than just pride: Two BCS bowl teams means two BCS bowl payouts, and that can mean over a million dollars per team in the Big Ten's revenue sharing agreement.
How many BCS bowl teams will the Big Ten field in 2012?
So while it doesn't make sense to just say right out that the Big Ten can't make that happen—we don't know that yet, obviously—it is worth pointing out that the mounting loss totals can start endangering some teams' at-large hopes, even here in early October.
Generally (though not exclusively), the best way to get an at-large BCS bowl bid is to lose two games, tops; a third mark in the loss column, and all of a sudden, even if the team's technically eligible for a BCS bowl bid, the committees are looking elsewhere. It's just a tough sell for tickets and TV ratings, even if you believe that 11-2 team going instead is a pure sham.
All of which is to say lots of the Big Ten's teams are starting to bump up against that two-loss mark. Only four bowl-eligible teams have one loss or fewer, and of them, three (Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue) are underdogs. The only other team is Minnesota, and the only reason the Gophers aren't underdogs this week is that they have a bye.
Again, if those three teams all lose, it doesn't necessarily mean their at-large BCS dreams are dead. It does remove just about any margin for error, though, and with six more Big Ten games, there's usually lots of error left in the season.