For a conference that finished 10-2 on opening weekend, the Big Ten certainly made its football fans uneasy with many closer-than-expected games. As a result, the general consensus across Big Ten country seems to be that the conference is headed for a gloomy outlook again based on these results.
Not so fast, my "Chicken Little" friends. The sky is not falling (yet).
For nearly every bad or subpar outcome from the first week, there is a corresponding good result or positive sign for the future. The silver linings are real and, in some cases, actually foretell much-improved Big Ten football in 2013.
First, the conference managed to go 5-7 against the spread using the betting lines from Vegas Insider. That's nearly living nearly up to what should be the normal expectation of going .500 against the spread in a given week of non-conference play.
Continuing with those betting lines, which admittedly can be a little shaky early in the college football season, only four teams (Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Nebraska) failed to cover by more than 10 points—performances that usually indicate a truly disappointing or poor performance.
Meanwhile, three teams (Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan) exceeded expectations or covered by more than 10 points, indicating great performances. That makes the big surprises and disappointments of opening weekend balance out more than one might expect, especially given the tone of Big Ten fans on Saturday following the weekend's results.
In addition, one merely has to look at the landscape of major college football to realize it could have been far worse on Saturday. Although the season record for FCS wins over BCS conference teams in a season is six, the opening weekend brought eight upset wins for the FCS, including a shocking five in a week against BCS conference teams.
The BCS conference victims included Connecticut, South Florida, Oregon State, Kansas State and Iowa State. The Big Ten joined only the ACC and the SEC in avoiding these embarrassing upsets on Saturday.
Of course, teams who suffered FCS losses like Connecticut (plays Michigan Week 4), South Florida (plays Michigan State next week), San Diego State (plays Ohio State next week) and Iowa State (plays Iowa Week 3) will try to give the Big Ten some embarrassing upsets in weeks to come. But the Big Ten teams in those matchups will not be the ones with FCS losses.
Illinois and Indiana may be borderline dumpster fires come conference play, but both teams competently handled the only FCS competition on the docket.
Moreover, the two losses by the Big Ten were completely understandable. Purdue was a double-digit underdog to Cincinnati, and the Bearcats look like serious competition for Louisville in the AAC this season. Plus UC is only a couple of years removed from a BCS bowl.
Similarly, Northern Illinois is coming directly off a 12-2 season and an Orange Bowl appearance. Its only regular season loss last year was to Iowa, and that loss was avenged in just as close a game between the teams this year. And this time, the Huskies made the late breaks as Iowa's lack of experience at quarterback hurt them.
While Cincinnati and Northern Illinois may not make the BCS again this season, there are plenty of players on both teams with that level of experience—more than any of the other teams playing Big Ten opponents last weekend (and all of those other teams ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard).
It would have been nice for the conference to snag one of these wins, but these are not terrible losses like other major conferences endured. Plus, the Big Ten has ample opportunities left for big wins such as the three games against Notre Dame, Nebraska's visit from UCLA and Wisconsin's game at Arizona State.
In addition, the Big Ten snagged two good victories away from home, which can make for a tough opening weekend: Penn State showed that the future will be just fine with Christian Hackenberg at quarterback in a neutral-site win over Syracuse. Northwestern survived multiple injuries and a better-than-expected Cal team led by new coach Sonny Dykes to earn a rare west-coast victory.
One should expect both of those wins to look better and better as the 2013 season continues. The Orange and the Bears may struggle with first-year head coaches in their respective conferences, but there is more than enough talent at both programs to pull some serious upsets.
The Big Ten just needs to hope those upsets do not include Northwestern next week against Syracuse or Ohio State in a roadtrip to Cal in Week 3.
Furthermore, first week results are rarely indicative of a season at large. Teams have spent months working out and hitting each other in camps, and the high levels of anticipation usually leads to sloppy play in opening weekends.
That sloppy play led to many mistakes that kept teams like Southern Illinois, Wyoming, Buffalo, Syracuse and California in games much later than would have otherwise been the case. Don't expect the same mistakes from veterans like Braxton Miller, Trevor Siemian and Nathan Scheelhaase in future weeks.
Teams also tend to improve dramatically throughout the month of September. If that holds true again this season, then the weaknesses seen in most of the Big Ten teams will lose significance by the time conference play rolls around.
Yes, this means Nebraska's defense and Indiana's defense, as well as the offenses in Minnesota and Michigan State, will improve from what was shown last weekend. That improvement means those teams should not be so reliant on the stronger, more experienced unit like they were in 2012 and during the opening weekend of the 2013 season.
Another good sign is the higher level of play from quarterbacks across the conference. Teams with new quarterbacks like Michigan (Devin Gardner), Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Penn State (Christian Hackenberg) appear to have leaders ready to go right away based on the successful statistics in the openers. Rudock and Hackenberg each threw for well over 200 yards and kept pace with more experienced quarterbacks on the opposition.
Teams with quarterback shuffles also appeared to find success for the most part. Indiana has two good performing quarterbacks in Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson, and so does Wisconsin with Joel Stave and Curt Phillips. Even the best quarterbacks in the conference, Braxton Miller and Taylor Martinez, appear to have continued to improve their throwing form during this offseason.
The only real failure seems to be in East Lansing, where Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook still cannot figure out who wants the job more (neither broke a quarterback rating of 35 on Saturday). Considering that Michigan State can likely rely on the defense again to carry the team to a winning record, perhaps that quarterback controversy can span a couple more weeks and not be an issue.
For at least these reasons, Big Ten fans cannot take this isolated week out of context and assume that the Big Ten will be one of the weaker BCS conferences again in 2013. On the contrary, the signs in many of these programs appear to point in a positive direction.
This may not be enough to single-handedly knock off the SEC, but it is enough to be excited about. Just don't take your excitement to these levels...
Dehydration and poor judgment are the least of poor Vodka Girl's problems. Don't be like her, and don't be a chicken little just yet.
There will be plenty of time for that in the coming weeks if the Big Ten actually does prove to be poor again this season. For now, take a deep breath and enjoy the next two weeks of much-improved play from teams across the country.
Thanks for reading! Please provide your thoughts on whether the Week 1 results will prove much of anything over the length of 2013 in the comments below.
Also, please follow me on Twitter (@DA_Fitzgerald for sports-only and article links, @BuckeyeFitzy for personal and game-day commentary purposes) and keep the conversation going. See you later this week with more analysis.
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