Midseason Grades for Every Big Ten Team
Seven weeks down, seven to go in the regular season. Every Big Ten team except for Illinois has now played six games, making this a perfect opportunity to grade the first half of the season.
So far, only Ohio State remains undefeated. But plenty of teams have played well. Of course, there are teams scuffling through the season, like Indiana and Purdue.
The Legends Division race looks to be an incredible free-for-all, while Ohio State has taken full control of the Leaders Division thanks to the September win over Wisconsin. Let's grade each team on where it stands and look ahead to what remains of Big Ten play in 2013.
The following grades are based on overall team record and statistics, as well as team development seen from the beginning of the season.
Michigan State (2-0, 5-1)
1st-Half Grade: B+
Remaining Schedule: Purdue, at Illinois, Michigan, at Nebraska, at Northwestern, Minnesota
The Spartans have to be thrilled to sit in a two-way tie for the division lead with Nebraska at this early stage of conference play. Simply by playing tough and sticking with their philosophy, the Spartans have found success and must be considered a serious threat to play in Indianapolis in December.
The defense is stifling as usual, allowing only 13.4 points per game. As long as Michigan State can keep opponents in defensive slugfests, there will be a chance to win every game left on the schedule. Running back Jeremy Langford continues to develop into a big-play star, proof that the offense is moving forward nicely.
That schedule includes critical games against all of the other serious contenders in the division. Given the struggles of its next three opponents, look for Michigan State to roll into the second bye week, before the Nebraska game, nationally ranked and 8-1.
In other words, just where Mark Dantonio wants it to be.
Nebraska (2-0, 5-1)
1st-Half Grade: B
Remaining Schedule: at Minnesota, Northwestern, at Michigan, Michigan State, at Penn State, Iowa
It's been four weeks since the collapse against UCLA, but with all five division opponents on the upcoming schedule, Nebraska remains concerned with lapses on defense. Teams like Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State are more than good enough to exploit these weaknesses.
However, Nebraska won the division with a poor defense last season and is already alone with Michigan State in the lead this year. That, and the offensive prowess of scoring over six touchdowns per game (42.4 points), will keep the pressure on the other Legends Division teams.
Hopefully, Taylor Martinez will be healthy coming out of the second bye next week for the important stretch run. If he is not, then this grade could sink along with Nebraska in the division standings. Without Martinez, all the development that this team has done over the last season-and-a-half becomes moot.
For now, it's a job well done with plenty of improvement possible.
Michigan (1-1, 5-1)
1st-Half Grade: C-
Remaining Schedule: Indiana, at Michigan State, Nebraska, at Northwestern, at Iowa, Ohio State
Quadruple overtime in Happy Valley was a microcosm of the last month of suffering for Michigan fans, but this time, the Wolverines did not escape with a victory. Although the offensive line has started to play better, Devin Gardner is still making critical mistakes.
That has led to some questionable, conservative play-calling on offense—which does not work when trying to hold onto the lead and when a kicker is unreliable, as Brendan Gibbons is, all of a sudden.
Michigan was lucky to escape the games against Akron and Connecticut with wins, which means this team is shockingly close to 3-3—highly disappointing for a team that was supposed to contend for the conference championship this season. If the Wolverines do not play better immediately, that game against Ohio State might not matter at all in November.
If Michigan wins against Michigan State, then this will be an interesting November. If not, then the only interest will be how warm Brady Hoke's seat will become by December.
Iowa (1-1, 4-2)
1st-Half Grade: B+
Remaining Schedule: at Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, at Purdue, Michigan, at Nebraska
The Hawkeyes may end up right around where many expected, with five or six wins, but this Iowa team is vastly improved from the 4-8 disappointment of 2012. A bye week is well-timed following the ground-war loss to Michigan State.
Unfortunately, that bye is followed by a road trip to Columbus, a place where the Hawkeyes have been notoriously bad over the past two decades. Still, James Vandenberg almost led the 2009 Hawkeyes to an upset in the last trip, so perhaps Jake Rudock and company have a chance.
Unlike last year, Iowa will not be outclassed by the other teams on the schedule following OSU. Other than the game in West Lafayette, the Hawkeyes will not be favored to win these games. A slide like last season seems unlikely considering the strong defense (18th nationally in points against).
A winning record would begin to silence the loud critics of Kirk Ferentz. Iowa should have a legitimate shot at it despite not being at the top of the Legends Division chase.
Minnesota (0-2, 4-2)
1st-Half Grade: D+
Remaining Schedule: at Northwestern, Nebraska, at Indiana, Penn State, Wisconsin, at Michigan State
Minnesota looked ready to take the next step into competition in the Legends Division following a perfect run through non-conference play. Then Iowa and Michigan rocked this team and all but knocked it out of the division title chase in two quick weeks.
With as many strides as Minnesota has made, including a bowl appearance last year, the outlook is bleak for the Golden Gophers. There are no easy wins on the schedule considering how much better teams like Northwestern and Indiana play at home.
Minnesota currently stands 118th in the country in passing yards (116 per game) and 25th in rushing, and these numbers need to level out for future success. Gophers coaches must figure out if freshman Mitch Leidner is the answer after a couple of decent performances.
One also wonders whether this team will either rally around its coach (Jerry Kill is on medical leave) or be a bit aimless without the head man. If Jerry Kill gets his health back in order and the seizures under control, then this season will be a success no matter how the record plays out.
Northwestern (0-2, 4-2)
1st-Half Grade: C-
Remaining Schedule: Minnesota, at Iowa, at Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, at Illinois
Northwestern is a perfect case study in why some fans and administrators want division games alone to count toward division championship races. Northwestern has gone from a team with the College GameDay show in town and a Top 15 ranking to a team possibly falling out of the Legends Division race after losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State.
On the bright side, Northwestern has looked great on offense outside of this past weekend against Wisconsin. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian have proven capable of beating all of the Legends Division teams, and a full sweep will be needed to win this division title (in all likelihood).
But a team playing on the big stage and receiving three turnovers from Ohio State in a home night game simply cannot afford to let that game get away with its own mistakes. Then compounding that mistake by letting the OSU hangover beat it again at Wisconsin shows this team is not ready for the next level.
The Wildcats are still a solid team that will likely not collapse, but winning a division title seems impossible thanks to an unfavorable cross-division schedule and the resultant losses. 2012 may turn out to be better than 2013, after all.
Ohio State (2-0, 6-0)
1st-Half Grade: A
Remaining Schedule: Iowa, Penn State, at Purdue, at Illinois, Indiana, at Michigan
Yes, the Buckeyes struggled at times and made the games against Wisconsin and Northwestern far more interesting than they needed to be, but the bottom line is wins, and OSU keeps collecting those. It is hard to imagine that the remaining teams on the schedule will be much tougher than the Badgers and Wildcats, which sets up Ohio State for a championship run.
This is everything that Buckeye fans hoped for when Urban Meyer came to town, and more. Ohio State survived suspensions to players like Carlos Hyde and essentially three full games without Braxton Miller, which proves the depth of this team. The offense has not missed a beat, scoring nearly 47 points per game.
There remain some defensive lapses, but Ryan Shazier is reading plays in the center of the defense better than he did in 2012. In addition, the team and coaches have four more weeks to correct the deficiencies before Indiana and Michigan truly test the Silver Bullets' defense in November.
With other teams facing major showdowns down the stretch, it is time for Ohio State to win with style points. As the only undefeated team left in the conference, this is the only chance at a crystal football before the playoff begins.
Wisconsin (2-1, 4-2)
1st-Half Grade: B+
Remaining Schedule: at Illinois, at Iowa, BYU, Indiana, at Minnesota, Penn State
The Badgers have the strange distinction of having the only non-conference game left, a tricky one against BYU. One would expect a former Utah State coach not to overlook how good the Cougars are. But watch that game as a potential stunner.
Wisconsin has not yet won on the road, but not many teams escape Arizona State or Ohio State with wins. The road games against Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota should be far easier to navigate. Rushing for over 300 yards per game will also help those road woes go away. Wisconsin just keeps developing those amazing running backs.
Wisconsin likely should be 5-1 (shakes fist at Pac-12 referees), and the blowout over Northwestern proves that this very well may be the second-best team in the conference. Sadly, that will not give the Badgers another shot at the Buckeyes, who hold a virtual two-game lead in the division. Of course, that also means no third loss at the hands of the Buckeyes as well.
As a result, a long winning streak could still put this team in position for a BCS bowl at 10-2, which would be a record fourth-straight for this program. Melvin Gordon and James White will keep the program rumbling along well, and this could be an easy favorite in the West Division starting in 2014.
Indiana (1-1, 3-3)
1st-Half Grade: C
Remaining Schedule: at Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, at Wisconsin, at Ohio State, Purdue
Sure, the Hoosiers showed serious defensive weakness against Michigan State this weekend, but how interesting is that trip to the Big House now that Michigan has finally been defeated? If Indiana can steal that game, that would provide a cushion for the Hoosiers to have a 2-1 finish at home and still make a bowl.
A win over Michigan would also set up Indiana for a potential 4-1 Big Ten start heading into critical division games in late November against the division leaders. Nate Sudfeld is leading the Hoosiers to 346 passing yards per game (although he was pulled from the loss against Michigan State), so do not expect him to be intimidated against the Badgers and Buckeyes should this scenario play out.
If Indiana misses a bowl, that loss against Navy will stand out sorely for the second-straight season. There's simply no excuse for that out of a team with this much talent, but hopefully Indiana can right the ship with the easy home schedule.
The offense is clearly there now under Kevin Wilson, but will the defense catch up and make the Hoosiers a contender? The second half of this season will be a good test to see if Wilson will last a long time in Bloomington and take this program to unprecedented heights.
Penn State (1-1, 4-2)
1st-Half Grade: B-
Remaining Schedule: at Ohio State, Illinois, at Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska, at Wisconsin
The longer the season goes on, the better those losses to UCF and Indiana may look. The Nittany Lions are feeling much better after outlasting Michigan this past weekend, thereby avoiding the 3-3 start.
While road games at OSU and Wisconsin may be tough, Penn State will have a good chance at another 8-4 season, which is a solid result given the circumstances. Christian Hackenberg already looks like a future star as a freshman, and lessened sanctions mean Penn State will remain relevant in the East Division.
That is a good thing for the Big Ten's national perception, even if a competitive PSU was bad news for Michigan this past weekend. Allen Robinson will continue to make defenders look silly, and Bill Belton is helping balance the offense with 176 yards per game on the ground as a team.
A 5-1 start would have been better, but this is still a solid start for the Nittany Lions. Watching Robinson and Hackenberg develop further should be a real joy for the rest of the season. The late November game against Nebraska should be a bowl-like environment as well.
Illinois (0-1, 3-2)
1st-Half Grade: B
Remaining Schedule: Wisconsin, Michigan State, at Penn State, at Indiana, Ohio State, at Purdue, Northwestern
The only team with no byes left for the back half of the schedule is Illinois, but the Illini surprisingly have a winning record through the first five games. Outside of struggles in the opening weekend game against Southern Illinois, the Illini have looked more than competent in two wins and respectable against Washington and Nebraska.
In other words, the system Tim Beckman put in place is working, and the program is coming off the mat. That's good news for the Big Ten as a whole, although future West Division foes would likely prefer that Illinois stay bad for a while longer. Having a senior quarterback who has played for four years like Nathan Scheelhaase always helps when rebuilding a program as well.
The next two home games against some of the top competition in each division (Wisconsin and MSU) will show whether Illinois has a chance to steal some wins later and reach a bowl game. If Illinois can keep up the good pace of about 280 passing yards and 175 rushing yards, then look for the most surprising outcome of 2013: an Illinois bowl game.
Even with four or five wins, Illinois has done well after a 1-11 season.
Purdue (0-2, 1-5)
1st-Half Grade: F
Remaining Schedule: at Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, at Penn State, Illinois, at Indiana
As Illinois has proven, sometimes you have to step backward to go forward as a program. Purdue is experiencing that pain in the first season under Darrell Hazell. The results on the field have been nothing short of a dumpster fire following a 6-6 season last year.
Purdue barely knocked off Indiana State and then played tough as usual in a loss to Notre Dame, but the other four games have been blowouts. Although the final four games may allow for some competitiveness out of the Boilermakers, one wonders if the team will have lost all spirit to compete by then. A team that ranks 119th nationally in rushing yards, 121st in points scored and 117th in points given up will not win more than one or two games.
That means the rest of 2013 should be spent building what foundation there is for the future. Hazell and his coaching staff would do well to look at the strategies Illinois used to get to where they are now and continue that success for 2014.
And who knows, Purdue always plays well against ND and Ohio State. A win over the Buckeyes would...OK, even I can't go there.
Thanks for reading! Please let me know how you would grade the first-half performances of these teams in the comments below, and follow me on Twitter for game day observations and other shenanigans. See you later in the week!