Every week brings new challenges for each team in the Big Ten, and it's up to the coaches to keep things running smoothly—or make the necessary changes to get to that point. With 10 games in the books for every Big Ten team, it's time to hand out some semester grades before every team heads into final exams.
How are the Big Ten's head coaches going to impress us in order to earn high marks? It can't all be about wins and losses—although we admit a team's record will be a significant portion of a coach's final grade. There are often more subtle points on which to focus outside of the record books, though, and there may even be a few opportunities for coaches to earn some extra credit.
And, no, we're not grading on a curve. Each coach is going to get exactly the grade he earned.
With all of the talent Northwestern had returning for 2013 and the forward momentum the program seemed to have after its first bowl win since Harry Truman was president, we expected a lot more from Pat Fitzgerald this season.
Not only is Fitzgerald not living up to his potential—the cardinal sin according to any teacher or professor—he's also been unable to alter the current trajectory of the Wildcats. A team thought to be a dark-horse Big Ten title contender at season's beginning is now 0-6 in conference play and 4-6 overall.
It looks exceedingly likely that the bowl streak Fitzgerald has put together at Northwestern is coming to a rather spectacular end.
About the only thing keeping Fitzgerald from completely flunking this season is his 4-0 mark in non-conference play (although we can't give too much credit for beating Cal, Syracuse, Western Michigan and FCS Maine).
We're perfectly willing to give Tim Beckman some wiggle room. After all, he didn't exactly inherit a dominating Big Ten football power from Ron Zook. Compared to Illinois' record under Zook, though, Beckman might have taken the team a step backward—if that's even possible.
Illinois is now on the verge of finishing its second-straight season without a Big Ten conference win. The streak is already at 20 games. Luckily for Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern are the two remaining teams on the 2013 schedule.
That being said, we're not grading based on what might happen over the next two weeks.
Ron Zook may not have been the savior Illinois thought he would be, but at least the Illini played in bowl games in his last two years.
If there's one team in the Big Ten that's worse than Illinois, it might be Purdue, so why is Hazell getting higher marks than his Illinois counterpart? It's simple, really. Not only is Hazell in his first season as head coach, we've also seen some signs of growth—or at least the opportunity for growth—from Purdue over the season.
Hazell isn't afraid to experiment with his depth chart, and we've seen three different quarterbacks—and two starters—from the "Cradle of Quarterbacks" this season. When senior QB Rob Henry wasn't performing to expectations, Hazell wasn't afraid to change things up with freshman Danny Etling.
Unfortunately, neither of these quarterbacks have as many touchdown passes as they do interceptions (five touchdowns and six interceptions for Etling, four TDs and six picks for Henry), but Hazell gets credit for his effort.
Michigan's Brady Hoke has committed the cardinal sin of head coaching—failing to live up to expectations.
There is no greater enemy a coach faces than the expectations the fanbase, the pundits and the specter of history places on him. At a program like Michigan, with its rabid fans, critical local and national media and storied 134-year history, the tonnage of expectations would stun a team of oxen in its tracks.
Michigan, finally emerging from its Rich Rodriguez-induced stupor, was the prohibitive preseason favorite in the Legends Division. Heading into the final two games, Michigan's Big Ten record stands at 3-3, and any hopes of a Big Ten title have long since evaporated from the minds of Michigan fans.
But what really shocks us, to the point of penalizing Hoke, is his (and his staff's) inability to adjust the game plan in midseason. Devin Gardner seems completely incapable of reading a defense, yet Hoke sticks with him under center. The offensive line seems incapable of protecting Gardner, yet we haven't seen any improvements, scheme changes or even a simple altering of play-calling.
The old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" could be turned around to say "if it is broke, fix it." Maybe Brady Hoke has misplaced his tool belt, because he's not fixing much these days in Ann Arbor.
Kirk Ferentz's 15th season at Iowa is shaping up to be yet another "ho hum" year. The 6-4 (3-3) Hawkeyes are about exactly where we expected them to be, and Ferentz has carved out a very nice niche for himself: mediocrity.
There's really no reason to be overly critical of Ferentz. After all, he's keeping his team's collective head above water. Iowa is a perennial bowl team, and Ferentz does have a winning record, both this season and overall (106-78, 62-55 in the Big Ten). He's even led Iowa to a few Big Ten titles and BCS games over the years.
But what has he done for us lately? Not much.
With the exception of a tie for second in 2009, Ferentz hasn't led Iowa to a Big Ten finish higher than fourth since 2005. Those few Big Ten titles we mentioned were a pair of shared titles back in 2002 and 2004. Ferentz also has an average loss total of 5.3 games per season while at Iowa—a number he may match again this season.
A perfectly unsurprising and average performance from Ferentz in 2013 deserves a perfectly unsurprising and average grade.
Kevin Wilson is in his third season as Indiana's head coach, and we dare say we're starting to see some movement from the Hoosiers program—finally.
Wilson has put together one of the finest offensive teams not only in the Big Ten, but nationally. The Hoosiers are averaging 39.1 points per game (second in the Big Ten and 14th in the FBS) and 496.8 yards per game (third in the Big Ten, 16th in the FBS).
If we were handing out grades for offense or if Wilson was Indiana's offensive coordinator, that would be that. But Wilson is the coach of the entire team, and he's losing some major credit when it comes to Indiana's defense, which is the worst in the Big Ten.
Scoring 39.1 points per game doesn't do you a ton of good if your defense gives up an average of 38.8 points per game (tied for 116th in the FBS). Indiana also gives up a whopping 534.8 yards of offense per game, a number so bad only New Mexico State is worse nationally.
If Wilson can fix the defense, Indiana might have a pretty solid team, but he hasn't done that yet, so we have to grade him on what he's accomplished.
Nebraska's Bo Pelini has probably had the most turbulent season of any Big Ten coach in 2013. First came the epic collapse against UCLA. That was immediately followed by the release of a rant of Pelini's, secretly recorded several years ago but only released when it seemed as if it would do the most damage.
Through all of that, Pelini managed to keep his head—a remarkable feat, given Pelini's demeanor—and guide the Cornhuskers to seven wins in 10 games.
The loss to Michigan State all but ended Nebraska's Big Ten title hopes, and the Cornhuskers are still facing the prospect of losing at least four games again this season. What's so bad about four losses in a season? Nothing, except for the fact that Nebraska has never done any better with Bo Pelini as head coach.
Sooner or later, Pelini is going to have to prove he can do better than 9-4 or 10-4 each and every year. Four losses won't win you many Coach of the Year awards, and your team won't be winning many championships along the way, either. In essence, Pelini is another coach who guided his team to a middling performance.
Pelini does, however, get a few bonus points for managing to keep the ship upright even with all the distractions and the loss of starting quarterback Taylor Martinez to injury.
Worst case scenario, Penn State will finish with a .500 record in 2013. All things considered, that's still very good, even after last season's 8-4 performance that won head coach Bill O'Brien both Big Ten and national Coach of the Year awards.
What's most impressive about Penn State this season is that the Nittany Lions have been able to essentially hold serve while beginning to feel the effects of the NCAA-imposed scholarship limits. O'Brien also gets decent marks for continuing to attract some top talent to the program and his courage to throw a true freshman into the fire as the starting quarterback.
Penn State has maintained a level of poise and pride once thought impossible, and O'Brien deserves much of the credit.
Gary Andersen has quietly been guiding one of the nation's true stealth teams this season. What has kept Wisconsin under the radar screen of pollsters, pundits and the BCS? The early loss to Ohio State and the phantom loss to Arizona State.
Wisconsin had the misfortune to play Ohio State—in what we all knew was essentially the Leaders Division's championship game—way back on September 28. This came two weeks after a Pac-12 officiating crew badly botched the end of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game in such a manner that it clearly cost Wisconsin a chance for a short, chip-shot field goal to win.
Wisconsin has won every other game this season, most by a very wide margin and all by at least two scores.
Andersen, in his first season as Wisconsin's head coach, has his program right where it needs to be—maybe not in terms of winning a conference or national title in 2013, but the Badgers will definitely be in the conversation come 2014 and beyond.
Minnesota, not really viewed as a Big Ten contender, is starting to change a few minds around the conference. And who else but the indefatigable Jerry Kill could do it?
Kill, while battling epileptic seizures that have kept him off the sidelines at times, has been slowly building his Gophers to compete with the very best the conference has to offer. While Minnesota isn't quite there yet, the 8-2 (4-2) mark Minnesota has put up so far this season proves that the Gophers are closer now than they've been in a very long time.
Heck, Minnesota even has an outside shot at sharing the Legends Division title with Michigan State this season (although MSU would need to lose to Northwestern and Minnesota for that to happen). But did anyone think that was possible back in August?
Not only does Kill get high marks for beating expectations, he gets some extra credit for doing it under less than benign circumstances.
Urban Meyer has won 22 straight games as head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. He's lost a grand total of zero. Ohio State fans couldn't be happier.
Okay, Buckeyes fans can always be happier. It probably has something to do with their single-mindedness when it comes to Michigan or the perceived snub by the BCS rankings this season, but either way, the Buckeyes fans' cup never seems to runneth over.
Still, 22 straight wins is something pretty special, and Urban Meyer deserves the lion's share of the credit. He's restored some sense of honor to a program left sullied by the slimy hands of Jim Tressel. He's returned Ohio State to the ranks of the nation's elite after a 6-7 record in 2011. He has, essentially, made Buckeye nation whole again.
If only he could find a way to get his team into the BCS National Championship picture on its own merits...
Unfortunately, that won't happen this season. Ohio State just hasn't been dominant enough. Of course, you can argue that Alabama hasn't exactly been dominating every team, either, but we're still faced with a scenario where either Alabama or Florida State will need to lose (and quite possibly Baylor, too) for the Buckeyes to have any hopes of playing for that shiny crystal football.
Meyer might get a perfect "A" if only Ohio State could do something to convince the BCS it deserves a chance...without having to rely on the misfortune of others, that is.
At the head of the class thus far is Michigan State's Mark Dantonio. Fans of Ohio State will no doubt cry foul, but it's hard to be surprised about Ohio State's 10-0 record in 2013; should meeting (but not exceeding) expectations and maintaining the status quo be rewarded?
We've reserved our highest grade for Dantonio mainly because he took a team that was 7-6 last season and transformed it into a 9-1 Legends Division champion. Not only that, but Michigan State actually leads several statistical categories as a team—something Ohio State can't claim.
Dantonio's Spartans are, most importantly, the Big Ten's top defense, not only in terms of scoring but also in total defense (yards allowed per game). On top of that, MSU also leads the FBS in total defense and ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense.
Just how good is Michigan State's defense? The Spartans are giving up nearly 50 fewer yards per game than almighty Alabama this season—and are nearly 100 yards better per game than Ohio State.
There is that pesky loss to Notre Dame, the lone blemish on MSU's otherwise spotless record. That is enough to keep an "A+" out of reach for now. Still, about the only thing Mark Dantonio hasn't done is lead the Spartans to a BCS game. That may be remedied shortly.
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