With conference play set to begin in earnest this weekend, many schools and conferences are about to find out if their early season success is a harbinger of legitimate BCS hopes or merely a byproduct of soft early season scheduling.
While the SEC has long been college football’s standard bearer—and there is no reason to believe that will change this season—the first few weeks of the 2010 campaign have provided many programs with the optimism to which they have simply been allergic the last few years.
Schools such as Miami, Arizona, Auburn, Stanford, and NC State have all come out of the gates fast this year after spending the majority of the last decade toiling in mediocrity or, worse, downright irrelevance.
While it is obviously way too early to tell if these schools are legitimate conference title contenders or merely facades buttressed by questionably easy non-conference scheduling, this week brings a new test—conference play—and with it a reliable indication of whether many teams will be tricked or treated come Halloween.
Perhaps nobody is more anxious—or scared—for conference play than the six Big Ten teams who enter October ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
Yes, six: the same number as the SEC and more than the Pac-10 (four), Big 12 (three), ACC (two), and the WAC (two...yes, folks, Nevada is good enough to give Boise State a scare).
But back to the Big Ten, whose national clout had been knocked down a few pegs after losing six consecutive BCS bowls from 2006-09. Fortunately, Ohio State and Iowa saved face last year, winning the Rose and Orange Bowls respectively.
This year, however, the Big Ten is flying high after the season’s opening month. Ohio State (No. 2), Wisconsin (No. 11), Iowa (No. 17), Michigan (No. 19), Penn State (No. 22), and Michigan State (No. 24) have all started the season 3-1 or better, and five of the above scored 45 or more points last week.
Look past the gaudy offensive numbers for a second, however, and you will realize the red flag: The six ranked Big Ten squads have a combined 1-2 record against ranked teams.
They are, however, 2-0 against Notre Dame, which at least looks good on a coach’s résumé.
The conference’s lone victory over a ranked team came courtesy of preseason favorite Ohio State’s 36-24 home victory over then-No. 12 Miami. But that was supposed to happen. The Buckeyes, preseason national title contenders, were supposed to be that good.
Fortunately for those of us who love college football but don’t like watching Wisconsin beat Austin Peay 70-3, the picture should clear up at least a little bit this week. Four of the six ranked Big Ten teams will play each other, as Wisconsin travels to Michigan St. and Penn State pays a visit to Iowa, where they haven’t won since Joe Paterno’s glasses were actually fashionable.
While we won’t know how good the Big Ten actually is for a few weeks, we should get an indication of who is for real as the calendar turns to October. Schedules that once presented Ball State, Youngstown State, and Eastern Michigan will now feature Penn State, Ohio State, and the real Michigan.
This is not an indictment of the Big Ten by any means. It has long been a formidable conference, and if their performance in last year’s major bowls is any indication (its four best teams—Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, and Wisconsin—all won) it is well on its way to reestablishing its position alongside the SEC atop the college football mountain.
But before we crown them, why not see how the next few weeks play out?
If Denard Robinson is Michigan’s savior and the perfect quarterback for Rich Rodriguez’s offense, then wouldn’t it be better for him to prove it against the Badgers and Buckeyes than have him anointed so based on wins over UMass and UConn?
Should we hold off on calling Terrelle Pryor the best Buckeye this side of Archie Griffin at least until he wins a road game?
Can we not pencil Michigan State into a New Year’s Day bowl game until they beat teams who aren’t Northern Colorado, Western Michigan, and Florida Atlantic?
As a noted philosopher—or just Lou Holtz—once said, “That’s why they play the games.”
The games he was referring to are the ones that play out in the fall, on the road, in front of some of the most hostile student sections in the country—not the ones designed to sell tickets and promote superficial Heisman Trophy campaigns.
Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson.