State Of The Big Ten Address: Hitting the Home Stretch
My fellow Big Ten fans, we are entering the final stretch of another wonderful college football season. The Big Ten conference has just one month of football left to crown a champion and make its case on the national stage.
The Big Ten is somewhat unique among the major college football conferences. While the conference no longer can boast an undefeated team anywhere among its ranks, it does have three one-loss teams that could very possibly end the season with just the one defeat.
Other conferences have undefeated teams. Other conferences have multiple one-loss teams. None of those conferences have such a clear possibility of all those teams finishing with such lofty numbers. In that, the Big Ten stands alone.
These teams cannot rest on their laurels. Behind these teams are many trials and tribulations. Ahead of them are many opportunities yet to be embraced.
At stake are conference titles, BCS bowl bids, bowl eligibility, and respect - both as individual teams and as a major football conference as a whole.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-8; 0-5)
This is not how Minnesota saw their 2010 campaign unfolding. To be sure, anyone who knows much about college football would have looked at their schedule and recognized how difficult it was.
Starting with a couple of pesky out-of-conference opponents in Middle Tennessee and Northern Illinois, plus a dangerous (if not severely wounded) USC team; Minnesota didn't necessarily take the easiest road leading into Big Ten play.
Once in conference, the Golden Gophers only had Northwestern to try and get off on the right foot before taking on a very formidable Wisconsin team.
Then they had a rough three-game stretch against Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State. Finally, they're set to end the season against an Iowa team that started the season in the national title discussion and is still very much in the conference title race.
Even under good circumstances, it would have been difficult to predict this team to come away with a major bowl bid. I don't know of anyone who would have predicted that they'd be completely out of the bowl picture before November even rolled around, though.
After skimming by MTSU, the wheels fell off the proverbial cart. Minnesota hasn't won a single game since. They were close (losing to Northwestern by just one point), but close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.
Tim Brewster has beaten both Ron Zook and Rich Rodriguez to the ouster seat and now the Golden Gophers will have to figure out who can bring the program back to a level where they can at least make a bowl run again.
With a spotty offense that lacks the fire it once contained when Eric Decker was grabbing balls out of thin air, and a defense that isn't nearly dominant enough to make up the difference, Minnesota is in shambles.
Their last three games include one-loss Michigan State, a resurgent Illinois team, and an Iowa team that is fighting for a shot at a conference title. It doesn't look good for the Gophers to come out of 2010 with anything more than their one win.
Indiana Hoosiers (4-4; 0-4)
People of the Big Ten, when you talk about promising starts followed by conference folds, you have to add Indiana to the list.
It should be put into perspective that this turn of events wasn't entirely unpredicted. While the Hoosiers boast a very talented quarterback and receiving corps, their running game and defense were questionable even before a single snap was taken on the 2010 season.
The Hoosiers showcased those talents against the weaker OOC opponents like Towson, Western Kentucky and Akron. They pulled out an exciting victory over Arkansas State as well.
Once the conference schedule started, we anxiously awaited what this Hoosier team could do.
They fell a bit short of winning a shootout against Michigan (two teams with no defense, but dangerous offenses). They also dropped a close match to Northwestern. Against Ohio State and Illinois however, they fell far short.
The ground attack for Indiana has been almost as non-existent as their defense. They are last in the conference in rushing offense at just 97.88 yards per game. They're ninth in scoring defense, beating out only Michigan and Minnesota.
With Iowa and Wisconsin directly ahead, the immediate future isn't very bright for the Hoosiers. They end the season against Penn State and Purdue.
A 5-7 season is looking more and more likely as we head into the final stretch of this season. Perhaps equally importantly, the long-term future of the Hoosiers should be strongly investigated as their biggest weapon (QB Ben Chappell) graduates at the end of the year.
Michigan Wolverines (5-3: 1-3)
The expectations for Michigan were largely conservative coming into the year. Prognosticators picked this team to finish around 7-5 or 8-4.
Rich Rodriguez unleashed a swift and terrible weapon upon the football world, and placed those predictions into question. Denard Robinson wowed the nation and put up numbers that are difficult to duplicate even on video gaming systems.
With a 5-0 start; victories over respected Connecticut and Notre Dame; follow-up wins over UMass, Bowling Green and Indiana; and Robinson's lofty numbers, predictions were starting to climb into the neighborhood of 9-3 or even 10-2.
Some fans were forgetting the past however, and why Michigan finished at 5-7 a year ago.
Offense has not been a problem for Michigan. Robinson has carried the program on his twinkle toes and Tate Forcier has made a couple of strong statements in relief.
Runners like Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw have shown that there are other players on the team that don't carry the names Robinson or Forcier.
However, as was the problem a year ago, Michigan lacks a quality defense. Michigan State put a damper on the explosive Robinson, Iowa put the Wolverines in a hole even they couldn't dig out of, and Penn State outgunned Michigan. Three straight weeks have seen three straight losses.
The future doesn't look overly promising for the Wolverines, who are poised to have another second-half meltdown.
Directly ahead of them are an Illinois team that has shown an impressive and improving defense. Behind them is a very winnable contest against injury-laden Purdue, but then come back-to-back contests against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
It might be foolishly optimistic to expect Michigan to fare any better than 1-3 over the last four games of the season and finish 6-6 on the year.
That should be enough to get this storied Michigan program back into a bowl game. It won't be a major bowl though, and it might not be the positive step Michigan faithful have been hoping for.
Two questions still have to be answered.
1) Does Rich Rodriguez understand how important a solid defense is in this league?
2) Will he learn that lesson (and correct it) fast enough to avoid the same fate Tim Brewster has found in Minnesota?
Purdue Boilermakers (4-4; 2-2)
Good people, I believed coming into the season that Purdue would be the surprise team of the season.
With Miami transfer Robert Marve under center and a defense that appeared to make positive strides toward the end of last season, I fully believed this Boilermaker team could upset some big teams and make a run at a bowl victory.
Admittedly, the joke was on me.
The Boilermakers have made huge strides, but not in the areas I expected, and not to the record I anticipated.
First, the Boilermakers have transformed into a run team. Who saw this coming?
Dan Dierking is averaging 6.01 yards per carry, Rob Henry has 5.51 ypc, and Al-Terek McBurse is bolstering a whopping 9.75 ypc. This trio has turned a traditionally pass-successful team into a real run threat.
On the flip side however, the pass attack has gone away. Robert Marve was lost for the season fairly early. Rob Henry looked good in relief, but he's young and prone to rookie mistakes. Plus, he's more dangerous on the ground than he is through the air right now.
The Boilermakers have fallen to dead last in the conference in terms of passing offense. With such a lopsided offense, they've become easy to slow down by comparison (dead last in total offense).
To make matters worse, their defense hasn't taken the appropriate steps to help keep their team in the hunt for victories. While they're not last in the conference in any defensive category, they're also no better than seventh in any defensive category.
Three of the Boilermakers' last four games are against opponents that are either more dangerous than they are, or are more balanced.
Ahead of them is Wisconsin, followed by Michigan and then Michigan State. A victory over any of those teams could be a very tall order.
They finish the season against Indiana who is beatable, but dangerous in their own right.
Getting one more win is a must, but not given, and getting to a bowl is now a very long shot.
Penn State (5-3; 2-2)
The Nittany Lions broke out a true freshman quarterback to lead their proud program. Robert Bolden is the kind of athlete that can one day be in the Heisman discussion. However, this year he has been what one might expect a true freshman to be.
Last week, with Bolden injured, Joe Paterno broke out Matt McGloin and took Penn State back to a day when the Pro Style offense ruled the day. It resulted in a victory over Michigan. Could there be a quarterback controversy brewing in Happy Valley?
That is something Joe will have to work out, but indications are that Bolden will be back under center as soon as medically possible.
Penn State's season has been much less than expected, however.
Not many people expected the Nittany Lions to upend defending national champions Alabama, especially since that Week 2 game took place in Tuscaloosa. The complete blowout of the Nittany Lions was unexpected by anyone not in the SEC, though.
That match was followed by a couple of lackluster victories over weaker OOC opponents before getting dismantled by Iowa 24-3. They followed that up with a surprising 33-13 defeat at the hands of Illinois.
Penn State traditionally boasts a very powerful defense that's coupled with an offense that is dangerous, if not destructive. This season, their defense has suffered horribly from injuries and has propelled them to a 7th place ranking in conference in total defense.
The offense has had split personalities this year as well. Despite having Penn State's all-time leading rusher on the roster, they've largely stayed away from using him consistently.
Against Temple, Evan Royster carried the ball 26 times for 187 yards. Against Michigan, he carried the ball 29 times for 150 yards. Those numbers are very Royster-eque.
However, in the other six games of the season, Royster has seen no more than 11 carries. Against Alabama, he only touched the ball nine times.
How Joe Pa will handle those numbers in the future are anyone's guess. One thing is for certain though. While many might have picked losses to Alabama and/or Iowa, very few would have picked the loss to Illinois. Fewer still would have picked Penn State to struggle the way they have, even in some of their victories.
Ahead of the Lions wait Northwestern, Ohio State, Indiana, and Michigan State. None of those teams are sure-fire wins for this version of the Nittany Lions.
A team that was recently a staple in the conference title chase could be fighting just to reach bowl eligibility this season.
Northwestern Wildcats (6-2; 2-2)
How good is Northwestern, really? That's a question that I'm not sure even Pat Fitzgerald knows for sure.
The Wildcats jumped out to a quick 5-0 start, but were then upended in back-to-back weeks against Purdue and Michigan State. Losing to Purdue certainly isn't a highlight of the Wildcats' season, but staying within eight points of the Spartans isn't too bad at all.
Then again, they followed that up with a three-point win over Indiana.
Northwestern boasts the second-best pass attack in the conference (statistically speaking) behind the breakout play of Dan Persa. They're in the bottom half of the conference in rushing yardage and scoring offense, though.
Defensively, Northwestern is firmly middle-of-the-pack. They don't excel in any one area, but they don't stink in any one area either.
Every positive aspect that you lay out about Northwestern has to be followed by a "but".
Up until now, the quarterback play has been good, but the running game has been absent. The defense has been good, but it hasn't been good enough to secure close wins (or even upsets).
Looking ahead, this team needs to figure something out quickly. They have faced one ranked opponent, but have two more still ahead.
Penn State (their next opponent) may not be as bad as they've looked of late, and arguably aren't as bad as Indiana, whom Northwestern barely beat. Following the Nittany Lions, Northwestern has to host Iowa.
After Iowa, Northwestern takes on an Illinois team that is no longer the doormat of the conference, as they were a year ago.
Finally, Northwestern must take on Wisconsin, who should be knocking on the door of a one-loss season and staring down the barrel of either a Rose Bowl berth or a BCS at-large bid.
Northwestern is bowl-eligible and it's a good thing. Six wins might just be all they see this year.
Illinois Fighting Illini (5-3; 3-2)
If ever there was a case for how important offensive and defensive coordinators are, Illinois is it.
Since coming to Champaign, Ron Zook has been just about anything but a great coach. He's a fantastic recruiter. He's good in front of the cameras, and he hasn't had a lot of behavioral problems while at Illinois. He also hasn't won a ton of games.
Aside from the Rose Bowl run that Illinois made in 2007, the Illini have been merely mediocre. Last year they were just bad, and many (myself included) expected more of the same this year, now that Juice Williams had moved on.
But Illinois made some changes. In came Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino and Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning.
When the Illini dropped their opener to Missouri, I thought "here we go again." Then, Illinois fired off a couple of in-state wins over "directional Illinois" teams (Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois). They followed that up with a respectable loss against Ohio State and a strong victory over Penn State.
Suddenly, Illinois was looking like an honest win-worthy football team. Michigan State beat them down, but they turned around and easily handled both Indiana and Purdue.
Don't misunderstand the tone of this slide. Illinois is not a conference contender in 2010. Far from it. However, they're winning the games they would have lost a year ago and aren't looking so terrible in their losses. They've made big strides forward.
The future for Illinois looks very promising and opportunistic. The remainder of their schedule includes winnable games against Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Fresno State.
While Michigan will test their defense, they won't be the toughest test for this offense. Minnesota is in shambles and lacking a true head coach.
Northwestern has been skating by and hasn't proven that they can put together a complete performance. Fresno State lacks a real marquee win and boasts losses to both Hawaii and Ole Miss. They're beatable.
It's entirely possible that Illinois could end this season on a six-game winning streak and with a 9-3 record.
Perhaps more importantly, Illinois has put people in place to build this program into the future. They should most definitely be bowling this season, and could be a true conference contender as early as next year.
Iowa Hawkeyes (6-2; 3-1)
Now things get really interesting.
It's been well documented how high Iowa's expectations were coming into the season. It's been equally documented how those expectations have fallen by the wayside with losses to Arizona and Wisconsin.
Not lost in these discussions is the fact that Iowa is still a very good and very dangerous football team. Highlighting this fact are a 10-point victory in The Big House, a one-point loss to Wisconsin (a top 10 BCS team), and a 37-6 drumming of then-undefeated Michigan State.
The Hawkeyes made the Big Ten title race a real dog fight. Michigan State had the crown firmly in their grasp before Iowa knocked them off and made it a four-horse race among the Spartans, the Buckeyes, the Badgers, and the Hawkeyes.
Iowa's offense, led by QB Ricky Stanzi, has been efficient and more effective than years past. Their defense is one of the best in the conference.
What has been lacking for a good portion of the season has been strong special teams play. That was apparently answered against Michigan State.
Also questionable, has been the play calling (conservatism) of the coaching staff. Once again, against Michigan State, that issue seems to have been answered as Kirk Ferentz and his staff played very aggressively.
It hasn't necessarily been an easy road. While their wins have been decisive and their losses have been by narrow margins, the fact that they have two losses at this point is a little disconcerting to fans. In this conference, in this season, they don't control their own fate.
The road ahead isn't easy either, but the outlook can still be very bright.
Coming up is a very winnable game against Indiana. That's followed by a showdown against a Northwestern team that has been a thorn in Iowa's side the last five years.
Then comes a real marquee match against five-time defending conference champions, Ohio State. That game could spell out the bowl scenarios for as many as four teams.
Finally, Iowa ends their season with their last rivalry game against Minnesota (conference alignment will erase this contest and insert Nebraska in Minny's place).
It wouldn't be completely shocking if Iowa went 2-2 over those last four games. On the other hand, it likewise wouldn't be shocking if they went 4-0. They're that good, but they're also that inconsistent this year.
Wisconsin Badgers (7-1; 3-1)
Could this year be the year of "what might have been"? It's shaping up to look that way.
Coming into the season, Wisconsin was a dark horse in the national title race, and a real contender in the conference title race.
Everything looked great in the early going as they disposed of lesser OOC opponents. Their one-point win over Arizona State was a little unsettling, however.
When Wisconsin came face-to-face with their first real competitor in Michigan State, they faltered and lost 34-24. At that time, no one expected Michigan State to go 8-0 and entering the national title discussion before finally losing to Iowa.
While many were busy jumping off the Badger bandwagon, Wisconsin was prepping to win them right back again.
After quickly disposing of hapless Minnesota, the Badgers did the unpredicted. They knocked off Ohio State and Iowa in back-to-back weeks, ruining the Buckeyes' national title hopes and endangering the Hawkeyes' conference title hopes.
Wisconsin has expertly used a combination of John Clay and James White to put together the second-best rush attack in the conference (behind Michigan with Denard Robinson).
They've tempered that with fairly efficient play by QB Scott Tolzien and a tough-as-nails defense that ranks fourth in the conference in total defense.
Looking ahead, Wisconsin has a real possibility of ending the year at 11-1.
They travel to Purdue and Michigan and host Indiana and Northwestern. Michigan could be a little thorny, as could Northwestern. The others however, shouldn't really give the Badgers too much concern.
If the Badgers do end the season at 11-1, it will be a resounding success. On the other hand, will they look back and wonder what might have been if only they'd gotten it all together before taking on Michigan State?
Ohio State Buckeyes (8-1; 4-1)
Talk about seasons that might have been! Ohio State entered the season firmly in the national title discussion. In fact, they were ranked No. 2 in the preseason Coaches Poll and maintained that position until Alabama was upset by South Carolina on Oct. 9.
Immediately, the Buckeyes found themselves at the very top of both the Coaches Poll and AP Poll, with a national championship berth firmly within their grasp.
But then, they had to travel to Camp Randall to take on the Badgers. Shocked by what Wisconsin brought to the table, Ohio State fell 31-18.
All but gone are the hopes of a chance at redemption in a national title game. With Michigan State's unexpected undefeated run, they were even shuffled to the back-burner of the conference title race (they don't play the Spartans).
The Buckeyes have rebounded by stomping Purdue 49-0 and manhandling Minnesota 52-10.
Ahead of Ohio State stand Penn State, Iowa, and Michigan. The Nittany Lions aren't the same Lions that knocked them off a couple of years ago.
Iowa is tough, but they're technically 1-2 against teams currently ranked by the BCS. Michigan is much-improved over the last couple of years, but they're nowhere near where they need to be defensively to slow down the Buckeyes.
As with Wisconsin, it's possible that Ohio State could end the year 11-1 and wonder what might have been if only they'd been better prepared for the Badgers.
On the flip side, Penn State is just dangerous enough that they can't be overlooked. Iowa is arguably better than they were a year ago when they took the Buckeyes into overtime before finally surrendering. Michigan has an incredibly dangerous offense that could shock a Buckeye team thinking they've got it in the bag.
The chances are very, very good that Ohio State will do no worse than 10-2 and could easily be 11-1. Even as such, they could find themselves out of the BCS discussion for the first time in a long time.
Michigan State Spartans (8-1; 4-1)
Here is the surprise team of the 2010 season.
Last year, the Spartans struggled to eke out a 6-6 regular season, then were beaten by Texas Tech in a bowl game. While that was a decided back-step from the 9-4 season they'd enjoyed in 2008, there was little expectation of this team doing much better than 7-5 or 8-4.
Michigan State decided to roll out to a 8-0 start that included a convincing win over undefeated Wisconsin (who later went on to beat both Ohio State and Iowa).
With an improved rush attack, led by Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell, QB Kirk Cousins has enjoyed a season where he hasn't had to carry the Spartan attack. With that pressure off, Cousins has been able to put together a pass game that raises Michigan State to the rank of third in the conference in passing offense.
Defensively, Michigan State has a lot of tools at their disposal as well. Greg Jones leads one of the most dangerous linebacker corps in college football.
Also, led by Jonathon Strayhorn, the Spartans are averaging two sacks per game and the defensive secondary has combined for 13 interceptions on the year.
At 8-1, the toughest competition is arguably behind them. The Spartans don't face Ohio State this year and they've already dealt with Wisconsin and Iowa, splitting the two.
Ahead of them, the Spartans still have Minnesota, Purdue, and Penn State. Minnesota has only one weak win, Purdue is severely wounded, and Penn State isn't playing up to traditional standards.
If you're going to lay a bet on a team from the Big Ten finishing the season 11-1, this should probably be the team, if they don't implode.
That's not a big "if" at this point. They'll have two relatively easy games before they take on Penn State, the only one of the three that show any signs of being able to upend the Spartans.
This team came in with prognosticators expecting perhaps an eight-win season. They'll almost definitely be leaving it with double digits in the "W" column and a real solid shot at sniffing Roses in Pasadena.
The Big Ten Is Stronger Than the Last Few Years
My fellow Big Ten fans, we have long known that our conference is a strong one. We've long understood that there are few places in America where a balanced offense and strong defense can still come together so beautifully and successfully as it does here in the Big Ten.
Our adversaries will point to our failures in certain bowl years and against certain bowl opponents. I say, let them have their moment of glory. Let them hang their hopes on the victories of the past. They have earned them and they deserve the right to their pride.
However, this season has demonstrated better than perhaps any year in recent memory, that the Big Ten is relevant, the Big Ten is strong, and the Big Ten is getting even better!
We recognize that Minnesota has fallen and will take some time to get back up. We recognize that Purdue is dealing with injuries that may have sidelined a season worthy of respect.
Those things aside, I remind you of the following:
Illinois has surpassed expectations by putting together a solid defense and an offense that is arguably more balanced than during the Juice Williams era.
Michigan State erupted onto the national scene with a fantastic 8-0 and looks to potentially end their campaign with only the one loss.
Michigan continues to improve (at least on offense) and should be back in the bowl hunt this year.
Indiana still has a lot of work to do, but they have put together a pass attack that has to be respected and maintains the potential of upsetting anyone that takes them too lightly.
Northwestern has found a new leader in Dan Persa and may have found a strong complement in RB Mike Trumpy. They will continue to be a thorn in the sides of teams that fail to recognize their ability and motivation.
Penn State may be down this year, but they maintain the kind of recruiting classes and the kind of coaching stability that will ensure their return to prominence as early as next year.
Wisconsin has inserted themselves as a national power that must be taken seriously. Dating back to their bowl game last year, they have taken care of all but one opponent, and look likely to continue their winning ways with new tools emerging daily.
Iowa has shown greater depth than many believed they had, and have shown yet again that they are a true national power. They are in the conference title race and could find themselves mentioned in the national discussion in years to come.
Finally, Ohio State is still Ohio State. With tremendous talent all over the field, a coach that patiently build his program into one successful season after another, and a fan base that won't let the nation forget that they're the Ohio State University, this team will again represent the conference well wherever they go and whomever they contest.
Put all of the pieces together. See the improvements of teams like Illinois and Michigan State. Add in the continued success of teams like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio State. What you have is a very strong conference.
The future is bright for the Big Ten. As we warmly welcome Nebraska to the fold following this season, we fail to lose sight of the fact that our conference is relevant right now.
Saturdays bless you, bowl selections bless the Big Ten and HAPPY BOWL HUNTING!