"In appearance it is very powerful, but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain. I believe the United States is nothing but a paper tiger." -Mao Zedong, First Chairman of the Communist Party of China
While Chairman Mao was talking about the perceived strength of the United States in the middle of the 20th century, he may as well have been referring to the 2008 Minnesota Golden Gophers football team. Or Illinois.
Week 11 was not kind to those Big Ten teams. After the first 10 weeks, one squad had greatly exceeded expectations while the other was disappointing. Now it seems like the two are feeling about the same.
The Big Ten has a couple of 'Paper Tigers' in its ranks
Minnesota has seemingly engineered a miraculous turnaround this season after finishing 1-11 last season. Before this weekend's game against Michigan, the Gophers were enjoying a 7-2 record, having clinched bowl eligibility on Oct. 11 against Illinois.
The Gophers looked to reclaim the Little Brown Jug against a Michigan team with nothing left to play for, at home in the Metrodome. They were the favorite and responded by getting flat-out embarrassed by a score of 29-6.
I've hinted at this before, but now it's pretty clear. Minnesota's turnaround is more a product of a remarkably weak schedule than it is great coaching or talent.
It's pretty obvious after the Gophers wet the bed against one of the worst teams in the Big Ten this season. For the past few weeks, I've actually had Michigan at the bottom of the Big Ten rankings I submit to Kristofer Green.
Let's take a look at Minnesota's schedule. Their first two losses of the season came against the only two good teams they played in the first nine games, Northwestern and Ohio State.
Of the teams they've beaten this year, only Northern Illinois and Illinois seem to still have a decent shot at a bowl. Montana State is decent when playing other 1-AA teams, and Purdue and Indiana have been awful in the Big Ten this season.
If you want to be taken seriously, you've got to beat somebody. I think Minnesota has improved, but nowhere near as drastically as their record would indicate.
Illinois is an interesting case. They played in the Rose Bowl last season and were ranked No. 20 in the preseason AP Poll.
The Illini probably weren't going to contend for a conference title, but nobody expected them to be fighting for their Motor City Bowl lives, either. Even if Illinois makes it to the Motor City Bowl, they can't be expected to win it after losing to Western Michigan in Detroit this weekend.
A team with Juice Williams and Aurrelious Benn looks very dangerous. On paper.
Williams has put up some insane stat lines this season, including 431 yards of total offense and four TDs against Michigan at the Big House, and 451 yards passing and five TDs against Missouri to open the season.
Clearly, if Williams doesn't perform, the Illinois offense is hopeless.
Coming into this season, things were supposed to be crowded at the top of the Big Ten, thanks to excellent teams from Columbus and State College, and an up-and-coming Michigan State Spartans squad.
In reality, the Big Ten this season is two great teams, one very good team, a good team, a decent team, and six teams just hoping to avoid the cellar.
Penn State can forget about traveling to Miami on Jan. 8
PSU's loss to Iowa will have a huge effect on the national scene. I'll break this down in detail.
1. PSU's hopes for a National Title are officially dead
There's no way that the pollsters will allow a one-loss Big Ten team to sneak back in to the title picture.
First, it was a loss to an unranked (and until today, unimpressive) Iowa squad.
Second, Penn State would likely have to leapfrog four studly one-loss teams: Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and USC.
Depending on how far down they slip in the rankings, they might also have to claw their way back in front of Utah and Boise State.
Sorry, folks, it's not going to happen.
2. Michigan State no longer controls their own destiny
This is the only reason that Iowa's win upset me, but it's a pretty big reason.
Going into this week, the scenario was simple. If Michigan State beat Purdue and Penn State, they would win the Big Ten title by virtue of a three-way tiebreaker scenario and head to the Rose Bowl. Now they still have to beat Penn State and hope that either Illinois or Michigan can help them out and beat Ohio State.
Had Penn State beaten Iowa then lost to Michigan State, that would have left three Big Ten teams with one-conference loss (assuming OSU also won out). MSU would have beaten Penn State, who beat Ohio State, who beat Michigan State.
In this scenario, head-to-head records get thrown out and we go to the second tiebreaker, which is strength of schedule. Michigan State wins that by virtue of not scheduling a single 1-AA program.
Now if both Michigan State and Ohio State win out, the head-to-head tiebreaker is in play. MSU loses that one and would be relegated to the Capital One Bowl (still very exciting, but a conference title is always the goal).
This is the scenario every Michigan State fan dreads: having to root for Michigan to win in order to give Michigan State the title. Yeah, I'll probably do it but I know I'll feel dirty afterwards.
I'll be rooting for Illinois to take care of Ohio State next weekend so I'll be able to avoid rooting for Michigan.
3. Ohio State might get a rematch against USC in the Rose Bowl
This is the scenario that potentially makes everybody in the country hate Michigan State.
I know people don't want to see Ohio State get waxed by USC again, but if both MSU and OSU win out, then OSU takes the Big Ten title and accompanying Rose Bowl berth. USC is on track to win the Pac-10 title, but at this point appear too far back in the BCS rankings to have a realistic shot at the title game.
It would be a better game than last year's Rose Bowl, where Illinois got 'debacled' (to quote Emmitt Smith) against the Trojans.
4. It exposed Penn State's flaws in a big way
Pat Narduzzi has two weeks to get the Spartan defense ready for Penn State. Based on the way MSU's defense adjusted to the run this week against Purdue after last week's shoddy performance against Wisconsin, Narduzzi will have his boys ready.
Michigan State held Purdue to 108 yards on the ground, with 44 of those coming on Purdue's last drive. Dominating? I think so.
The trademark of the Mark Dantonio Spartans has been their ability to make adjustments week to week.
When Wisconsin carved them up on the ground one week, they studied film, tweaked their defensive schemes, and put up a brick wall at the line of scrimmage to stifle Purdue. Narduzzi will no doubt look at why Iowa was successful and attempt to emulate that in his game planning.
We've also got to wonder what has happened to the vaunted 'Spread HD' offense. Through their first eight games, Penn State was putting up well over 40 points per game.
They've averaged a mere 18 points in their last two games. Is it more conservative playcalling? Injuries? Better opponents?
Penn State had better hope that it's an easy fix. Michigan State's defense looks great and will come after the Nittany Lions as aggressively as Iowa did.
Graham Harrell is a Texas-sized talent
And we all know that the only thing bigger than Texas are the oil fields of West Springfield. I believe those are three times the size of Texas, to be exact.
I'd like to pause for a moment to thank everybody who caught that Simpsons reference.
I know the fact that Graham Harrell is a really good QB isn't exactly breaking news, but I haven't had a chance to see anything more substantial than SportsCenter highlights until the last few weeks. Regional coverage, you know how it is. This segment is more for me than anything else.
What I've seen the last couple of weeks is Harrell carving up two of the best teams in country. I don't think he's a system quarterback either, I think he's simply a great quarterback.
He's got good accuracy, and is confident enough in that accuracy to throw into some tight spots. He also has the ability to throw to all parts of the field.
Having Michael Crabtree around helps a little bit, but Harrell is a special quarterback. As I write this sentence, Harrell has just completed another touchdown, capping off a 96-yard scoring drive.
I can't put up these kind of numbers in a video game, so it's stunning that he's doing it against some of the best teams in the country.
Stories just making the cut
Boston College's band is...not good. I don't know how they expect to pump up a crowd when all they play (seriously) is "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana and "Mars" from The Planets. It's like watching a bad Gatorade commercial.
Notre Dame loses to another team with a .500 or better record. Another "turnaround" that's a result of a weak schedule. And the myth of Charlie Weis lives on...
The only thing that can hold Javon Ringer back is the stomach flu, apparently. He rebounded from a poor (but effective) performance against Wisconsin to turn in another excellent game.
Now that Michigan doesn't have to worry about playing in a bowl, they can finally loosen up and beat somebody. When's the last time you heard the phrase "Michigan upsets Minnesota"? It's been a while.
'Bama has what it takes to play in Miami this January. I don't like Nick Saban, but I'm really impressed by what his team has done this season. They went into an incredibly hostile environment this weekend and came away with a scrappy, hard-fought win.
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