Updated Nov. 9
OK, Big Ten, I'm back on the bandwagon.
In recent weeks, I had been criticizing the Big Ten for having a week middle tier. But upon further review, it might not be as bad as believed. This weekend's battles showed that it isn't a league full of pushovers. That complements the top four very well and makes for one strong league.
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Iowa needed nine points in the fourth quarter to come back and beat the fighting Ben Chappells in Indiana. Penn State also showed some mettle by taking down Northwestern, a team that had appeared to be the best of the rest in the Big Ten.
We still didn't learn much from the Illinois-Michigan game, other than the Wolverines can score and can't stop opponents from scoring. They could take some lessons on defense from the Wolverines in Red Dawn. As for Illinois, it continues to fight every opponent tough.
Minnesota, however, is still Minnesota. That's OK, every league has a pushover. Some team has to lose.
So the Big Ten is the big jumper this week, moving back to the No. 2 slot as the Big 12's upper tier continues to slip and the Pac-10 fails to hold any momentum it might have had from the non-conference schedule. But this isn't a move out of default, either. No, the Big Ten had been nipping on the heels of the other two all season because very little separates these three conferences. The league might not have a national championship contender anymore, but it has four teams still in the mix for BCS bowl berths, three in at-large consideration. What other league can realistically say that at this point in the season?
In the past, the Big Ten has handled itself well in bowl seasons, for the most part (outside the Rose Bowl), and this is shaping up to have a similar feel.
1. SEC (Last week: 1): No hiccups in a weekend full of non-conference creampuffs, and the big result was LSU knocking off Alabama. It doesn't do much for the conference. While it seems to show that, yes, LSU really is worthy of their ranking, at the same time, it makes one wonder if Alabama is that good. It's still largely the same team that won the championship last year, so it's fair to elevate the Tigers back to elite territory.
2. Big Ten (LW: 4): At this point in the season, only one school is eliminated from bowl contention, meaning 10 programs could still earn a bid somewhere. That shows domination in the non-con ... and also hints at weak schedules. It still holds that the best win by any team outside of Big Ten play was Ohio State taking out Miami, a 6-3 team from the ACC. Most of the other big games were losses, so that's the serious question mark that hangs over the league.
3. Big 12 (LW: 3): OK, so how good is Iowa State? Figuring out the answer to that question would help place this conference a little better. The Cyclones nearly pulled off the huge upset of conference big dog Nebraska. So are they as good as that, and their win over Texas, or was their humiliation at the hands of Utah a few weeks back more indicative? What we do know is that it's starting to look like a possibility that it's a conference without a true heavyweight, as the verdict isn't quite in on the Huskers.
4. Pac-10 (LW: 2): Nobody can compete with Oregon. And outside of the Ducks, it appears that nobody can really compete with Stanford -- although that one's not said with as much conviction. But the statements underscore the league's also-rans seem to be slipping. Arizona is still a quality squad and USC might still be, but the rest of the teams seem to be a decent ways back. None of them have shown consistency.
5. Mountain West (LW: 5): Contemplated a bump down this week after TCU throttled Utah, showing that the conference looks like a one-team league. But TCU isn't just a good team, it's a great team. And none of the other leagues seem to be better. Utah isn't in TCU's category, but it would be a contender in all of the conferences listed below. Plus, San Diego State and Air Force aren't doing the conference any disservices.
6. ACC (LW: 7): What was the conference's worst-case scenario a few weeks ago now looks to be the best: Virginia Tech representing the ACC again. After the loss to James Madison, the league had to be hoping for a champ with a better résumé, but now the Hokies are the only team with only two losses. If they don't win out, the ACC will have a champ with at least three defeats. Yikes.
7. WAC (LW: 6): That's one of Boise's supposed conference contenders gone. The Broncos laid waste to Hawaii, crushing a team that had looked pretty good this season. But the positive news is that Nevada and Fresno State continue winning. Come bowl season, we'll learn about the true quality of these teams, but I have a feeling that Boise is so good it makes these above average teams look worse than they are, and that will show in the postseason.
8. Big East (LW: 8): This lead on C-USA grows more and more tenuous. Only one of the two leagues has a team in the Top 25, and it's not the Big East. But as I said before, the one thing this league has going for it is that there isn't much of a drop from the top to the bottom of the league. That would be great news, if the top weren't so soft. Pitt is the league leader, and it went 2-3 in the non-con, losing to Utah, Miami and Notre Dame.
9. C-USA (LW: 9): Congratulations to the Knights of UCF for finally cracking the Top 25. It's great news for the league, too, which puts a team back in the rankings (remember, Houston was there early this season). Seven out of 12 teams seems like a very possible goal for bowl berths, pretty good for a league whose teams are often supposed to serve as cannon fodder for bigger conferences.
10. MAC (LW: 10): The big game in the MAC was on Tuesday as the league dropped to just one unbeaten in conference play after Northern Illinois hosted Toledo. As for the East, it will be decided down the stretch as Temple still has to face Ohio and Miami, each of the three schools having just one conference loss. With only one non-con game left, the league's cowbell win is either Temple's victory over UConn or Toledo's defeat of Purdue.
11. Sun Belt (LW: 11): Louisiana-Lafayette had the only out-of-league game this last weekend, and, as usual, it doesn't go well for the Sun Belt school. But the conference battle is shaping up well. The league still has a chance to get multiple teams eligible for the postseason, where it might be able to score a nice victory or two to help the image of the league ... a little.