Posted by Adam Jacobi
Big Ten Conference play begins this weekend*, and the race for the conference title is either already over (Ohio State) or wide open (the six other teams seemingly capable of winning the conference). We'll quickly find out whether many of the presumptive challengers to the Buckeyes' supremacy have what it takes to put together a great season. Considering the questions surrounding so many of them, the answer seems to be "maybe, but it's unlikely." In no particular order ...
Michigan (4-0): On one hand, Denard Robinson is a near-lock for Heisman candidacy this December; his stat lines are other-worldly, and there are few defenses in the conference that seem capable of containing this Michigan offense. But that defense. Ye gods, the defense. Michigan allowed 37 points to FCS stalwart UMass, and has given up more points thus far than every Big Ten team except Minnesota. Can Robinson and his teammates outscore enough conference opponents to justify the team's No. 19 ranking? They'll find out soon enough against Indiana this weekend; the Hoosiers have scored more than 40 points a game this season and have talent everywhere on offense.
Iowa (3-1): The good news: the Iowa Hawkeyes look materially better than last season, as wins that were close last year are blowouts now. Ricky Stanzi is far more efficient as a passer, and the only interception he's thrown all season came on a deflection. The bad news: the Hawkeyes have three kickers, which is to say they have none, and their cornerbacks are still rather suspect. And good heavens, that Arizona game. Iowa committed mistake after mistake in the first half, found themselves down 20 points at the break, then imploded on the offensive line with the game on the line. So what's there to make of the Arizona game? Was it an aberration, or is Iowa merely a bully of plainly inferior competition? Penn State comes to town this weekend, and intends to find out exactly how good the Hawkeyes actually are.
Wisconsin (4-0): No undefeated Big Ten team is more of an enigma than Wisconsin, who looks like it should be a Rose Bowl contender on paper -- and may very well be so -- but has underwhelmed against FBS competition. The Badgers needed a blocked extra point and a miraculous tackle at the 1-yard line at the end of the first half to help preserve a 20-19 win against Arizona State, and only beat an unimpressive San Jose State team 27-14. Yes, they won 70-3 over Austin Peay. Whatever. Wisconsin has the hogs up front and the stable of running backs (led by All-American candidate John Clay) to run over just about anybody in the conference, and Scott Tolzein is having another impressive and efficient season. Their defense isn't a weakness, and they get Ohio State (whom they've usually given fits) in Madison. But lo and behold, they face Michigan State in East Lansing this week, and it's basically a toss-up. Which Wisconsin will show up this Saturday -- and this season?
Penn State (3-1): Joe Paterno made waves when he installed true freshman Rob Bolden at quarterback to begin the season, and for the most part, the decision has worked out; Bolden hasn't looked great, but he's playing with a maturity beyond his years, and he's certainly not a weak link in the offense. That weak link, however, would be the offensive line; Penn State hasn't blown anyone off the ball with any regularity yet this season, and that includes the likes of Youngstown State and Temple. That Penn State is still ranked after its somewhat underwhelming non-conference schedule demonstrates the deep level of trust voters have in JoePa to field a competitive team, and that's a trust that's rarely betrayed. Still, the Nittany Lions had better start playing like a quality team very soon, or they could find themselves in line for something like the Texas Bowl.
Northwestern (4-0): The Cardiac 'Cats have the inside track to a 6-0 record right now; they're two-thirds of the way there at 4-0, and their next two opponents are absolute doormats Minnesota and Purdue. Quarterback Dan Persa is one of the highest rated passers in the NCAA, and he's also Northwestern's leading rusher. That's sort of a bad thing. In fact, Persa and his stable of running backs all average less than 4 yards per carry, and they haven't even faced great rush defenses: of their three FBS opponents, only Central Michigan is in the top half of the nation's rush defenses. Let's face it: if you can't run on Vanderbilt (143 yards on 46 carries most certainly does not qualify), you can't run on most of the Big Ten. Can Persa keep up his efficient passing in the conference season, or is that 6-0 start going to turn into 8-4 and a mediocre December bowl bid?
Michigan State (4-0): Here's what's scary: The relatively underhyped, unheralded Michigan State squad could end up being better than all the teams mentioned above. Kirk Cousins is 17th in passing efficiency in the FBS. True freshman Le'Veon Bell is a dynamo in the Spartans' backfield (and pancaked two defenders at once on MSU's game-winning fake field goal). Also, unlike Michigan, MSU doesn't have a giant honking RED ALERT attached to its defense. Oh, and the Spartans miss Ohio State on this year's schedule. Ten wins or more for Sparty? It's happened all of once (1999) since the NCAA went to 11-game regular seasons, but it could easily happen this year. Or MSU could revert to its usual self and drop four or five games in the conference. We'll start finding out when the Spartans and Badgers lock horns -- if, y'know, ancient Greek warriors and badgers had horns -- this Saturday.
So who's legit and who's not? To be honest, right now, nobody really knows. That's why this weekend's going to be vitally important for all the teams mentioned above. No more excuses, no hiding behind cupcake schedules; it's Big Ten season now.
*It's worth pointing out that the Big Ten is still something of a dinosaur in this respect; it's the only conference with an eight-game schedule that has yet to begin conference play. Sure, thanks to bye weeks, Indiana and Illinois each still have a non-con to squeeze in during the conference slate, but that's it; for the rest, it's the tried and true formula of out-of-conference, in-conference, bowl. A bit stale, to be sure, but it's somewhat nice to not have your conference title hopes completely ruined before it's even October; Georgia, after all, has already gone 0-3 in the SEC. Hopeless in September. That's no way for a fan to be, is it?