The Big Ten football race was going to be a little watered down this season to begin with, as the probations of Ohio State and Penn State effectively gutted the Leaders Division in this conference. Little did we know that would be the tip of the iceberg—the results of the first two weeks make it clear the league race in general, and the Leaders Division in particular are diluted enough to make an early call on the Big Ten as the worst of the five power leagues (along with the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 & ACC) and maybe worse than the Big East. Let’s down a rundown on the damage…
*Wisconsin was supposed to be the walkaway winner of the Leaders after the probations and they still might get to Indianapolis. But it won’t be because of high-quality play. After a narrow escape over Northern Iowa, the Badgers were badly outplayed at Oregon State and fortunate the final score ended only 10-7. Head coach Bret Bielama made national waves after the game when he immediately fired his offensive line coach.
Whether it will work or not, Bielama’s at least pinpointed the problem. Monte Ball, a Heisman finalist from a year ago, had only 61 yards on the ground in Corvallis and the Wisconsin offensive line was woeful at getting a push in key short-yardage situations. Wisconsin’s next game is a prime-time home affair against Utah State and with the Aggies fresh off beating Utah, a Wisconsin bounceback is hardly guaranteed. If progress isn’t shown Saturday night, you can’t even assume good things against UTEP on September 29, given the Miners’ good showing against Oklahoma in the opener.
*Illinois and Purdue are logical candidates to ascend to Wisconsin’s place on the throne, but both came up short on Saturday. Illinois looked terrible in Tempe, being routed by Arizona State 45-14 and having serious problems on pass defense exposed. In two weeks the Illini host Louisiana Tech, a team that joins Utah State as the co-favorites in the WAC and Tech has a very good quarterback in Colby Cameron. Better get that secondary fixed quickly. Purdue is the tougher read here. The 20-17 loss at Notre Dame could be seen as a positive and in normal circumstances, I’d take it as such. But…the Irish were just back on the plane for Dublin, they have prime-time games against Michigan State and Michigan the next two weeks and a slew of tough opponents after that. If ever the opportunity for a letdown existed it was here, and furthermore we really don’t know if this is that good a Notre Dame yet. What if Purdue lost to a 7-5 team playing in a letdown spot?
The Boilermakers can be put on wait-and-see status. This week’s game against Eastern Michigan won’t tell too much (unless Purdue loses), although a home game on September 29 against Marshall, a good Conference USA team with an explosive quarterback in Rakeem Cato, could be a better pre-conference indicator.
*I don’t even think we should get too carried away with Ohio State. Their 31-16 win over Central Florida was ho-hum at best and we don’t really know if the Buckeyes beat the UCF team from two years ago (when they won C-USA) or last year (when they missed a bowl). A home game against Cal this week will be a little more reliable indicator, particularly if Ohio State can be stout against the run. Ohio State’s fellow probation team in Penn State played well at Virginia, but couldn’t cash in red-zone chances and has a really rough situation at kicker. With the program departures and now a couple early losses, it’s looking like a long season. The Lions absolutely must beat Navy and Temple at home this week—both difficult, but both winnable.
*The Legends Division was supposed to be where the action was in this conference, but Nebraska disappointed on Saturday night at UCLA. The Cornhuskers were pounded in the trenches, as we noted yesterday in discussing the Bruins. Because Nebraska played well in its opener against Southern Miss, I guess we can’t be too hard on them here, but the physical beatdown they talk against an opponent not previously known for muscling people was a big hit to the reputation of the program and their new conference.
*Michigan’s 31-25 win over Air Force was more alarming than its loss to Alabama. The Wolverines had Fitz Touissant in the backfield and didn’t get him the ball much, nor was the running back—suspended for the Alabama game—all that effective when he ran. Air Force is a rebuilding triple option team, yet still passed efficiently (10-19, 127 yards no interceptions) and ground out four yards a pop in the rushing game. Brady Hoke has a home date with UMass to get something figured out before he takes his team to South Bend.
*Iowa barely escaped rebuilding Northern Illinois in the opener and then lost an ugly 9-6 game to Iowa State on Saturday. Is there anything to suggest the Hawkeyes can run the ball effectively? And with Saturday’s game being against the same Northern Iowa team that scared Wisconsin, is there any reason we should assume a win for Kirk Ferentz’s team?
The teams above are the prime culprits in the conference’s poor play. Michigan State is still hard to get a handle on. They struggled past Boise State, but they did win, and we don’t yet know how good the Broncos will be. New quarterback Andrew Maxwell had a nice showing against Central Michigan, and the Spartans need that to be a confidence-builder for the better opponents ahead. If Maxwell just plays mistake-free, the combination of Le’Veon Bell running the ball and a pretty good defense will help MSU avoid the plague that seems to be hitting the Midwest.
And Northwestern is an unambiguous good story so far—they beat Syracuse on the road and then knocked off Vanderbilt, and the odds are decent both of these teams are bowl-caliber. I also haven’t mentioned Indiana, who lost quarterback Tre Roberson with an injury, although if probation and poor performance keep hitting the Leaders Division, the Hoosiers might steal it by default . The fact I’m only partially joking is perhaps the biggest testament to Big Ten incompetence this fall.
The fall of the Big Ten means more than just a watered-down conference championship game and impending Rose Bowl smackdown. The conference usually gets an at-large spot in the BCS. A big part of that is the supportive fan bases for both attendance and TV and bad play won’t alter that. But if the performance is this poor, it’s going to be tough for the BCS to justify including a second Big Ten team in its showcase games—which is good news for the other four leagues, and especially good news at the independent and midmajor level.