When the season started in August, it was presumed that the Leaders division was Ohio State's to lose, and the Legends division could go to one of Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, or Northwestern.
While the Buckeyes have lived up to their preseason billing, the Legends has been, other than Michigan State, a...I'm looking for the technical wording here...gasoline fire soaked in kerosene, with a C4 accelerant. A division race that was supposed to come down to the the last week has been anticlimatic so far, pretty much smothered by an MSU defense that is one, if not the, best defenses in the country. So we'll start our grading there.
Northwestern: F. Oh, Northwestern. They opened the season ranked #22 in the country, and rolled to a 4-0 start. By the time they got to the OSU game, they were #16 in the country, and were looking for a program changing win against the Buckeyes. It was nationally televised, ESPN's College GameDay did their famous pregame show on the shores of Lake Michigan, and a lot of people thought Northwestern was going to win. It was program changing, all right, as OSU won, and the Wildcats went into a funk they have yet to recover from. They've now lost five straight, and dreams of a Big Ten championship have dropped to hoping just to get bowl eligible. Of all the layers of disappointment that is the Leaders Division, Northwestern might be the most disappointing.
Michigan: D-. Heh. Michigan doesn't know what they want to be. Well, they do, I think, but they just can't do what they want. My grandson is 6 months old, and in the last two weeks he has more rushing yards than the Wolverines do. I have never seen a Michigan offense so discombobulated, even under Rich Rodriguez. The bloom seems to be completely off the rose for Brady Hoke, and the discontent in Ann Arbor is rising. You can talk me into them going 0-3 to finish their last three games, which would mean a trip to lovely Detroit in December for the Pizza Bowl. If there is an eight pound, six ounce newborn sweet baby Ricky Bobby Jesus, please let this happen. Pretty please.
Iowa: C+. The Hawkeyes have been better than advertised, becoming bowl eligible yesterday with a win over Purdue. Jake Rudock has had an up and down season, but he's shown flashes of being pretty good. AIRBHG has gone easy on the Hawkeyes, and they have good lines on both sides of the ball. They have a puncher's chance against both a weakened Michigan and Nebraska, and a win in either of those games would be impressive.
Minnesota: B+. No one, and I mean no one, saw eight wins for Minnesota with two games to play. Heck, just about no one saw eight wins for Minnesota, period They have two signature wins, and have two weeks to prepare for Wisconsin. Jerry Kill has done a remarkable job once again in year three at a program, and they can still win the Legends Division. Granted, that's a long shot and they need a fair amount of help, but it's November, and Minnesota can still win the division while Northwestern and Michigan have been eliminated. And with a punishing running game and a good defense, they can make some noise in bowl season. Well done, Goldy.
Nebraska: B-. Three weeks ago, Nebraska was dead in the water. A staggering loss to Minnesota left the Cornhuskers at 5-2, but two weeks after that life looks a lot better. A Hail Mary win against Northwestern followed by a gut check win at Michigan has them in second place in the Legends and in control of their own destiny. They still have MSU to play, and if they can beat them and win out, they'll go to Indy. They are still struggling with an inordinate amount of injuries, and I'd rate their chances against MSU as not particularly good, but they've been able to rebound and get back in position to win the division. No one saw that as they were trudging off the field in Minneapolis.
Michigan State: A. Coming into the season, Sparty was kind of the ultimate 'yeah but...' team. As in 'man, they have a great defense.' 'Yeah, but that offense...'. Well, their defense is even better than people thought, and their offense has come around to be certainly good enough. Early in the season, that wasn't the case, and the defense literally willed the team to early wins. But Connor Cook has steadily improved into a serviceable quarterback, and MSU has an efficient, if somewhat pedestrian offense. But with that defense, that's all you need.
The Leaders division has been pretty cut and dry. OSU jumped out to an early lead, and has gotten progressively better as the season has worn on. Let's get out the grade book.
Purdue: F. Terrible. You entered the red zone for the first time since October against Iowa and scored 14 points, but you gave up 38. This is one of the all-time worst Big Ten teams, and it looks like their only win will be against an FCS team. Darrell Hazell has a long climb out of the muck in West Lafayette.
Illinois: F. Year two of the Tim Beckman era has been better, but that's only because year one was such a disaster FEMA turned them down for assistance. Nathan Scheelhaase has looked a lot better, but as a whole, the Illini are bereft of talent, and they're still a couple years away from competing.
Penn State: D. Last year Penn State got by on talent, an 'us against the world' mentality, and good senior leadership with guys like Michael Mauti and Matt McGloin. Those guys are gone, PSU is one year farther away from the emotion of last year, and the reality of scholarship reductions is setting in. BIll O'Brien has a talented freshman quarterback, but he's a freshman. He'll get better, but they have a ways to go.
Indiana, C-. Kevin Wilson has made a lot of progress in his time at Bloomington, but it's all been on the offensive side of the ball. The defense is as bad as any defense in FBS, but they'll win some games because of their offense. At 4-5, they can still get to a bowl, although they've got a tough schedule and will have to pull a huge upset against either Ohio State or Wisconsin, but that offense will keep them in any game. Unfortunately, their defense will cost them most of those. Still the fact that Indiana's bowl dreams aren't dead is an accomplishment.
Wisconsin, A-. Wisconsin has a 'good' loss against OSU, and then were victimized by the Great Arizona Screw Job, and should be 8-1. Gary Andersen has done a very good job maintaining what Barry Alvarez started and Bret Bielema continued. They're a long shot to win the division, as they're essentially two games behind the Buckeyes because of tiebreakers. The question remains whether or not they can climb high enough in the BCS rankings to be considered for an at-large bid. I don't think they can, but regardless, they'll be favored their last two games, and 10-2 is a record most teams would love to have.
Ohio State, A: OSU struggled a little bit out of the gates, but found ways to win when the defense struggled and Braxton Miller went down with injuries. They beat both Northwestern and Wisconsin to open the conference schedule, and have slowly gotten better on both sides of the ball as the season has worn on. They'll probably be #3 in the BCS rankings come Sunday night, and with a little luck, they might even make it to the BCS title game. But first, they'll need to get through the rest of their schedule unscathed, and, more than likely, Michigan State.