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Sorting out the Big Ten a couple of games into conference play

What a mess! The Big Ten East still holds the power teams, while six West teams are 1-1 in conference play with Wisconsin alone in the cellar

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Rutgers at Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I was really well off the mark when I wrote about the Big Ten in a preseason column. Way off the mark. I saw Wisconsin and Iowa as the cream of the Western crop, with Purdue coming in next. Illinois? No way. The East was much easier to figure (if we disregard the collapse of the Spartans, that is).

Now that we’ve seen everyone play a few times, it’s time to reflect on what’s going on. The teams that are better than I thought that they’d be? The Illini, for sure. Also, Penn State, Mayland, and Minnesota (even though they fell to Purdue last week). And the disappointments? Wisconsin and Michigan State, both of whom were ranked in the preseason polls, both of whom are now 2-3 and headed south.

The Big Ten West

As I noted above, six teams in the West are tied for first with a 1-1 record. Wisconsin has dropped both of its league games, and I wouldn’t say that any of the seven teams has a signature win. Minnesota’s 49-7 win over Colorado? Illinois’ 24-3 handling of Virginia? Well, the Buffaloes are 0-5 with no likely wins in sight, and the Cavaliers are 2-3 with mighty triumphs over Richmond and Old Dominion (16-14!). So, I’m not handing out any prizes to the Gophers and Illini here.

But Illinois (4-1 overall) has been the biggest surprise in the conference so far. Beating Wisconsin, even an apparently not very good Wisconsin, in Madison by 24 counts for something. The Illinois defense is second in the Big Ten in total defense, giving up only 229 yards per game. Although their offense is only in the middle of the pack, the running game, plus the defense, allow the Illini to dominate possession. They have Iowa and Minnesota coming up next; if they win those two, they become favorites in the West.

Minnesota, also 4-1 overall, had been dominant in their first four games, with an average score of 46-6. Then, they’re held to 10 points at home against Purdue, a team whose defense ranks seventh in the Big Ten. Go figure. Minnesota’s defense is tops in the Big Ten, its offense No. 2. The Gophers play at Illinois, then at Penn State. We’ll know then what they’re made of.

Purdue (3-2) is only a few points away from a perfect season, losing to Penn State in the opener 35-31 and then at Syracuse 32-29. On the other hand, the Boilermakers beat Florida Atlantic by only two points. Next week at Maryland will be a very interesting matchup.

As usual, Iowa (3-2) is a kind of enigma. Always pretty tough on the defensive side of the ball, with good linebackers and lots of created turnovers, their offense is suspect, as we saw against Michigan this past week. They don’t have a quarterback that can get them out of an early hole. They might well beat Illinois next week but then face Ohio State, after a bye.

I know that some folks thought highly of Nebraska (2-3) before the season began. But the opening loss to Northwestern in Dublin (the Wildcats’ only win so far) and the home loss to the Sun Belt’s Georgia Southern told us all we need to know about the Cornhuskers. The post-Scott Frost era has seen the ‘Huskers get demolished by Oklahoma and then beat Indiana. A bowl game is still a possibility, but I wouldn’t wager much on it.

Wisconsin (0-2, 2-3) beat up on a couple of lesser foes – Illinois State 38-0 and New Mexico State 66-7. But a 17-14 loss at home against Washington State, a real whipping by the Buckeyes 52-21, and the 34-10 loss to Illinois have left the Badgers reeling and with an interim head coach. They may be able to make some headway towards regaining their footing with games at Northwestern and at Michigan State on the horizon.

If you’re a Big Ten team, and you lose to Southern Illinois and to Miami of Ohio (as well as to Duke), there’s only one word to describe your season so far – stinko! And that’s my description of Northwestern. The Wildcats have had a lot of trouble putting up points. As a consequence, their season will be over before December.

The Big Ten East

Ever since the conference divided into these two divisions, the East has been dominant, largely because of the success of the Ohio State Buckeyes, but not exclusively. Penn State and Michigan State have been tough, and recently TTUN has become a contender. While the West’s outcome is anybody’s guess, the East has three undefeated teams at 2-0 and 5-0 overall. Not surprisingly, these three teams are the only B1G teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25: Ohio State at No. 3, Michigan No. 4, and Penn State No. 10.

Ohio State was picked before the season as a team likely to make it to the playoffs – and maybe win it all. Loaded with talent, they’ve looked the part so far. While Notre Dame and Wisconsin once looked to be big wins, it’s possible that those teams weren’t as good as advertised. Ohio State has the conference’s best offense, with 530 yards per game and more than eight yards per play. The Buckeyes should handle Michigan State and Iowa but will be tested at Penn State.

Blowing away the likes of Colorado State, Hawaii, and UConn didn’t really tell us much about Michigan. Closer wins against stronger opponents – Maryland and Iowa – did. TTUN is good. They play the Nittany Lions in a couple of weeks. The winner will be in a good position to contend for the East.

Although Penn State has had a couple of close wins (Purdue 35-31 and Northwestern 17-7) not many teams go into Auburn and beat the Tigers by 30. I know that Auburn’s a bit down, but that was a good win in a nasty environment. How Penn State, Michigan, and Ohio State fare against each other will determine the conference championship.

Maryland (1-1, 4-1) is another team that’s been a pleasant surprise for its fans. They came close to beating the Wolverines in Ann Arbor and have put up points in all five of their games. Teams that have difficulty protecting against the pass are in trouble when they play the Terps. With Purdue, Indiana, and Northwestern coming up next, they could easily be 4-1 in Big Ten play and looking forward to taking on Penn State and the Buckeyes.

I previously labeled Indiana (1-1, 3-2) as the league’s worst team. I now have them battling it out for that distinction with Northwestern. The three-point win over Illinois in the opener now looks like a fluke. The 14-point loss to lowly Nebraska is more like it. With Michigan and Maryland on tap, the Hoosiers should enjoy their winning record. It won’t last long.

Everybody always says that Rutgers (0-2, 3-2) is getting better, year after year. Are they? Doesn’t seem like it. Sure, they beat Wagner (didn’t know that they fielded a team) by 60, and then eked out wins against Boston College (by one) and Temple (by two). But they couldn’t handle Iowa, and Ohio State destroyed them. They could end up .500 if they can pick the low-hanging fruit coming up – Nebraska, Indiana, Minnesota (doubtful).

That leaves Michigan State (0-2, 2-3). They simply stunk up the place in their last two games, losses to Minnesota 34-7 and Maryland 27-13. Their next three games are with Ohio State, Wisconsin, and at Michigan. Despite what I said about the Badgers, I don’t see Sparty winning any of these games.

Predictions for the rest of the way

I love Illinois and their great start. I see Minnesota, however, as the likely winner of the West, with Purdue contending. Don’t count Wisconsin out; they could still get it together. Iowa just doesn’t have the firepower.

In the East, I still like Ohio State, a team that’s very good and getting better. Michigan and Penn State are legitimate contenders. Maryland as a long shot. Head-to-head play will give us something to look forward to.