Well, the first week of in-conference play in the Big Ten is complete, and things have gotten... more confusing. If I had told you at the beginning of the season that the top of the conference standings would be occupied by Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Northwestern (all at 5-0) right about now, you probably would have stopped reading this series. However, the three teams that everyone (including me) expected to be up there with OSU - Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State - are all in the middle of the conference standings and find themselves staring at records that feature at least one loss.
What on earth is going on here?
Ohio State really isn't a surprise, but its performance against Illinois sure was. Michigan State? Perhaps they're better than everyone gave them credit for. Northwestern and Michigan? It's a miracle these teams haven't dropped a game yet, but somehow they just keep hanging on.
In fact, this week, it's not just that the top of the conference honors are held by some of the most unlikely teams, but that Saturday's games featured three out of the four worst teams in the conference (Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana) nearly knocking those teams off. Parity? Yeah, I'd say it's arrived.
Though this kind of uncertainty in the conference causes much heartburn among fans, it's really only a good thing. This is not a year in which the race to the conference championship is going to be a snooze fest. Though Ohio State is still undefeated, and probably the most talented team in the conference, its play against Illinois today proves that they are not invulnerable. It is easily possible for Wisconsin, Iowa or one of the other teams in the conference to bump them off and claim the top spot. It seems that this year we are in for a season of Big Ten football that will come down to the wire, and I couldn't be more excited about that!
The losses by Wisconsin and Penn State this week contributed to some volatility in the position of the Big Ten's teams in the polls. Wisconsin and Penn State dropped, while Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan and Northwestern rose.
OSU: Was: No. 2 in the AP Poll and Coaches Poll. Now: no change.
Wisconsin: Was: No. 11 in the AP Poll and No. 9 in the Coaches Poll. Now: No. 20 in the AP Poll and No. 19 in the Coaches Poll.
Iowa: Was: No. 17 in the AP Poll and No. 18 in the Coaches Poll. Now: No. 15 in both the AP and Coaches Poll.
Michigan: Was: No. 19 in the AP Poll and Coaches Poll. Now: No. 18 in the AP Poll, and No. 17 in the Coaches Poll.
Michigan State: Was: No. 24 in the AP Poll and No. 21 in the Coaches Poll. Now: No. 17 in the AP Poll and No. 16 in the Coaches Poll.
Penn State: Was: No. 22 in the AP Poll and No. 20 in the Coaches Poll. Now: Unranked in the AP Poll and Coaches Poll.
Northwestern: Was: Unranked the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll. Now: Unranked in the AP Poll, No. 25 in the Coaches Poll.
Week 5 Recap:
Week 5 was the start of in-conference play and what a week it was. Wisconsin found itself upset by Michigan State on the road, while Michigan just barely edged Indiana. Ohio State nearly lost to a suddenly scrappy Illinois team, and Northwestern won in true Cardiac Cats fashion against Minnesota.
Northwestern at Minnesota (Northwestern, 29-28):
Sloppy much? Northwestern somehow eked out a victory against the Golden Gophers after nearly giving the game away on 79 yards of penalties. For the first quarter, the Wildcats seemed in control, going up 14-7 on both a passing and a rushing TD. After that, the story of the game was quite different, however. Minnesota managed to march down the field on the strength of Duane Bennett and it seemed that they had gotten Northwestern's number, scoring 14 unanswered points on the way to a 21-14 lead at the half. Northwestern managed another TD by Jacob Schmidt in the third quarter, but failed to tie the game after Stefan Demos missed the point after. Another TD, failed two-point conversion, and 27 yard field goal later and Northwestern found themselves in the lead by just one point. Adam Weber tried to lead Minnesota down the field for the win, but was undone by a last-minute interception. While this win keeps Northwestern undefeated, it's not exactly confidence inspiring. Meanwhile, this may have been the final nail in Tim Brewster's coffin.
No. 2 Ohio State at Illinois (Ohio State, 24-13)
I said last week that Illinois had an outside chance of upsetting the visiting Buckeyes, but that everything had to go right for them for it to occur. The Fighting Illini actually managed to take the lead in the game in both the first and second quarter on the strength of Nathan Scheelhaase and Mikel Leshoure. Despite going down 14-10 at the half on a last-minute TD by Terrelle Pryor, the Illini still managed to keep the game within a touchdown until the closing minutes. Though he ran for more than 100 yards in the game, Pryor looked anything but sharp in the air, throwing for just 76 yards with two TDs and one interception. All of a sudden, Ohio State looks pretty beatable. Perhaps Pryor will recover his arm before next week, but Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State should certainly take heart by the way this game played out.
No. 19 Michigan at Indiana (Michigan, 42-35)
As predicted, this game was a shootout. Michigan's defense is bad. Indiana's is just a tad worse. Denard Robinson ran and passed for more than 200 yards each and five TDs, and Ben Chappell put up an absurd line of 480 yards, three TDs and one interception. With Ben Chappell playing as he has been, Indiana would be a great upset pick in the conference, but its upcoming conference schedule (at Ohio State, hosting Northwestern, Iowa, and then at Wisconsin) is far from inspiring.
No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 24 Michigan State (Michigan State, 34-24)
Well, it finally caught up to them. All season long, Wisconsin had been playing sloppy and somehow winning anyway. When they took that lack of focus to Sparty, it bit them in the ass. Scott Tolzien was far from impressive, throwing for just 127 yards and a single TD. Most of that low total, however, was due to the sudden inability of Wisconsin receivers to catch a ball. John Clay managed just 80 yards rushing and no TDs, and looked just a bit slower than normal. He might be having some issues with his surgically repaired ankles. James White managed to pick up some of the slack, running for nearly 100 yards and two TDs, but inexplicably had only 10 carries on the day behind Clay's 17. Why didn't the Badger coaching staff switch over to White if John Clay was having trouble?
The Badgers were also, as usual, hurt by their special teams. Terrible punting, including one punt which turned into a TD for Michigan State, and poor kick coverage hamstrung them. Why the Badgers haven't yet managed to find a capable special teams coach is one of the great mysteries of the Big Ten football universe. Things were much better on the Michigan State side of the ball, even with Coach Dantonio still absent from the sidelines. MSU, previously one of the worst third down conversion teams (around 33% going in) managed to convert an even 50% during Saturday's game. The only troubling aspect of their play was the two interceptions thrown by Kirk Cousins. Yes, he did have three TDs, but he can't turn the ball over like that and expect MSU to survive against future opponents like Iowa and Penn State.
No. 22 Penn State at No. 17 Iowa (Iowa, 24-3)
Yeesh. I said that this game was going to be like the Alabama game, but I had no idea Penn State wouldn't manage a touchdown in this one too. Penn State continues to show that they are just not ready for prime time this year. Rob Bolden had 212 yards, no TDs, and one interception, while Evan Royster managed to run for only 56 yards. Whether that's mostly on Royster or the Iowa defense, I can't say, but it's not good. The good news for Nittany Lions fans? They have two games coming up that they should be able to win, against Illinois and Minnesota. That will get them just one game from bowl eligibility, which they should be able to manage.
Iowa is looking much better after their disaster at Arizona. Ricky Stanzi had another interception, but at least this one didn't turn into a touchdown. Adam Robinson continues to impress, running for nearly 100 yards this time around. Iowa gets a bye week now, but will have a challenging set of three game against Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State to come back to.
Week 6 Preview:
The second week of conference play in the Big Ten features two major Paul Bunyan-themed rivalry games as well as one team looking to upset the conference's front-runner.
Indiana at Ohio State (11:00 A.M., ESPN / ESPN3)
After Ohio State's game at Illinois, this game suddenly got a whole lot more intriguing. Indiana is undoubtedly a better team than Illinois this year, since Nathan Scheelhaase is no Ben Chappell. Indiana nearly managed to take down Big Blue over last weekend, with Chappell throwing for an absolutely ridiculous 480 yards. This game will be a greater challenge for the Hoosiers, though. Let's face it, Michigan doesn't exactly have a tough defense. Ohio State? They kind of do. Though Indiana probably has the best wide receiving corps in the conference, the Ohio State secondary will definitely give them trouble this weekend. Add to it that this game is on Buckeye turf ... well it's going to be a tall order for Indiana to pull off the upset this weekend. Certainly do-able, but difficult.
Illinois at Penn State (11:00 A.M., ESPN2 / ESPN3)
Much like the game above, this game too became more interesting after the Week 5 game between Illinois and OSU. In that game, it was rather shocking that Illinois managed to turn in a competent performance through nearly the entire game. Usually the breakdown comes much earlier than the last few minutes of the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Penn State has done anything but impress this year, as it deals with having a freshman QB and a running back who has seemingly fallen off the map. JoePa's crew is still the better team, but if Illinois can play like it did last weekend, it may walk away with a very unlikely victory.
Minnesota at No. 20 Wisconsin (11:00 A.M., Big Ten Network)
The battle for the axe rages on as the Golden Gophers travel to Camp Ryan to take on the Badgers! Perhaps the coolest rivalry trophy in all of a college football, the axe has been in the possession of Wisconsin for the last six straight years. The games between Minnesota and Wisconsin have always been contentious affairs, with all but two of the last seven decided by less than a touchdown. Even when one team seems completely outmatched by the other, the game always ends up being competitive.
This year is one of those years in which, going in, it seems like the Gophers have very little chance of reclaiming the axe. Wisconsin is a ranked team, after all, and one of the top three in the conference. Then again... if you've watched any Badger games this year you've seen just how inconsistent they can be. Minnesota managed to use inconsistencies and penalties against Northwestern last week, nearly eking out a victory there. If Wisconsin plays as it has recently, and Minnesota stays focused and takes advantage of it, perhaps the axe will be traveling back across the Mississippi. But probably not.
No. 17 Michigan State at No. 18 Michigan (2:30 P.M., ABC/ESPN)
Hoo boy. The second of our rivalry games featuring a Paul Bunyan-themed trophy sees an in-state battle between undefeated Sparty and undefeated Big Blue. Could the stakes be any higher? Until two years ago, Michigan had absolutely dominated this series, winning all but four times in almost two decades. This year, to add insult to injury, Michigan State is now ranked just one place higher than Michigan. The loser of this game will almost certainly drop from the rankings after the week is out (or fall to around 25). The winner of this game will also hit bowl eligibility.
This game should really tell us just who is the real contender here. Can Denard Robinson shred Michigan State's defense as he has with so many other teams? Will Michigan's porous secondary be picked apart by Kirk Cousins? Can either team manage significant production on the ground? I think Michigan State continues its streak and wins this game. Yes, Denard Robinson is good, but Michigan's defense just... isn't. A focused Sparty team will be able to go toe-to-toe offensively with the Maize ‘n Blue and State's defense, led by all-star linebacker Greg Jones, should be able to hold back Robinson just enough to make the difference. It'll be a close game, but I think the Spartans win it.
Purdue at Northwestern (6:30 P.M., Big Ten Network)
This game used to look exciting. When I looked at the in-conference schedule for the Wildcats this year before the season, I thought this might be a match-up of dark horse teams in the conference. Now? Well Northwestern is somehow still undefeated, and Purdue is more like... Purdon't. Hey, at least it's a night game in Evanston. To be sure, the Boilermakers could easily knock off Northwestern, given how much the ‘Cats have been living on the edge lately. But without their star quarterback, wide receiver or running back, Purdue will have a tough time. If Dan Persa can avoid turnovers, and the Wildcats can avoid stupid penalties, then they should walk away with an easy victory here and find themselves bowl eligible.
BONUS: No. 7 Nebraska at Kansas State (Thursday, 6:30 P.M., ESPN / ESPN3)
Hey look! Nebraska is actually playing a game that can be seen in the Midwest! Hooray! It's nice to see ESPN actually run a decent game on Thursday night, as the Huskers travel to Kansas State to take on the undefeated Wildcats. The Red River rivalry last week between Texas and Oklahoma showed us that the Sooners will be the likely team out of the Big 12 South this year - this game should tell us whether Nebraska will be the team out of the Big 12 North. While the K-State Wildcats aren't ordinarily a fearsome college football opponent, they've been having a good year behind quarterback Carson Coffman and running back Daniel Thomas. Still, the Wildcats are allowing the most rushing yards per game in the Big 12, while Nebraska's quarterback Taylor Martinez is the 11th most prolific rushing QB in the nation. If Martinez can avoid the sloppy turnovers he had during week four, Nebraska should run all over K-State and cement their reputation as a powerhouse team this year.
Most likely rout: This is a tough one this week. I'm going to say Illinois at Penn State. I think the Nittany Lions will be feeling embarrassed about their performance against Iowa and looking to take revenge out on the usually hapless Illini.
Most likely upset: No. 18 Michigan at No. 17 Michigan State. Okay, so I guess it's not so much of an upset when they're separated by only one place in the rankings. This is a game that could really go either way. I think Sparty wins, but if the Michigan D manages to play well for once? Who knows...
Best game to watch: Tune in to the Nebraska game on Thursday evening to get a preview of the conference's soon-to-be-member. On Saturday, the back-to-back rivalry games between Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan State and Michigan will both be very entertaining.
Big Ten player of the week: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Cousins has his best game of the season to date against a porous Michigan secondary.