STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 29: Derek Dimke #13 of the Illinois Fighting Illini kicks a field goal to lose the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the game on October 29, 2011 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. The Nittany Lions defeated the Fighting Illini 10-7. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
After watching Saturday's action in the Big Ten conference, I'm feeling a sense of deja vu. It's like 2010 all over again. We thought going into this year that Russell Wilson and the Wisconsin Badgers would mow down conference competition, with new entrant Nebraska close behind in second place. Now, after eight weeks of play, the question of who will go to the conference championship game is once again a toss-up. Eight teams (a full 3/4 of the conference) remain in mathematical contention to land a spot in the inaugural championship game, and it's anyone's guess which two will ultimately emerge victorious. Still, we did learn a few things after this Saturday...
Wisconsin is not the best team in the Big Ten. As I said before, it seemed like the Badgers, with their potent rushing attack and experienced leadership of quarterback Wilson would run away with the conference. After losing on a Hail Mary pass for the second week in a row, that now seems less likely. Ohio State managed to eke out a victory largely because they stopped Montee Ball. Somehow Bucky needs to fix this, and Russell Wilson really needs to correct his intentional grounding problem if the Badgers are going to right the ship of their season. The Badgers still have an opportunity to make it to the Rose Bowl, but they'll need to correct their deficiencies on special teams and defense first.
At the same time, we also know that Michigan State is not the best team in the conference either. One week sneaking a win off of Bucky, the Spartans ran into a buzzsaw in Lincoln. Nebraska and Taylor Martinez positively curbstomped the Spartan's defense, while the Blackshirts finally seemed to remember how to force a team off the field, holding Kirk Cousins' offense to just 3-for-14 on third down conversions and giving up only a measly field goal in the win.
The only team left undefeated in conference play, Penn State, is also clearly not the best team in the Big Ten. Though they earned a victory on a snowy day in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions needed a missed field goal by Illinois kicker Derek Dimke to escape overtime. While Penn State clearly has one of the best defensive units in the Big Ten, their offense is questionable. Even though they seem to have settled on Matt McGloin as their quarterback, they still can't get much going offensively. McGloin accounted for less than 100 yards passing and one interception on the day, with running back Silas Redd providing the only offensive spark. The team in State College also has a rough road to get to the championship game, with three games left against Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Winning out seems very unlikely, and escaping with 2/3 victories is questionable at best.
We learned that Ohio State won't have quite the lost year they seemed destined for, though it still remains unlikely that Luke Fickell is retained after the season. The Buckeyes seem to finally be seeing the emergence of Braxton Miller, but it took blown coverage and a Hail Mary to get past the Badgers, after they gave up two touchdowns drives that each took less than a minute. Against a less snakebitten team, they probably drop Saturday night's game instead of eking out the victory. The Buckeyes are perhaps in the best position to get to Indianapolis as they control their destiny, but they still have to escape the clutches of both the Nittany Lions and Michigan if they want to completely salvage their season.
This week we also learned that Illinois is still coached by Ron Zook, a fact that will ensure that any great season largely goes to waste as the Illini dropped a very winnable game to Penn State. Oh, and we learned this week that Northwestern will not win a bowl game in the 2011 season. Even if they magically get to bowl eligibility, giving up 38 points to an absolutely terrible Indiana team suggests that even an appearance in the Pizza Pizza Bowl would likely turn out ugly for the Wildcats.
Purdue is still mathematically in the Leaders division hunt, but we learned they just don't seem to have the weapons to outlast their competition. Could this be Danny Hope's last year in West Lafayette? Regardless, the game between the Boilermakers and the Wolverines also showed us that Michigan isn't completely one dimensional on offense. Some guy named Fitzgerald Toussaint can apparently run better than Denard Robinson, as he put up 170 yards and two touchdowns on Purdue. But where was he earlier in the season? And will this last?
The Wolverines should be able to handle an Iowa team that seems determined to play down to their competition, but they'll have a tougher road against their last three games of Illinois, Nebraska, and Ohio State. Win out and their might see Indianapolis, or a BCS game.
Speaking of the Hawkeyes, we learned that they love to play to the level of their competition. This was finally the year they solved their Northwestern problem, only to lose to Minnesota for the second straight year, once again ceding control of Floyd of Rosendale to the Gophers.
Our last lesson of the week is a sartorial one. For all the griping on the internet about the sometimes questionable Pro Combat uniforms, they would be vastly better than the retro unis trotted out by Ohio State in their game against the Badgers. I don't think I've seen uglier uniforms outside of any place other than Eugene. Seriously, ew. Just ew.
Hang on to your seats Big Ten fans. We've got a wild ride ahead of us for the next month. Tune in later this week to the Big Ten Digest to get previews and picks of Week Nine in the conference.