Sheesh. It's been a busy couple days. One more piece of advice to freshmen: never graduate. Never even get to your senior year. The classes are tough, and the job hunt begins. It's a pain in the ass. Just keep changing majors to stay a sophmore. Assume false identities if you have to. Just never graduate.
Anyway, the season's more than half over, and most teams are halfway through their conference schedule, so I decided it's about time to take a look at the conference. I haven't watched a ton of Big Ten football, but I've seen all the teams, I've checked out the statistics, and I have the audacity (or arrogance) to think my opinion means anything, whether that's true or not.
So, from top to bottom by quality of team, not by current or projected record. . . .
Ohio State - Who else did you think I would put at the top? But it's tough to argue with the resume. The top scoring offense in the Big Ten, the top scoring defense in the Big Ten, and a win over the number seven team in the country. The offense is rolling, but we all expected that. The surprise is the defense. They're third in the Big Ten in passing defense, and second in rush defense (though they are way, way behind Michigan). Plus, the team has both the most takeaways and the fewest giveaways in the Big Ten. Basically, it's everything you could ask for in an offense, with much more than you could hope for from a defense (sort of) replacing nine starters. The biggest concern is the kicking game, which has converted only 7 of 11 chances. With the offense scoring as much as it is, and with the defense giving up so few points, it hasn't been a problem. If (when?) we're in a game where three points can make a difference, the kicking game could be a concern.
Michigan - Perhaps 1A. The offense has been decent (7th in total offense, 3rd in scoring), but survey defensive coordinators, and see if any of them would be eager to try and shut down Mike Hart, Mario Manningham, and company simultaneously. I still think that Chad Henne is nothing without quality receivers, but that won't be a problem once Manningham gets back. Mike Hart may literally fall apart on the field one day, but until then, the Michigan offense will ride him as much as possible. Stopping the offense isn't fun, but it beats trying to do anything on the defense. The pass defense is sixth in the Big Ten, which doesn't sound that impressive, but when you consider that teams have to resort to passing due to an utter inability to run against the Wolverines, it sounds much better. U of M leads the Big Ten in rush yards allowed, and they're better than five hundred yards ahead of the second place team, your Ohio State Buckeyes. That's just crazy. But if that wasn't crazy enough for you, consider this: Michigan leads the Big Ten in field goal kicking, converting 85.7% of their kicks. It's like living in Bizarro world, isn't it? November 18th's shaping up to be huge.
Wisconsin - There hasn't been much of a step down since trading in Barry Alvarez for Bret Bielema. They're still running all over teams, and they've managed the third-best defense in the Big Ten. PJ Hill is good, John Stocco is not making mistakes, and the defense is being pretty awesome. When people talk about the conference being the Big Two again, I think they're doing a disservice to Wisconsin. This is a legitimately good team, early-season non-conference hiccups nonwithstanding.
Penn State - I think of them as about as good as Iowa, but then I look at the players, and there's a lot more to like about the Nittany Lions. So why are they nearly equal in my mind? I don't know. The importance of a quality quarterback? Remnants of preseason Iowa hype? Stupidity? You decide. This is a team with problems, regardless. Tony Hunt has been good, but the offense as a whole has been kinda shaky. Anthony Morelli's not playing up to expectations, and the offensive line hasn't been very impressive. The defense is good, but they aren't helped by a defensive coordinator that is apparently betting against his team. PSU has looked its best when blitzing, yet they don't do that much of it. Why? I don't know. But still, if they get those problems fixed, there's a lot to like about the team, including Hunt, Derrick Williams, and arguably the best linebacker in the Big Ten (I'm talking Dan Connor, not the one you're thinking of).
Iowa - Is it just me, or does this team always have injury problems? Not long ago, they were starting like a fifth string running back, and lately they've been all but starting the entire second string. When healthy, they aren't a bad team. Drew Tate's a good QB, and Mitch King's a good DT, and both are proably my least-favorite non-Michigan college football players, so they got that going for them. But they definitely miss the receivers and linebackers they graduated. They're just kind of a blah team to me. They have some talent, and they'll win some games, but you don't say, "Aw, cool, I get to watch Iowa play." I'm betting they'll be around this part of the Big Ten for at least the next year. Drew Tate's the only thing keeping this offense going. He doesn't have the weapons this year, and he's gone after this.
Purdue - Well well, look who found some offense. Curtis Painter is far and away the Big Ten leader in passing yards per game, and he's spreading the ball around nicely (three of the top six in receptions per game are Purdue receivers). This is the Purdue offense we all remember from the Drew Brees years. However, the Boilermakers are 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense and last in total defense. If they ever find a defense, they might be a good team. But they don't have one, so they're no better than decent.
Michigan State - Um, wow. They blow the Notre Dame game, and appear to completely fall apart. Then they stage the biggest comeback in Division 1-A history against Northwestern. Anything is possible with this team. They're hurt by losing Javon Ringer for the season, but I'd still pick them over any team I have below them. Well, I'd pick Good Michigan State over them. Bad Michigan State could lose to anyone. So I'm not real comfortable with MSU here, but could I honestly say that any of the other options are better? No. Incidentally, the big comeback against Northwestern did not save John L. Smith's job. Well, it might have stopped him from getting fired in the locker room after the game, but he's still done for.
Minnesota - The high-powered rush offense isn't there this season, and they're hurting for it, both in the "quality of team" sense and in the "me caring" sense. Quality-wise, they're worse than in previous years, but not a lot worse. They're low-middle of the pack on offense and defense, but without a real offensive identity, I don't have much interest in watching them, or in writing about them (though I think I'll try some more this week).
Illinois - I didn't see the game, but from what I understand, the Illini had some success against Penn State with the option. They've got a freshman at QB in Juice Williams, who has a lot of promise, but who probably isn't ready to lead an offense short on playmakers. Asking this guy to read defenses and throw to bad receivers is probably a bad idea, but asking him to run around and decide "pitch or keep" is probably something a freshman can handle. So there is some hope for the offense. And, as bad defenses go, the Illinois defense is pretty decent, and that's a ringing endorsement if I've ever heard one. So there's a little hope.
Indiana - The running game still needs some work, but I think they made a good choice putting Kellen Lewis in at QB. He's young and inexperienced, and he'll make plenty of mistakes, but he adds a dimension to the offense that Blake Powers didn't have. Lewis is fast enough to make defenses worry about him scrambling, and he's not bad at throwing the ball, either. The defense is not good, but. . . well, there's no but. The defense is not good. Basically, I see Indiana as Illinois, only less so. And really, that might describe the states as well as the schools.
Northwestern - They get a free pass for this season, and that's a good thing. They are not good. Basically, they're no better than eighth in any meaningful statistical category except rushing offense. And for a team with Tyrell Sutton at running back, fifth in the Big Ten is not something to be proud of. They're 2-6, 0-4 in the Big Ten, and that's about what you can expect from them. C.J. Bacher provided a glimmer of hope, looking pretty good against Michigan State, but who knows if that was him being good, or Sparty being Sparty (God, I can't believe I just wrote that)?