As the final weekend of September approaches and Big Ten play begins on Saturday, nearly all of the Big Ten's non-conference slate is past. Only IU (which plays at Navy on October 20) and Purdue (which hosts Marshall on Saturday) haven't yet completed the non-conference portion of their schedules. As it stands, it's pretty ugly. The Big Ten is 33-13 so far, which is well above .500, but the conference is only 5-9 against teams from major conferences. None of the wins really counts as a quality win on a national scale. Ohio State beat Cal. Northwestern beat Syracuse, Boston College, and Vanderbilt. Minnesota beat Syracuse. Certainly, all of these wins are positives for Minnesota and Northwestern, but none of the Big Ten's expected standard bearers have done anything. Goodness, Purdue is getting conference title hype based on two blowouts of bottom feeders and a moral victory at Notre Dame. It's a rough year for the conference. Before I take a look at the teams, however, a word about the MAC.
First, this has been a very nice September for the MAC, considering the resources and fan support enjoyed by most MAC programs. The conference has three Big Ten scalps (IU, Penn State, Iowa), and Ball State knocked off South Florida of the Big East as well. Still, can we stop with the "is the MAC actually better than the Big Ten?" stuff? The Big Ten is 10-3 against the MAC this year. Big Ten schools are 7-3 against the MAC at home and 3-0 in road/neutral venues. This is by no means intended to be a brag or a defense of the Big Ten. The Big Ten is terrible, awful, horrible and generally has been embarrassing in the non-conference. Rather, it's more of a pet peeve about mid-major conferences in both football and basketball than anything else. On one hand, they just want to be treated with respect, or so they say. On the other hand, they want a trophy for winning almost a quarter of games against the Big Ten in 2012. Well, which is it, MAC? Do you want respect, or do you want to be graded on a curve? This is why I despise the tie-in to the Motor City Bowl or whatever it's called today. Any win by the Big Ten over the MAC, even if it's one of the worst teams in the Big Ten over one of the best teams in the MAC, is ignored, because it's "supposed to happen." I don't oppose scheduling MAC teams and understand the financial and competitive benefits of doing so. But from a PR perspective, such games are no-win scenarios.
In any event, here's a quick rundown of how the conference has fared:
Illinois: 2-2, with wins over Western Michigan and Charleston Southern and losses @ Arizona State and to Lousiana Tech. After waiting all season to get Nathan Scheelhaase back, Illinois coach Tim Beckman pulled him in favor of Reilly O'Toole, and the Illini lost 52-24 to Louisiana Tech at home. Ouch. And I thought losing to Ball State was humiliating. The Illini's schedule is something of a mirror image of IU's, in that they have their tough games on the road and easier games at home. Still, Illinois will have to go 4-4 in conference to make a bowl bid, which seems quite unlikely.
Indiana: 2-1, with wins over Indiana State and @ UMass and a loss to Ball State. The Hoosiers are throroughly discussed elsewhere, but finishing the comeback against Ball State would have been a nice story considering there are only three undefeated Big Ten teams. Given the quality of the Big Ten, I hope IU doesn't go 0-fer again, but unfortunately, IU's most winnable games are on the road. If IU can't find a way to steal one in Evanston, the Hoosiers probably are facing a 2-4 start.
Iowa: 2-2 with wins over Northern Illinois and Northern Iowa and losses to Iowa State and Central Michigan. The Hawkeyes have been in every game, but 2-2 against this schedule must be tough to swallow for a team that has at times appeared to be on the cusp of becoming a national power. By default (compared to MSU, OSU, and Wisconsin), Iowa is probably IU's most beatable home opponent.
Michigan: 2-2 with wins over UMass and Air Force and losses @ Notre Dame and against Alabama in Dallas. The Wolverines whipped UMass, but played closer than necessary against Air Force and played very poorly against both ND and Bama. The Wolverines' schedule doesn't look too tough, but the October 6 opener at Purdue will be very interesting.
Michigan State: 3-1 with wins over Boise State Eastern Michigan, and @ Central Michigan and a loss to Notre Dame. Was it just a few weeks ago that the Spartans were a trendy national title contender pick? The Spartans opened the season with a nice win over Boise, but the MSU offense has struggled, particularly in the last two weeks.
Minnesota: 4-0 with wins over UNLV, Western Michigan, New Hampshire, and Syracuse. The Gophers may be the best story in the Big Ten this season, having already eclipsed their 3 wins in 2011. Can they steal two more for a bowl bid? We'll see. Quarterback Marqueis Gray was injured on September 15 and probably won't play until mid-October.
Nebraska: 3-1 with wins over Southern Miss, Arkansas State, and Idaho State and a loss @ UCLA. The Cornhsukers have been very good except in their road trip to UCLA. I wouldn't at all be surprised to see Nebraska win the Legends Division, although who can tell this season?
Northwestern: 4-0 with wins over Boston College, Vanderbilt, Syracuse, and South Dakota. As always, the Wildcats have excelled in close games and are the only Big Ten team with multiple wins over major conference opponents, and the Wildcats are favored by 14.5 when they host IU Saturday. After a rare blowout loss to NU last year, can IU revive the trend of close games in this series?
Ohio State: 4-0 with wins over Cal, UAB, Miami of Ohio, and UCF. The Big Ten's best team by default is not eligible for the postseason. Figures. Not all has gone smoothly for OSU--things were a bit dicey against Cal and UAB--but OSU is playing for a 12-0 season, and it won't be shocking if it happens.
Penn State: 2-2 with wins over Navy and Temple and losses @ Virginia and to Ohio. The Nittany Lions pulled back to .500 with a win over MAC foe Temple, but it's safe to say that I have no idea what to expect from PSU. The down year for the conference may save PSU from some serious humiliation.
Purdue: 2-1 with wins over Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan and a loss @ Notre Dame. The Boilers have looked very good in their two wins and are the only team that has come close to beating Notre Dame. The quarterback position remains unsettled, but the Boilers are a team to watch. After finishing the non-con schedule with Marshall this week, Purdue opens the Big Ten by hosting Michigan and Wisconsin and traveling to Ohio State. We'll know pretty early whether the division title chatter is founded.
Wisconsin: 3-1 with wins over Northern Iowa, Utah State, and UTEP and a loss at Oregon State. The Badgers have been a mess so far, losing to a ho-hum Oregon State team and coming dangerously close to losing each of their three wins. Still, I expect Wisconsin to right the ship.
What the conference lacks in quality it gains in unpredictability. There are very few games on the schedule that are easy to call, and if IU can find some way to improve the defense I think we can compete.