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BTB Roundtable, week 7.

1. We’re halfway through the season. Practically the entire national media has declared that the Big Ten is having a down year. Is this cyclical, or is the conference actually becoming less and less relevant? What is your team doing to enhance or destroy the conference’s reputation?
What is IU doing to destroy the conference's reputation? Winning. Every article about the Big Ten's supposed decline says something to the effect of, "Illinois and Indiana are 5-1, the Big Ten can't be any good!" You'll have to excuse me if, after 12 straight losing seasons, I don't particularly care how bad (in reality or perception) the Big Ten is as long as IU ends up with a good record and a bowl invite to somewhere other than Detroit.
2. Illinois is winning football games. Football games! Illinois! How much longer will we have to put up with this crap?
As impressive as the Illini have been so far against Big Ten competition, such as it is, I really don't think they are going to the BCS. I think Michigan and Ohio State are going to beat them, and in the BTB Pick'em I predict that the Illini will lose at Iowa this weekend. That still would put the Illini at 8-4 (5-3), and that looks like the worst case. If Zook could sell five-star recruits on his program when he was going 2-10, I would imagine he will continue to do so now that he can point to some success. I'm not ready to proclaim the Illini a conference power, but I think we need to accept that Illinois likely is going to be a fixture in the top half of the conference standings for a while.
3. I’m a man! I’m 32! For you, fair Big Ten Blogger, where does the line get drawn when, as Sunday Morning QB eloquently states, "second-guessing the split-second decisions of college kids under extreme physical duress"? Hypothetically speaking, would you settle for saying that your underwhelming quarterback "simply isn’t performing well and needs to be replaced", or would you call him "a functional retard that is one drool cup shy of riding the short bus to practice"?
It's a tough call. While not children, college football players are young adults who aren't necessarily used to the spotlight. I try to be fair, and really consider the form and substance of any criticism I direct toward IU players. I got a nice lesson in this in August, when a former IU player sent me a nastygram about my less-than-charitable appraisal of his career. In retrospect, he was correct, and so I try to keep that in mind whenever I post something critical. In that case, there was nothing wrong with the form or tone of my statement--it simply wasn't an accurate description of his career. Frankly, I'm a much bigger offender regarding other teams' players, such as Isiah Williams, the Illini's direct-snap tailback who sometimes tries to throw the football.
On the other hand, I don't think that college football players should be off-limits. They do receive a free education merely because psychos like us care deeply about the outcome of college football games. Some of them will become ultra-rich professional players or coaches, again, merely because of the strange phenomenon of the sports fan. It's natural that passion for sports will have negative as well as positive aspects, and I think any criticism that you would be able to defend (reasonably, not successfully) to a player or his mother is fair game.
4. Finally, a quick two-part question. Which player or players on your team have you been pleasantly surprised with this season, and what is the most important game remaining on your schedule?
Unquestionably, the defensive line. IU sacked the quarterback only 13 times last season. This year, IU leads the nation with over 29 sacks. A couple of years ago, Greg Middleton, who had verbally committed to Purdue, changed his mind and elected to attend IU, apparently in large part because we wanted to play defensive end instead of DT. In response, Joe Tiller publicly attacked the kid's character, although I cannot find the specific quotes at the moment. Today? DE Middleton is second in the NCAA with 10 sacks and returned a fumble for a touchdown against Western Michigan. Good for him.
The most important game? I would say it's Penn State. Cliche and tradition would suggest that I should say Purdue, and unquestionably, that is a big game every season, and the game will have significant bowl implications for both teams. Still, the Penn State game has potential to be a springboard for the program. If IU beats MSU on Saturday, IU will be 6-1 for the first time since 1993, and based upon the votes received this week, likely will be ranked in one or more polls for the first time since September 1994. IU has never defeated Penn State, despite some close calls, including a 38-31 loss in IU's first trip to Happy Valley in 1993 (the last time IU played a game with any legitimate Big Ten title aspirations), a 27-24 loss in 2000 in a game that IU inexplicably moved to the RCA Dome, and a 22-18 loss in the last meeting in 2004 (in Bloomington), a battle for the cellar in which IU couldn't get in the end zone despite first and goal from the one. (I won't raise the ire of PSU fans by calling the 35-29 loss in 1994 a "close call." That game, in which a couple of garbage time scores cost PSU the #1 ranking and ultimately a national title, was neither as close as the final score would suggest nor as much of a convincing beatdown as Penn State fans would have you believe). but I digress. A win over Penn State would be a boon for attendance, publicity, recruiting, and IU's bowl fortunes in a way that even a Bucket game win (which would be the last game of the season) could not provide.