The day started with some below average football games. Iowa versus Michigan State, Nebraska versus Illinois, Penn State versus Indiana, and Minnesota versus Michigan were all snoozefests. The closest margin of victory from those games was 12 points.
The crown jewel of the Big Ten slate this week was the Ohio Buckeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats. A back-and-forth ballgame that ended in a 40-30 Buckeyes victory. The game was much closer than the double digit deficit would suggest. The Buckeyes recovered a fumble in the end zone as time expired to cover the point spread of +6.
What I’ve noticed after the first six weeks of action is that Ohio State is clearly the best team in the league, Purdue is clearly the worst, and everyone else is in the middle. I think the rankings between teams 2-10 are going to change significantly with each passing week.
1. Ohio State: Urban Meyer is now 18-0 as head coach of the Buckeyes. I don’t care who you are, that’s still impressive. The Buckeyes have won their fair share of close ball games, but the fact that they have been able to win every close game says a lot about the head coach. Preseason Heisman hopeful quarterback Braxton Miller was close to being benched in favor of Kenny Guiton after turning the ball over repeatedly. However, Miller and the Buckeyes persevered, coming back from a 23-13 third quarter deficit.
2. Michigan: I’m of the belief that the Wolverines were sleep walking against Akron and UConn. That was not a reflection of the team Michigan is, nor a reflection of the kind of quarterback Devin Gardner is. They are too talented to play that poorly week after week. They’re well coached by Brady Hoke and now that the Big Ten season is upon them, look for the Wolverines to be more focused.
3. Northwestern: It’s not really fair that the Wildcats had to play a road game in Evanston. Buckeye fans invaded Ryan Field and littered the stands with red. I never believed that Northwestern was going to win this game, even with a 10 point lead in the third quarter. Maybe Pat Fitzgerald is starting to think he can only do so much at Northwestern. Or maybe it will just make him hungrier. Fitzgerald married his high school sweetheart. He’s a loyal man, not to mention he’s a Northwestern alum. What would it take to entice him to leave Evanston?
4. Wisconsin: The Badgers host Northwestern next week in Madison in a game that will separate the contender from the pretender. My money is on the Badgers running roughshod on the Wildcats and winning comfortably. Northwestern can be exposed on the ground against big, physical, running attacks and the Badgers present just that. My only concern lies within the Badgers’ pass defense. Despite my concerns, I’ve been impressed with defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, and freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who is going to be a superstar.
5. Michigan State: Don’t look now, but the Spartans are starting to figure out their offensive woes. As I said earlier in the season, if the Spartans can figure out their offense, they will be a threat in the wide open Legends Division.
6. Nebraska: The Huskers haven’t impressed me this season. They’ve yet to beat a team with a pulse. Illinois, their latest victim, is improving, but nowhere near even a mid-tier Big Ten team. Things remain easy next week with a trip to West Lafayette to take on a brutal Purdue squad. However, things get significantly more difficult after that with games against Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State in the next few weeks.
7. Iowa: I believe that the Hawkeyes are one of the most improved teams in the conference despite their loss at home to Michigan State. Look for the Hawkeyes to continue to get better as the season progresses.
8. Indiana: Nate Sudfield and the Hoosiers’ passing game is really solid. They’re dangerous and explosive offensively and if they can bend and not break on defense, they have a chance to win four Big Ten games and move on to a bowl game.
9. Penn State: Christian Hackenburg had good stats in the loss to Indiana, throwing for 340 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. But the Penn State defense continues to be the issue with this team. I had a feeling this was going to happen because they lost a lot of senior leaders from last year’s defense.
10. Illinois: The Illini were benefactors of a favorable non-conference schedule, as was Minnesota, making them look a little better than they actually are. The bottom line is Illinois will struggle winning Big Ten games this year.
11. Minnesota: The Gophers didn’t play as poorly as the final score would indicate. If Mitch Leidner remains the starting quarterback for the Gophers, their offense will definitely improve as the season progresses, maybe even finding a way to win two conference games and reach a second consecutive bowl game. It’s tough to see that right now, but I think they can get it done.
12. Purdue: Darrell Hazell will find a way to win a conference game. My money is on them beating Illinois at home. As for the quarterback situation, the Danny Etling-era has begun in West Lafayette and that should provide enough hope to get the Boilermakers through the rest of the season.