The Big Ten Conference is not what it was 14 years ago. For example the Gophers were 8-3 at the end of the regular season and ranked No. 12 in the country. This year they are 8-2 with two games left in the regular season and unranked by the Associated Press and No. 25 by the coaches.
Why the disparity? Simple, it’s because Michigan and Penn State are a shadow of their former selves. I will leave Nebraska out of the conversation, because the Huskers were not members of the Big Ten in 1999, but they too are not what they were.
Michigan has taken a clear step back in year three of the Brady Hoke regime. Penn State has taken a step back from year one of the Bill O’Brien era and Purdue fans would give away their most prized possessions to get back to the glory days of the Joe Tiller era.
The only programs that are trending up at the moment are Michigan State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Everyone else is on level ground or trending the wrong way. The Ohio State Buckeyes certainly haven’t gotten worse, they were a national power then and are still today.
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes scored a victory on their bye week. Oregon lost to Stanford. That leaves only an Alabama or Florida State loss from the Buckeyes being in the drivers seat to reach the national championship game. Ohio State currently sit at No. 3 in both national polls as well as the BCS standings.
2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are definitely trending well under first year head coach Gary Andersen. Here’s the difference between Anderson’s team and most of former head coach Bret Bielema’s teams. Anderson’s team has been playing elite defense. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense has worked beautifully with Wisconsin’s personnel. Stud defensive tackle Beau Allen and the linebackers led by Chris Borland have been fantastic. The secondary has been a pleasant surprise led by a future Thorpe Award Winner — freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton. I think I need to take a shower after saying so many nice things about the Badgers.
3. Michigan State: Sparty is another team that is trending in the right direction. Not only do they have the best defense in the country in my opinion, but have an improving offense making them arguably the most dangerous team in the conference to date. The Spartans are on top of the Legends Division and only a big upset would stop them from getting to Indianapolis. A trip to Lincoln next weekend to take on Nebraska shouldn’t be taken lightly, but if the Spartans play their game, I don’t think they have any chance of losing to the Huskers.
4. Minnesota: The Golden Gophers have won four conference games in a row for the first time in 40 years. In the process of that winning streak the Gophers have found a passing game to go along with their already dominant running game. The Gophers have a bye before taking on the Wisconsin Badgers in the most anticipated battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe of my lifetime. There is an outside chance ESPN’s College GameDay could set up shop in Minneapolis for said battle in a couple weeks.
5. Nebraska: For the first this year against reasonable competition the Huskers’ defense looked really good. Defensive end Randy Gregory looked like a star. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound monster took over the game against Michigan down the stretch with his size, speed, and overall athletic ability. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. made just enough plays to keep the Huskers alive in the Legends race. Now Michigan State comes to town and it’s an opportunity for the Huskers to gain control of their own destiny to return to Indianapolis for the B1G Championship game.
6. Iowa: Iowa’s three losses have been at the hands of teams that have lost just three combined games. Iowa is playing well and is going to knock off either Michigan or Nebraska if not both. Tailback Jordan Canzeri rushed for 165 yards and a touchdown in their 38-14 win over Purdue. Quarterback Jake Rudock was his usual efficient self, throwing for 190 yards and two touchdowns, with zero interceptions.
7. Michigan*: I am putting the Wolverines here with an asterisk, because I think they are going to lose out. The Wolverines are at Northwestern, at Iowa, and finally home against Ohio State. Loss, loss, and another loss. Michigan State broke Michigan a week and a half ago and I don’t think the Wolverines have recovered. I know this stat has been reported ad nauseam, but it bears repeating. The Wolverines have rushed for minus-69 yards the last two weeks against Michigan State and Nebraska. That is a real stat and not hyperbole.
8. Penn State: I was tempted to put Indiana ahead of Penn State, but I can not in good consciousness put a team that plays defense that poorly ahead of a very fundamentally sound Nittany Lions club. Penn State is just a little talent deficient right now. However, it’s tough if not impossible to get them to roll over and play dead. This team fights and has five victories and will improve upon that win total by seasons end, I promise you that.
9. Indiana: Is Kevin Wilson going to turn the Hoosiers into what Mike Leach turned Texas Tech into in the 2000s? I think Wilson and the Hoosiers are on that trajectory. The Hoosiers will be every bit as explosive next year as this year, which is a scary thought. An improved defense could mean an 8-9 win season somewhere down the road. Be patient Hoosiers fans it’s going to get better under the leadership of Kevin Wilson.
10. Northwestern: Early upset special — Northwestern 27, Michigan 23 in Evanston this weekend. Northwestern isn’t as bad as their 0-5 conference record indicates and Michigan is a complete mess, see above comments.
11. Illinois: The Illini’s Big Ten losing streak has been extended to 19 games. Illinois is playing markedly better than last year, but the results have been largely the same. Still, I think the progress on offense will keep Tim Beckman in Champaign at least one more year.
12. Purdue: At halftime the Boilermakers were only down to the Iowa Hawkeyes 14-7. Unfortunately that is considered progress in West Lafayette this year. In the second half the Boilermakers were the Boilermakers, getting their doors blown off 24-7 en route to a 38-14 blowout loss at home to Iowa. I’m sure Purdue fans are looking forward to basketball season.