In a rare fit of common sense, the Big Ten Conference is easing its way into league play this year.
The University of Wisconsin and Purdue opened the Big Ten season by themselves last week and there will be two more conference games Saturday, including the Leaders Division showdown between UW and Ohio State. Perhaps the rolling start will divert attention from the non-conference season, where the Big Ten did nothing to distinguish itself nationally.
Of the 45 non-conference games to date, the Big Ten has one victory over a ranked opponent — Michigan’s 41-30 decision over Notre Dame. Overall, the league has an unimpressive 9-8 record against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences (plus Notre Dame).
One thing about the Big Ten, though, the intramurals are always fun. In the third and thankfully final year of the current divisional alignment, the Leaders Division looks like a two-team race between Ohio State and UW while the Legends looks like a free-for-all among four and perhaps five teams.
Based on the scanty information provided by the many non-conference mismatches, here is one prediction as to how the divisions will shake out:
Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a 16-game winning streak and a schedule with only three potential stumbling blocks — UW, Northwestern and Michigan. Kenny Guiton was a nice diversion, but quarterback Braxton Miller is healthy again and, more important, no longer a one-man show. Coach Urban Meyer has surrounded Miller with a group of frighteningly fast playmakers. If the defense can stop the run, a national title isn’t out of the question.
Wisconsin: The Badgers, who would be 4-0 had they not run into seven incompetent Pac-12 officials at Arizona State, can run and stop the run as well as any team in the conference. And the young secondary has played better than many expected. Still, UW will go only as far as its quarterback can take it and so far Joel Stave has been frustratingly inconsistent. If Stave finds himself in time to beat the Buckeyes, a fourth straight Big Ten title is in play.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions have the makings of a high-powered offense if highly touted freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg is ready for the rigors of the Big Ten. But Hackenberg’s performance has been up and down, not unlike that of the retooled defense. That uncertainty makes Penn State the Big Ten’s mystery team.
Indiana: That jump the Hoosiers were expected to make this year? It didn’t happen during a 2-2 non-conference season. The offense has yet to find a rhythm with quarterback Nate Sudfeld and the defense remains porous, allowing Missouri to pile up 623 yards last week. The schedule helps with four winnable conference home games.
Illinois: New coordinator Bill Cubit has had a positive effect on the offense in general and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in particular, which means the Illini won’t go winless in the Big Ten again. Problem is, there’s no Cubit for the defense. The Illini surrendered 615 yards to Washington in their most recent game.
Purdue: Through four games, the Boilermakers have played one good half — in a loss to Notre Dame. New coach Darrell Hazell has a depleted roster and a team that can’t run or stop the run. Even in this era of wide-open football, that’s not a formula for success in the Big Ten.
Michigan: The Wolverines were flying high after they beat Notre Dame. Then quarterback Devin Gardner started committing turnovers — a nation-leading 10 — and the offensive line sprung some leaks as Michigan barely escaped with wins over Akron and UConn. Gardner is a one-man band on offense, but if he bounces back so will the Wolverines, who, we tend to forget, are undefeated.
Nebraska: Other than coach Bo Pelini speaking out of turn, a defense that allowed 98-pound weakling South Dakota State to roll up 465 yards, an injury to quarterback Taylor Martinez and blowing a 21-3 lead in a 41-21 home loss to UCLA, things have been going along swimmingly for the Cornhuskers. Still, they’re 3-1 and, assuming Martinez is healthy, a scary offensive team. Defense remains the trouble spot, hard to believe given that Pelini is a defensive coach.
Northwestern: The Wildcats are the trendy pick in the division after starting out 4-0. They have two proven quarterbacks in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian and a premier runner in Venric Mark, who is just now coming back from injury. The defense hasn’t matched the offense so far, especially the pass defense. Northwestern does catch a break by having this week off before Ohio State travels to Evanston Oct. 5.
Michigan State: The Spartans have the Big Ten’s best defense and worst quarterback situation. Their only loss was to Notre Dame in a close game, but they lost a lot of close games last year because of inconsistent quarterbacking and dropped passes and those things haven’t gone away. On the other hand, halfback Le’Veon Bell has. He’s in the NFL, leaving the Spartans without a big-play threat.
Iowa: During the glory days under coach Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes eked out non-conference victories, then got stronger during the Big Ten season. So far, this Iowa team is following that pattern. For it to make noise in the Big Ten, however, it’ll need quarterback Jake Rudock to build on his solid start.
Minnesota: In going 4-0 against a weak non-conference schedule, the Gophers finally played with the physicality coach Jerry Kill wants. But running the ball and stopping the run will only carry a team so far. Unless run-first quarterback Mitch Leidner finds success through the air, it’ll be difficult for Minnesota to make headway in a division as balanced at the Legends.