Big Ten ‘Ballin – Week 4
Coming into this year, I thought the Big Ten was going to have a few very strong teams, lots of mediocre teams, and a few really bad teams. Yet, many pundits or “wannabe experts” have been proven wrong based solely upon the first three games of the season. Instead, we have been given lots of mediocrity, several disappointing teams, and no odds on favorite to win the conference. As conference play rolls around, the picture will become a little bit clearer. Let’s rewind for a moment and set some expectations for a few teams, whether they be Big Ten champions or cellar dwellers.
Wisconsin for me is a team that you no matter what have to set the highest expectations for. They have been the best in the Big Ten the last two years, and with their running game one should expect them to do it again. Now you are probably thinking “Is he crazy? Wisconsin lost to Oregon State two weeks ago and almost lost to Utah State last week! How could they be considered the favorites?” Well my answer to you is experience. This is a team that has been there before and will settle down after a rough start to do what they normally do, which is wreak havoc for every run defense on their schedule. Nebraska, Michigan State, and Ohio State are the toughest tests on their schedule. If they pass those, expect Wisconsin back in the Big Ten title game. Yet, if they keep playing like they did the past two weeks, you can lower expectations greatly.
Northwestern of all Big Ten teams has played one of the best non conference schedules to this point, beating Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College, all of which are BCS conference schools. Their next 4 opponents are all games that the Wildcats can win, facing South Dakota, Indiana, Minnesota, and Penn State in that order. Expectations for the Wildcats have been raised after holding their last two opponents to a combined 26 points. The pass defense looks better, but it still cannot be held to a higher level yet. Once it has shut down a big pass offense, then it can be held to that level. Until then, set the Wildcats as your Big Ten sleeper team.
Michigan State was shut down by Notre Dame 20-3, yet Purdue almost beat ND, losing 20-17. So based on the past two games, you might expect the Irish to score 20 against their next opponent, Michigan. For the Big Ten, the Irish are a good measuring stick. Notre Dame is stronger than most Big Ten teams at this point, but their results against Sparty and the Boilers show a change in the powers of the Big Ten. Michigan State is no longer an elite squad, as Andrew Maxwell will not match up to what Kirk Cousins was. Sparty is still decent, but lower their expectations this year from years past. Purdue is much better, but still not good enough to win the conference. If Wisconsin falters, then Purdue is the best team in their division still eligible for the championship game. Raise their expectations a bit, but don’t be surprised if they return to being Danny Hope’s typical 6-6 team.
Michigan on the other hand has their expectations way lowered after the first three weeks. Alabama spanked them and exposed Denard Robinson as a great athlete with limited vertically passing. Teams more and more are keying in on the run against Michigan, and that has caused problems for them. The defense is not stellar, which could prove to be a problem down the line. Lower the Wolverine expectations, but another 10 win regular season is not out of the question.
The jury is still out on Nebraska. They are a team that can score a lot of points, but they can also give up a lot of points as well. What good is an offense if you can’t play defense? Lower the Huskers expectations because of their defense. Illinois just doesn’t seem in sync, but their expectations weren’t high to begin with. Minnesota is 3-0, but they haven’t played anybody good. Indiana is 2-1 and their wins are against weak opponents as well. Iowa is 2-1 but they struggled with Northern Iowa, so you can lower their expectations as well. Ohio State and Penn State don’t really matter, because they are not eligible for the Big Ten championship game.
It is still anybody’s ballgame at this point, but the bottom line is you must lower the expectations of the Big Ten conference as a whole. It is not strong and any team that makes it to the Rose Bowl is going to get crushed by USC, Oregon, or Stanford. Take your pick among those three, because all of them are better than the best team in the Big Ten. If only we knew who that team was. That’s why they play the games, so it will take a little more time, but soon enough, the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.