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College Teams Mon Sep 26 2011

Big Ten Football: Everything In Its Right Place

Thumbnail image for big ten divisions vertical.JPGThis isn't 'Nam, dude, there are rules. But then, I've no idea how to account for the NCAA, where harmony is a forgotten treasure and dissonance rules the universe. Think about it: After major conference shake-ups last season that saw the Big 12 drop to 10 teams and the Big 10 rise up to 12, this year has somehow become more anarchic. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are fleeing the Big East for the ACC, the Big 12 are having frantic meetings to try to avoid absolving while the SEC is taking more of their schools, and the Pac 12 is thinking about adopting enough new teams to become a new super-conference. Oh, and the NCAA is in no real position to stop any of them.

The one corner from which you don't hear much grumbling is the Big Ten. After introducing Nebraska into the fold last season, they've remained extremely quiet over the last few months, as if they're an exclusive club that refuses to tangle with anyone else.

And with good enough reason. In a recent article on FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver made the Big Ten seem like the trophy pig. They have the three biggest fanbases in the country in Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Their fourth-best market is currently ranked the nation's seventh-best team (Wisconsin), and they regularly have at least six of their teams finish the season in the top 25. So they're doing just fine, thanks.

But don't be misled. Despite their overall success and enormous fanbase, the Big Ten has only ever won one BCS Championship. The SEC has six.

You can put a price on television ratings, but you can't put a price on prestige. And the way the Big Ten teams have looked in their "preseasons" of non-conference games, they have some serious work to do. Only four teams have escaped their relatively meager non-conference slate unscathed, and none of them have any flagship victories. And come December, that futility weighs down on the whole group. It's hard time stack up quality wins when one of your toughest opponents barely eked out a win against lowly Toledo.

We've reached a fork in the road, and this writer thinks the Big Ten should stop pretending they're more elite than they are.

No. 6 Wisconsin 59, South Dakota 10

Of the few teams that have proven themselves in non-conference games, the Badgers have continually looked like the class of them. But that's not such a difficult proposition when you figure their toughest opponent has been... Hell, maybe South Dakota. The Badgers have been on a steady incline for years, and it's about time they schedule the kind of high-profile non-conference opponent that will get them the attention their consistently dominant play deserves. This is the one year when their passing game is able to propel their rushing attack (just dwell over how terrifying that is), and it's going to be a serious shame if they don't get the BCS love they deserve only because their most competent non-conference opponent came from the FCS.

No. 9 Nebraska 38, Wyoming 14

Nebraska somehow continues to look only sort of dominant. They take care of business in workmanlike fashion, and this time they brought their lunch pails to Wyoming. But I can't get over the fact that they still depend on Taylor Martinez for more than 10 carries per game. There's a reason each offense devotes at least five men to do everything they can to make sure a quarterback doesn't have to get tackled.

But regardless of their offensive ethos, this team is rock solid. Their addition to the conference is the Big Ten's sole crowning achievement over the last few years.

No. 22 Michigan 28, San Diego State 7

Speaking of teams that over-expose their quarterbacks: Denard Robinson rushed 21 times for 200 yards in this one. This is a much bigger problem for the Wolverines than the Cornhuskers, though, because Denard Robinson has a hard time doing everything else a quarterback is supposed to do. He completed just eight of 17 passes for a meager 93 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. Robinson is explosive enough to single-handedly power any team to victory on any given Saturday, and it might not always be Michigan. That's the kind of upbeat flare the Big Ten (and we) can live with, though.

No. 24 Illinois 23, Western Michigan 20

The Illini are the only positive surprise to come from the Big Ten's early season. This one wasn't pretty, but Illinois was able to overcome a halftime deficit to win. All told, that story probably tells us more about the Illini than a blow-out would have. We know they're extremely talented, the main question is whether they have the mental make-up to overcome the ups and downs of a rigorous Big Ten schedule. Regardless, Illinois' ascent to the top 25 is the best news the Big Ten's heard all season. Even when nearly everything else falls apart, it's good to be able to count on teams to pop up to relevance like this.

Ohio State 37, Colorado 17

Ohio State will gradually return to form, but they don't need to be at full strength to toss aside teams like Colorado. OSU has been the class of the Big Ten for years, and so long as their worst times are as good as this year, they should continue to be. It's mostly a question of how many teams can take advantage

Penn State 34, Eastern Michigan 6

Michigan State 45, Central Michigan 7

Iowa 45, Louisiana-Monroe 17

Penn State, Michigan State and Iowa make up the real meat-and-potatoes portion of the Big Ten. All of them are threats to win on any given week, but you half-expect them to drop a few along the way because none of them are explosive enough to evade that many hurdles. But they're each essential parts for any conference that wants to be respected. That doesn't mean anyone has to like them.

North Dakota State 37, Minnesota 24

North Texas 24, Indiana 21

Who the heck invited these guys? At least Northwestern and Purdue (both idle) have great academic programs.

Next Week

Things finally get rolling for the Big Ten next week. Northwestern and Illinois face off to see which surprising team is more for-real, and Michigan State and Ohio State tangle in what will certainly have major bowl-game implications. But the big game of the week is the primetime matchup between Wisconsin and Nebraska. Strap your seat belts, this is going to be awfully fun.

 
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