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College Teams Mon Sep 05 2011

Big Ten Football: No One Knows Anything Yet

big ten divisions vertical.JPGThis time of year, it's impossible to know what we're really seeing each weekend in college football. Without any empirical evidence gleaned from actual play, an upset is only defined by our own expectations. And you probably don't need me to point out how ludicrous it is to invest in any projections of unrealized potential in a bunch of kids who likely spend half the year downing jagerbombs at various campus sororities.

The only person who does know exactly what's going on in college football right now is omniscient God Himself. But despite his best efforts to assuage us viewers and stymie the USF Bulls with multiple thunderstorm delays Saturday evening, Notre Dame still lost 23-20, and now we can all be fairly confident that the Fighting Irish will once again be awful this year.

So instead, let's focus our opening week analysis on some football that's worth paying attention to: the Big Ten.

Due to the endemic uncertainty, I'm being lenient and giving the benefit of the doubt to teams straddling the line between Contender and Pretender. As the fall progresses, you'll see the latter receive a glut of wannabes from the former. But it's the first week of the season and I'm in no rush to make enemies, so let's be generous.

THE CONTENDERS

Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, and Penn State all take care of business, while Michigan, Northwestern, and Illinois humor us with their presence.

Wisconsin 51, UNLV 17

The only thing that stopped the Badgers on their first eight possessions was the clock. Outside of the botched opportunity to really put things to bed with another score before the half, Russell Wilson & Co. scored seven straight touchdowns en route to an easy win Thursday night.

The offensive line apparently didn't lose a step after losing two starters to the NFL. But then, nobody was really worried about the mechanical offense being able to adjust to having an awesome, experienced quarterback for once.

The defense, on the other hand, did show a few signs of weakness. The linebackers looked fooled on several option plays that went for big yards, and if the Runnin' Rebels could find holes in the secondary there's no telling what might happen against an offense that can actually complete passes.

But generally, we can chalk this up to early overreactions about a defense that didn't have much to play for and just needs to work off a bit of rust -- especially because they seem to have found a replacement for budding NFL star J.J. Watt in defensive end Louis Nzegwu, who came one yard shy of recording a safety.

Things could get fun again this year in Madison.

Nebraska 40, Chattanooga 7

If the Cornhuskers are the new kids on the Big Ten block, they're not hesitating to make themselves known. They rolled out a no-huddle look Saturday that's predicated on quarterback Taylor Martinez's ability to run over, under, or around any defender.

No disrespect to Denard Robinson, but Martinez is the only guy in the Big Ten (or maybe anywhere) who can really challenge Russell Wilson this year in the pantheon of dual-threat quarterbacks. But while Martinez was able to rush 19 times for 135 yards against Chattanooga and live to tell the tale, it'll be interesting to see how his body holds up if he continues to get 20 carries per game against a bruising Big Ten schedule. Not to mention that most defenses are dynamic enough that he won't get away with completing just 50 percent of his passes for fewer yards than his rush totals.

Yet the toughest defense in the conference might be the one Martinez faces every day in practice. The Huskers should fit right in to the Big Ten's murderer's row of stingy defenses; they haven't even played a conference game yet, but it feels like they've been here forever.

Ohio State 42, Akron 0

Ravaged by suspensions and departures after various off-field transgressions -- most notably the perennially overhyped Terrelle Pryor and Mr. Sweater Vest himself, head coach Jim Tressel -- the Buckeyes are hard to get a handle on this season.

Without question, the defense is under a lot of pressure to carry the load while quarterback Joe Bauserman cuts his teeth, but that won't be a problem against opponents like Akron. Bauserman displayed competence against what could be accurately described as a dummy defense, while his defensive teammates managed to do what the Badgers couldn't: maintain focus long enough to complete the shutout.

So what does this tell us about the Buckeyes' capacity to survive the suspensions and adjust to new coach Luke Fickell? Frankly, probably nothing.

Michigan State 28, Youngstown State 6

There was a moment Friday night when the Penguins looked threatening. It took about 18 minutes for the Spartans to break through on a Larry Caper rushing touchdown, only to have the Penguins respond right away with a touchdown drive of their own. But the Spartans blocked the PAT, and soon were too much for the visitors to handle.

With quarterback Kirk Cousins back to defend last year's shared Big Ten championship, the Spartans have plenty reason for optimism. And at least to this point they can take comfort in knowing they avoided total collapse.

Iowa 34, Tennessee Tech 7

The Hawkeyes continue to play numbingly efficient football. They outgained Tennessee Tech by 98 yards despite having the ball for about eight fewer minutes. And they scored 24 of their 34 points in the second quarter. Of course, those 10 other points would have been enough to beat the Golden Eagles, so I'm not sure what lessons we're supposed to take away from this.

Penn State 41, Indiana State 7

Joe Pa is banged up and coaching from the press box again, not that it really matters all that much. With or without the legend's immediate presence, the Nittany Lions stormed through their FCS foes. But Penn State did what they needed to do, racking up 245 rushing yards and holding the Sycamores scoreless until the fourth quarter.

Michigan 34, Western Michigan 10

Michigan's first game since the failed Rich Rodriguez experiment got off to a slow start Saturday and ended early, called off late in the third quarter because of lightning storms. Western Michigan is not exactly the sack of chumps most of the contenders were matched up with, but they're also not the kind of team that should be running up almost 300 yards of offense in three quarters.

New coach Brady Hoke's hybrid offense means there's potential for the Wolverines to string together some wins in the Big Ten, but they (probably?) won't get help from the weather again soon.

Northwestern 24, Boston College 17

The Wildcats pulled off the victory even without star quarterback Dan Persa, who's still recovering from the ruptured Achilles' tendon he suffered last November. Backup Kain Coulter seemed more than capable, even on the road in what had to be the toughest challenge any good Big Ten team faced this week. With all of their pieces intact, Northwestern has proven capable of stirring up trouble. But we're not there yet.

Illinois 33, Arkansas State 15

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and running back Jason Ford did what was necessary to beat an overmatched Red Wolves squad, thus delaying for at least another week the realization that this team probably isn't very good at all.

THE PRETENDERS

Indiana's heartwarming return to relevancy is delayed at least another season after a 27-20 loss at Ball State. Purdue outlasted Middle Tennessee in a wild fourth quarter, 27-24.

Minnesota, playing the only ranked opponent of any Big Ten team, barely missed out on a comeback against No. 25 USC in a 19-17 loss. I'm of the opinion that the score tells us a lot more about USC's fall from grace than Minnesota's alleged resurrection, but I'm sure someone will let me know if I'm wrong.

NEXT WEEK

Things finally start to get interesting: Penn State tries to hack it against No. 2 Alabama, and Iowa and Iowa State square off to see whose locker room gets to inherit the ugliest trophy known to man. Meanwhile, Michigan and Notre Dame meet in what will assuredly be a rousing contest to see who God hates more.

 
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