Opinion: The Big Ten, nationally, is back to the middle of the pack again
At least it isn’t the ACC.
That’s what Big Ten coaches must be thinking as conference play begins this week. The goal was to have conference teams face early-season tests and overcome a bad bowl season the year before and re-establish conference credibility.
And we watched it fall on its face.
Big Ten football teams are a combined 24-8 this season, but that is a misleading record. For a reality check, note that the league is 1-2 against teams in the Top 25.
This year, again, USC knocked off Ohio State. Michigan State lost to Central Michigan and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks. Cal beat Minnesota. Missouri knocked off Illinois.
Syracuse, woebegone, left-for-nothing in the Big East Syracuse, beat Northwestern a week after woebegone, left-for-nothing Eastern Michigan almost beat them.
Purdue lost, at home, to Northern Illinois.
At least no Big Ten teams lost to FCS schools, although Indiana really, really came close against Eastern Kentucky and Iowa blocked two last-second field goals to hold off FCS contender Northern Iowa. But hey, that’s better than the ACC, which had Virginia and Duke waxed by FCS foes William & Mary and Richmond.
Because a win is a win - or at least that’s what some coaches will tell you.
Meanwhile, conference favorite Penn State played nobody, a fact Joe Paterno lamented this week in his press conference.
Notice who isn’t on this list of ugliness or with a ton of questions: Michigan.
The Wolverines are the surprise of the Big Ten, so much so that they look like one of the contenders entering league play Saturday. The Wolverines have taken care of what they needed to, handily beating a pair of Mid-American Conference schools and beating Notre Dame in a last-minute, thrilling fashion.
Michigan is doing it with a freshman quarterback, Tate Forcier, a coach known for second-year turnarounds, Rich Rodriguez, and a defense that has been shaky, yet done enough for Michigan to win.
And Rodriguez is acting like all of this is happening just as he planned.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of surprises from us that we didn’t see in camp and that we didn’t see in the beginnings of spring practice,” Rodriguez said. “You know, I saw a very focused team in spring ball. They were really eager to learn and take the next step.”
There are issues surrounding Michigan. The Wolverines haven’t played on the road, and their defense has been shaky at times the past two weeks.
Even so, in the Big Ten, that might be good enough considering who else is undefeated.
Penn State, the class of the league, is doing what it needs to do. The Nittany Lions enter league play undefeated but, as Paterno said, untested after wins over Akron, Syracuse and Temple.
Wisconsin, another undefeated team, played a couple of uninspiring opponents and held on against Fresno State despite the Badgers being riddled with the flu. Indiana’s 3-0 start is mostly paper. The Hoosiers haven’t faced a challenge yet and don’t look like a top-tier team.
Iowa, actually, might be the second-most tested of the undefeated teams behind Michigan. Besides the aforementioned escape in the opener, the Hawkeyes handled Iowa State and Arizona fairly convincingly behind a typically strong defense and an offense finding itself without stud runner Jewel Hampton.
So what does all this mean?
It means the Big Ten, entering a time where most opponents are conference foes for the next two months, will have to wait until bowl season - again - to try and prove itself as anything other than a second-tier conference behind the SEC, Big 12 and Pacific 10.
Because the chance to do that in the regular season has long disappeared.