Earlier today I discussed the four teams that currently sit at the top of the conference. Each has a golden opportunity to grab a share of the Big Ten title this year, and two teams might be in line for a BCS bowl. Now lets look past those top four teams to the rest of the pack. The next tier of teams are all fighting for a decent bowl birth and maybe a chance to shake up things at the top with an upset. All four of these teams have shown flashes of great play, but ultimately been unable to crack the highest order of the conference. Can they make some noise over the next three weeks? Each team will have ample opportunity to do just that.
At the bottom sits the three teams that are looking forward to 2011. "Maybe thats the year it all turns around!" That is a question for another day.
The Middle Class:
What a strange journey it has been for Penn State (6-3) this year. Coming in to the season the Nittany Lions had holes all over the offense, but enough defense to expect a finish in the top half of the conference. The non-conference schedule went largely according to plan outside of a nailbiter against Temple. Penn State was able to blow out the teams it should (Youngstown St, Kent St) while taking a beating from the consensus number one team (Alabama). If Iowa was the Nittany Lions first real test of the year, they failed in impressive fashion. Iowa jumped out to a 17-0 lead and coasted to an easy victory while grinding the Penn State offense to a halt. The next week brought the first big surprise of the season as Illinois jumped out to a lead in the second quarter that wouldn't be overcome for Penn State's second double digit loss of Big Ten play. The next week the Nittany Lions rolled into Minneapolis and got the cure for the losing streak blues that the Gophers have been handing out all year, while inadvertently setting Penn State up for the next two wins. In that game Rob Bolden was injured and replaced by the bastard child of Brett Favre and Nick Sheridan. Matt "McFavre" McGloin got the start for the injured Bolden the next week against Michigan and picked apart the Wolverine secondary under the lights at Happy Valley. Even the previously disappointing Evan Royster got his groove back to the tune of 150 yards and the all time rushing record. The next week saw the return of Bolden and offensive stagnation until the second quarter when McGloin came to save the day by leading the Nittany Lions to 35 unanswered points while securing Joe Paterno's 400th career win.
So which is it Penn State? Hapless pretender with an inconsistent offense and a defense that isn't good enough to carry the team to wins, or gritty underdog that can hang with anyone by stretching the field vertically while pounding the ball up the middle with Silas Redd and Evan Royster?
More than likely a little bit of both. It is unquestionable that this team plays looser and more effective with Matt McGloin under center (unless you look really hard at the defenses he did it against). He isn't the prototypical spread HD quarterback that the Nittany Lion's offense has relied on over the past few years, but he has a nice touch on the deep ball, an awareness of when to try to make a play and when to take off, and dammit he just has fun out there. Is this enough to win against Ohio State this weekend? That question falls to the defense. If the battered Penn State front seven can control the line of scrimmage and keep the game close they could benefit from OSU mistakes and maybe a big special teams play (one of OSU's biggest weaknesses this year). The next game is a winnable one at home against Indiana. No guarantees, but Penn State should be able to take care of business. Finally, Michigan State comes to town for the best battle for the Land Grant trophy in well, forever. Tables have turned as that abomination of a trophy is the key to MSU's Big Ten title hopes. Penn State has the best opportunity of the year to shake things up at the top in this one. MSU is good on offense, but not dominant. Defensively the Spartans have thrived on the mistakes of other teams. If Penn State can contain the MSU run game and limit mistakes offensively then the home field advantage of Happy Valley might just be enough to spoil Sparty's season.
I shouldn't have to say too much about Michigan's (6-3) season so far. If you are here you most likely know the story. Wolverine team jumps out to an undefeated start with a stunning last minute win against Notre Dame and close calls against UMass and Indiana. The next two games against ranked opponents confirm fears of defensive ineptitude and see the offense make uncharacteristic mistakes. A loss to Penn State causes shit to hit the fan. After a week of "Dickrod suxs, let's get Harbaugh, he's a real Michigan man" the Wolverines put together one of the more impressive offensive games of any team this season in a triple overtime thriller against Illinois. The interwebs calm and everyone says, "hey, we could get to 7-5, I guess that isn't so bad," which like, duh.
So does Michigan get to 7-5? Could an eighth win happen? After showing some defensive competence last week does the unit improve over the final three weeks? Is Michael Rosenberg working up his own Cam Newton style scandal to throw at Rich Rodriguez after his last baby was so soundly shown to be complete and utter bullshit?
Most likely 7-5 is in the cards, but don't tell that to Purdue fans. Despite rolling out the equivalent of a tackling dummy at quarterback---still no guarantees the Wolverines could take that down for any less than a five yard gain--- the Boilermakers still believe they have a chance. In all honesty, I wouldn't rule out an upset. My heart has been ripped out too many times to invest myself 100% in a win. The problem is Purdue just doesn't have the horses to keep up with the Wolverines if the Wolverines don't spend 60 minutes on Saturday running into each other like a pack of drunks stumbling home from the bar. As for the next two weeks, your guess is as good as mine. Michigan certainly has a chance in both games, but it will take a similar offensive effort to Illinois (minus the crippling turnovers) and the kind of inspired defensive performance we haven't seen since UConn. Also, forcing a turnover would help. In the end count on 7-5, but hope for better.
Illinois (5-4) has been the surprise team of the season. Coming in to 2010 the Illini's twelve game schedule looked more like Ron Zook's death march than a bowl birth. But a funny thing happened in the offseason, Illinois got competent coordinators to run the show behind the scenes and let Ron Zook do what he does best: recruit, get excited on the sidelines, and waterski.
The Illini lost to Missouri---which has almost become a college tradition in Champaign---and claimed supremacy in the battle of state universities in Illinois by beating Southern and Northern Illinois in back to back weeks. A close game against Ohio State got everyone thinking and a solid win over Penn State the next week confirmed those thoughts: Illinois wasn't terrible. After kicking the crap out of both Indiana schools, the Illini wandered into the Big House with a top 15 defense and a hankering for bowl eligibility. They left the Big House four hours later with a 43rd ranked defense and a bad taste in their mouth.
Is Ron Zook back from the dead? Can Illinois win eight games? Does anyone remember when Zook's seat was hotter than Tim Brewster's?
This humble blogger sees seven wins in the future for Illinois. Of course that isn't the hardest prediction to make when Minnesota is next on the schedule and Fresno State closes out the year. Minnesota is a gimme and Fresno St. should be a win. The Illini have a very good defense and the kind of rushing offense to control games and wear down opponents. The game against Northwestern in Wrigley Field stands as the toughest test for the Illini. This team struggled against Denard Robinson and the Wolverines, and Northwestern is capable of putting on a similar offensive show, with a little more defense to match. The Illini lose that one, but Ron Zook lives to fight another day.
Northwestern (6-3) just can't catch a break this year. After rattling off five wins to start the season the Wildcats fell to Purdue late in the game with Boilermaker quarterback Rob Henry in his first career start. The next game the Wildcats put on an impressive performance in the first half against a shell shocked Michigan State team, only to squander the momentum on a painfully obvious fake punt call* en route to an eight point loss. The next week the Cats slid by Indiana in a "closer than it shoulda been" game. Finally last week, Northwestern jumps out to another huge lead only to collapse over the course of the second half.
*(This one really grinds my gears, so you'll have to live with this rant. Some fakes are great calls. The fake FG MSU pulled out against Notre Dame was one of them. Les Miles is notorious for some of his well timed fakes. Even if a fake doesn't work it can still be a good call, but the best ones are so well timed that you usually think, "they wouldn't dare try a fake here," and shrug it off before it happens. However, nothing bothers me more than obvious fakes that slide by on luck. The MSU fake punt against NWU was one of these. It is the 4th quarter and the Spartans have 4th and 11 from the NWU 36. Too long for a FG, but a punt only gains you 15 yards of field position (after the inevitable touchback). Already this situation screams "Fake, OMG, Fake", but then the icing on the cake? Dantonio calls a timeout and calls the whole punt team over to the sideline. Is he giving his punter a pep talk? No, he is going over the fake punt and everyone knows it except Pat Fitzgerald. Northwestern's corner back trips over himself, and the Spartans get great field position on a play that should have been easily broken up. The field position was right for the call, but Dantonio showed his hand and Fitzgerald failed to read it. Inexcusable. End rant.)
What does the future hold for Northwestern with a daunting schedule of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin over the final three weeks? Can the Wildcats play giant killer once again? Will someone remind the Wildcats that the game continues after halftime?
Despite the recent struggles to close out better teams, the Cats are still dangerous in all three of these games. Are Iowa fans scared of Ohio State? No. Penn State? No. Michigan? No. Northwestern? You bet your sweet ass they are. The Wildcats have been tormenting Hawkeye fans for years. Regardless I still think this is a loss for the Cats. The next week should be a win as Northwestern has enough talent to stay ahead of the still young Illinois team. Finally, Northwestern shouldn't be counted out against WIsconsin, but with the game happening in Camp Randall it is hard to see Northwestern sustaining the kind of sixty minute effort that would be required to pull out the upset. Hopes were higher coming in to the season, but the Wildcats will take 7-5 and go back to being wildly more successful in everything but athletics.
The Whipping Boys:
Purdue (4-5) Really shouldn't be down here. Coming in to the season this looked like a seven or eight win team, at least until someone released a plague in West Lafayette that attacked only ACL's (is Robbie Hummel patient zero?). With the mounting losses of the number one running back, number one receiver, and number one quarterback it became clear that Purdue was just trying to keep from drowning. Sometimes that was easier than others. Non-conference games against Notre Dame and Toledo went against the Boilermakers, but Purdue still managed to get to four wins by beating three bad teams (Minnesota, Western Ill, Ball St) and stealing one upset against Northwestern. The last three Big Ten games have offered little hope---all double digit beat downs by OSU, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
Can Purdue steal two more wins and get bowl eligible? Will Danny Hope bring the mustache back to prominence? ("Did it ever leave?" he asks). Will the rest of Purdue's players make it out of the season with their knees intact?
Bowl elligibility is a tall order. This week's game against Michigan is an absolute must win, but that is going to require a superhuman effort by a depleated offense. I get it, Michigan's defense is the equivalent of a burning pile of trash pulled on a trailer behind a Ferrari. That doesn't excuse the fact that Purdue has put up 30 or more points only once this season (31 against Western Ill). Can Michigan's offense score 30+ on Purdue? Yes. Can Purdue keep up? Not with Who-Dat and the Who-Dats (see ND Rush D preview) responsible for the offense. The next week in East Lansing seems to be an even tougher, nay impossible, task. The final week Purdue faces Indiana in the "Not Even People From Indiana Care" Bowl. You know what Purdue fans, I care. That is why I am picking Purdue to win (that and Indiana's complete inability to stop the run).
Indiana (4-5) is about right where we expected. Great passing offense, incompetence littering every other area of the team. So far this team has beaten all the teams we expected (Towson, Akron, Western Kentucky, Arkansas St.) and lost to everyone else. Games against Michigan, Northwestern, and Iowa slipped away at the end---sometimes very literally slipped away.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for the Hoosiers? Will this strong passing attack find a way to will the Hoosiers to a win? Is anyone else bothered that "Hoosier" means person from Indiana (although at least their mascot still resides in the state, amirite)?
No, no, and nobody but me cares. Going in to Camp Randall this week will be a bloodbath. What do you get when a team with a terrible rush defense and one dimensional offense takes on Wisconsin (they of 330 lbs linemen and only slightly smaller running backs). Pain? Probably, but on the bright side Hoosier fans won't have to witness any of the pain that befalls their team in person. Both the Wisconsin and Purdue games are away and the Penn State game is in Maryland. Why? Who the hell knows, maybe it is the first step of the University just getting rid of the team all together. A bus drops the team off at the locker room in Maryland before the game and never returns. Would anyone in Indiana care at this point?
Minnesota (redacted) I'm not going to pile on the suffering of Minnesota. No mention of the team's record, the humiliating losses, or the fact that He Who Shall Not Be Named was ever brought in to coach the team in the first place. No sir, Minnesota is focused on the future. Why talk about what is shaping up to be one of the worst single seasons a Big Ten team has put together recently. Let's focus on the future.
Come on down Tony Dungy.
No? Damn, I thought that would work for sure.
No? Hell, who are we going to find?
Mike Leach? We have some of the best utility closets in the Big Ten.
Thats the ticket.
(Disclaimer: You get what you pay for. If you don't like these predictions, don't like my jokes about your team, or think I am a kool-aid chugging homer for suggesting Michigan has a chance to upset your team (you know who you are Badger and Buckeye fans) I know a certain place you can shove it. I have watched enough football to believe I am right, while also knowing I could well look like an idiot in three weeks. This is all in good fun. However, if I messed up a Big Ten tie-breaker rule or didn't factor in some bowl selection policy, please let me know.)