We’re halfway through the Ohio State season, so now seems as good a time as ever for a Big Ten reset.
The Buckeyes are making good progress in their hope to play in the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time ever, but which teams are also in the hunt? Will the hyped Ohio State-Michigan twice-in-two-weeks showdown to end all showdowns actually happen? Or will something surprising come up on the race to Indianapolis?
We break it down, taking a look at the teams still in the race on each side. We skip over Penn State (ineligible), Minnesota (0-2 in Big Ten) and Purdue (1-4 overall, 0-1 in the league and about to start a freshman QB) because it appears their chances to get to Indianapolis are slim (or none in PSU’s case), but everyone else is fair game.
Ohio State (2-0)
Best win: Winning at then-No. 16 Northwestern by a 40-30 count last week.
Team capsule: Ohio State has to like its positioning. Four of the other Leaders Division teams already have a loss, and the Buckeyes have beaten Wisconsin to gain what is essentially a two-game lead on the Badgers in the standings (remember, OSU has the tiebreaker over UW now). The Buckeyes are also riding an 18-game winning streak and have Urban Meyer as their head coach.
Why they’ll go: Ohio State might have the most offensive talent in the league, as shown by the Big Ten-leading scoring offense. The Buckeyes’ lead in the league is already strong, and having beaten two of the tougher teams on the conference slate in UW and NU is huge. Ohio State also outrushes teams by an average of 280.7-86.2 each game.
Why they won’t: The defense is sixth in the league in yards allowed, and losing at safety Christian Bryant won’t help going forward. Teams that throw the ball competently – think Indiana, which gashed OSU a season ago – could provide a challenge.
Are they really going to Indy? Seems like it.
Best win: A 44-24 triumph against Penn State this past weekend, the first win over the Nittany Lions in the history of ever for the Hoosiers in 17 tries.
Team capsule: The Hoosiers have a bad loss to Navy on the schedule and missed a chance for a breakout win with a home loss to Missouri to end the nonleague slate, but the offense is good enough to hang with anyone.
Why they’ll go: The league’s best pass offense, and it’s not even close, as Indiana averages 346.0 yards per game through the air. Seriously, covering their receivers all across the board is difficult, including star Cody Latimer (third in receptions and yards in the league). And the Hoosiers do catch the Buckeyes one week before The Game.
Why they won’t: EGADS that defense. If it weren’t for Purdue’s scary-bad numbers, the Hoosiers would be last in the league with 31.0 points allowed per game (Penn State scoring only 24 last week, by the way, is quite a feat). Indiana gave up 35 to Indiana State, 41 to Navy and 45 to Missouri – though those are improvements from ending last year by giving up an average of 54.3 to Wisconsin (OK), Penn State (really?) and Purdue (burn it down).
Are they really going to Indy? Probably not, but it would be kinda cool.
Best win: File not found. Shutting out UMass and Tennessee Tech then beating Purdue don’t count, though UW had a potential win fall out of its grasp with the bizarre ending at Arizona State.
Team capsule: Wisconsin is yet again Wisconsin, running over the less fortunate while having a quarterback good enough to run play fakes, rollouts and deep balls to shame defenses who have sold out to stop the run. New head coach Gary Andersen has also shaken up the defense, which appears to have made some progress this season.
Why they’ll go: They pretty much own the ground game, posting an average edge in rushing yards of 300.6-99.4 (and that’s after having faced OSU, which runs it pretty damn good). The rest of the slate is favorable, as Bucky doesn’t have to face Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska and hosts Northwestern next weekend. That is Bill Snyder-level league scheduling right there.
Why they won’t: The pass defense isn’t great, having allowed OSU to toss for four touchdowns and let Arizona State move the ball fairly efficiently. They also have to hope for the Buckeyes to lose twice, which doesn’t seem very likely at the moment.
Are they really going to Indy? If they beat Northwestern, they’re certainly poised to be there if OSU falls.
Best win: Beating Cincinnati like a drum at home Sept. 7 certainly qualifies. It doesn’t look that great now after the Bearcats lost last week to USF (partly because Illinois broke starting QB Munchie Legaux), but UC was expected to be a dangerous team in the preseason.
Team capsule: Illinois is a much-improved team from last year’s train wreck but it still can’t help wasting opportunities. The Illini moved the ball well vs. Nebraska at times but left points on the field thanks to turnovers on downs, turnovers of the regular sort, and settling for field goals. The offense is fun, though, with Nathan Scheelhaase having figured some things out in his senior season.
Why they’ll go: The passing offense was pretty solid, with Illinois having turned what was a major weakness a year ago into a strength. The team averages 281.4 passing yards per game while having tossed 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. Illinois also gets its toughest remaining Big Ten games at home, with Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Northwestern visiting the wind-swept plains of Champaign (where it does sometimes rain, to keep the rhyme alive).
Why they won’t: Illinois is 10th or worst in the league in scoring, rushing and total defense, not to mention dead last in passing efficiency defense, and they didn’t put up much of a fight vs. Nebraska. And they can’t run the football (10th in the Big Ten). Plus the Illini is last in things like field goals, sacks, sacks against, interceptions – little things that don’t reflect well on the coaching staff.
Are they really going to Indy? Doesn’t look like it with that schedule left.
Best win: The 41-30 home win against then-No. 14 Notre Dame on Sept. 7 looked better at the time, but it’s still a solid victory better than what many Big Ten teams have on the docket.
Team capsule: Michigan has avoided major missteps with close wins vs. Akron and UConn, but it’s pretty hard to call this team elite at the moment as it doesn’t fall in the top three of any major yardage- or point-based Big Ten stat category. Simply put, this team has been too inconsistent to yet trust, and it doesn’t take care of the football either.
Why they’ll go: Well, it’s Michigan, so there’s some talent on the squad, and the team could keep getting better as a young offensive line improves and star LB Jake Ryan gets back from ACL surgery. Plus the Wolverines are undefeated at 5-0, and as much as Devin Gardner gets maligned, he’s capable of providing offense. The defense is pretty darn solid too, giving up 19.4 points per game even as the offense has given up some short fields.
Why they won’t: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Michigan has thrown 12 interceptions, one of the worst totals in the nation, and this isn’t exactly an air-it-out offense. U-M is also last in tackles for loss allowed and eighth in rushing defense, signs that the offensive line leaves a lot to be desired.
Are they really going to Indy? They’re in a good spot, but drawing Ohio State doesn’t help when MSU and Nebraska will avoid the Buckeyes.
Best win: Illinois? Ugh, this just feels dirty.
Team capsule: The Huskers look a lot like last year’s vintage, mixing an exciting rushing offense that can dominate anyone and a defense that can’t be trusted if the second-half collapse vs. UCLA is any indication.
Why they’ll go: They could conceivably outscore everyone they play from here on out (it’s actually true, as in the case of a home game vs. MSU that could serve as the de facto title-game play-in, that means just getting to 20 points). Ameer Abdullah is the real deal at running back. Plus they don’t turn the football over very much, which is something that cannot be overlooked.
Why they won’t: Nebraska is 10th in the league allowing 445.4 yards per game, and that’s against a schedule that made it very difficult to fill in the “best win” section. On top of that, Taylor Martinez has been banged up, and T-Magic is still one of the most explosive players in the conference.
Are they really going to Indy? They know the way, having gone a season ago, and avoiding Ohio State – not to mention hosting MSU – helps.
Michigan State (1-0)
Best win: Pass? OK, they did beat Iowa this past weekend, showing a few breaths of competent offensive play as well.
Team capsule: It’s really hard to imagine an offensive and defensive dichotomy bigger than this one. MSU leads the nation in rushing defense, passing efficiency defense, total defense and third-down defense. Meanwhile, the offense is ninth in the Big Ten in rushing, 11th in scoring (and that’s WITH a plethora of defensive scores in the early season), 11th in passing efficiency and 10th in yards.
Why they’ll go: The defense.
Why they won’t: The offense.
Are they really going to Indy? Again, they don’t have to face Ohio State, and the defense will keep the Green and White in every game. And it seems like a Bollman vs. OSU matchup should be in the cards at least once…
Best win: Going on the road to beat Iowa State by a 27-21 score on Sept. 14, claiming the Cy-Hawk Trophy and putting them on par with Texas in one fell swoop.
Team capsule: Iowa appears to have ascended from last year’s rough season to slightly better than average this year. Much of that is on the strength of a punishing run game (one that was dulled quite a bit last weekend thanks to an injury to Mark Weisman vs. MSU) and a standout defense that checks in third in the league in rushing, scoring, yards allowed and passing efficiency against.
Why they’ll go: The defense is legitimately good, it appears, as it enjoys both forcing turnovers and keeping teams from getting into a rhythm offensively. And Kirk Ferentz hasn't won a Big Ten Coach of the Year award anytime recently, so maybe he's due.
Why they won’t: There’s nothing for the Hawkeyes to hang their hat on offensively. Both the rushing and passing game lack explosion – they have 20 plays of 20 yards or more so far, near the bottom of the Big Ten – and Iowa simply isn’t good enough to sustain enough drives to beat the best teams. On top of that, the schedule is absolutely brutal – the Hawkeyes drew OSU and Wisconsin on the other side.
Are they really going to Indy? No, but if Northwestern is on here, Iowa has to be, too, I guess.
Best win: None, really, but they did almost beat Ohio State, so they belong here. And honestly, that Cal win to start the year wasn’t bad considering no one has seen tape of the Golden Bears’ high-tempo offense yet.
Team capsule: This looks like the best Northwestern team of the Pat Fitzgerald era, boasting perhaps the most efficient offense in the league (it’s numbers in passing efficiency and red-zone scoring are excellent). Unfortunately, it’s hard to get legitimately great defensive players to Northwestern, and that’s been proven this year by a defense that has some nice pieces but is ninth in the league in yards allowed and points..
Why they’ll go: They proved vs. Ohio State that the offense can move the ball vs. anyone, and there are a number of playmakers on the squad. This is a solid, well-coached football team, and it does things like win the turnover battle to beat opponents.
Why they won’t: The defense can be beaten physically by offenses like Nebraska (which is likely faster) and Wisconsin (which is likely stronger). They also could continue to fall into the current Northwestern trap of being very good but not quite good enough, something that has come through in all four losses the past two years – all games NU led in the fourth quarter at one point.
Are they really going to Indy? I don’t think there’s much doubt they can beat everyone they play, but that cross-divisional game vs. OSU – one that MSU and Nebraska don’t have to play – might be the killer.