Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Big Ten at the "Third" Poll

Starting tomorrow (and maybe if we get really ambitious even today...ok no, we're probably not that ambitious. It's a Tuesday after all) we'll start talking about the Border Battle and how we're going to take Paul Bunyan's Axe back from those dirty drunken Sconnies. We'll also give you helpful tips on how to spot a Wisconsonite who's in town for the game(s apparently there's another game next weekend involving Minnesota and Wisconsin football teams? Something about a former Packer legend taking revenge on his old team. I didn't know people were that excited about Ryan Longwell playing his old team), and we'll even talk to a Sconnie on the podcast this week. We might have to run a translation for his drunken speech from all the Miller Light or the Champaign of Beers he'll be slamming before, during, and after the interview- oh wait, that's usually us. If you can understand us during our usual podcasts, you'll be fine.

ANYWAY, today, let's talk about the Big Ten. We're officially in week five which means we're unofficially a third of the way through the season already. Everyone but Illinois has played four games, and let's be honest, the way the Zooker's Crew has played, I don't think a fourth awful game would change our opinion of them much. And yes, it was yours truly who said before the season started that Illinois was going 11-1 and would tie for the conference title. I must have got my numbers turned around, because surely I meant 1-11 not 11-1, right? Right? Something like that.

Illinois wasn't the only team I was wrong about, but there were also a few I was right about too. Here's my predicted order of finish from back in August:
1. Ohio State
2. Illinois
3. Penn State
4. Wisconsin
5. Iowa
6. Minnesota
7. Michigan State
8. Michigan
9. Northwestern
10. Purdue
11. Indiana

Yeah so I got a few right there, but plenty wrong. Before the season started me and everyone else outside of Iowa thought the Big Two would be Ohio State and Penn State, with a huge throng of teams fighting for spots 3-9, and the Indiana schools bringing up the rear. Four games into the season I'm not sure there is a Big Two anymore. For one thing, as we're seeing all across the country, upsets are back, and nobody, no matter how good we think they are or how high the rankings, are safe. We could have zero BCS conference schools undefeated when they select the bowls, and frankly I wouldn't be surprised if that happens. Everybody except Alabama seems to have a glaring issue, and because the Tide play in the SEC, they're far from safe from an upset.

In the Big Ten, Ohio State is still the class of the conference, but they're far from invincible this year. For the second straight year their defense is as good as their offense is bad, which is surprising on both accounts considering how many defensive players they had to replace, and that the offense was returning Terrelle Pryor- aka the greatest player in the history of the universe who really hadn't proved much yet. I'm not saying Pryor's going to be terrible- he is, after all just a sophomore and probably at the same level or ahead of where Vince Young was at the same stage of his career- but he's got a long way to go to be a real passing threat. It's not Pryor's fault he was ridiculously overhyped by the media, who tagged him as the preseason conference player of the year. Then again, for reasons only coach Jim Tressell knows, they haven't unleashed Pryor's rushing ability either. The Buckeyes D is so good it's going to give them a chance to win every game, but if the offense remains as stagnant and conservative as it has been, they're going to have a chance to lose some games too.

After Ohio State it is WIDE OPEN! It just KILLS me to have to talk about Iowa as the second best team in the conference so far, but they have been. After an awful opening week against Northern Iowa WHERE THEY SHOULD HAVE LOST, they've bounced back to look like the Big Ten title contender everyone in Iowa thought they were. Everyone (me included) thought the conference title would be decided November 7th when the Buckeyes travelled to Penn State, but we might need to cross that one off and pay more attention to Ohio State's home game the next week when Iowa rolls into town. The Hawks defense has been as good as Ohio State's, and the offense, well it's not quite as bad, but not much better. In their impressive win over Penn State last week they had just 298 yards of total offense, and they don't have anyone as talented as Pryor either. In the last two weeks against the Nittany Lions and Arizona they've only averaged 3.3 yards per rush. They're clearly second but not unbeatable.

After that? Honestly, tell me who's third best right now. Michigan? Wisconsin? Minnesota? Penn State? Hell, tell me who's the worst team- Illinois? Michigan State? Indiana? Northwestern? It's so early and everybody 3-11 have been so inconsistent, I'd believe these nine could finish just about anywhere by season's end. Penn State went to Cupcake City for the first three weeks, and when they played a real opponent, all of the questions we had on them to start the year- having to replace most of their offensive line, secondary, edge rushers and wide receivers- showed themselves. With the best QB and running back in the conference in Daryll Clark and Evan Royster they'll always be dangerous, but they're going to be vunerable too.

We'll get heavy into the Gophers as Badgers later, but I will say both are where I thought they'd be after four weeks, and both should like their chances of a top 3 finish. Michigan State and Northwestern are also both right where I thought they'd be. Each could still go to bowl games but they've got enough issues that they won't be competing for a top four finish. Michigan has played about as inconsistently as you'd expect with so many true freshman and sophomores getting major minutes. They looked like world beaters against Notre Dame, but then escaped with their lives last week against the Hoosiers. I'd be shocked if they win the conference, but I'd also be shocked if they only win the six games I predicted for them.

Finally the Indiana schools are looking much fiestier than expected. Charlie Weis' Big Ten Christmas card list continues to grow. First it was Michigan State handing him a win he didn't deserve, then last week it's Purdue head coach Danny Hope inexplicably calling a timeout to give Notre Dame two chances for a touchdown instead of one. Still, Purdue has been better than expected and nobody can look at them as an easy win. Ditto Indiana, who I thought would play like, well, Indiana once they started playing real teams in the Big Ten. So much for that, as they were THIS close to knocking off the Wolverines. Maybe it's a good thing they're not on Minnesota's schedule? Ok, ok that's crazy talk. I'd still rather take my chances with the Hoosiers than anyone else.

So after four weeks I'd say we still have many more questions than answers about the conference, and I have a feeling that at the end of next month, we'll still feel that way. Makes for an exciting season though where every game always counts, but this year, it seems like every game could go either way.

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