Illinois has been puzzling in its first two games, looking brilliant against California, then downright ugly against perennial doormat Northern Illinois. The Illini rocked California's world in a 44-17 rout in their first contest, which featured 178 yards and 2 touchdowns for superstar receiver Brandon Lloyd. However, against the NIU Huskies, Lloyd still racked up 126 yards, but never saw the end zone, and Illinois actually trailed 6-3 going into the 4th quarter before pulling out a 17-12 victory that saw the Huskies in Illini territory with under a minute to go. Unless Illinois can establish a consistent rushing game (they've averaged under 50 yards on the ground per game), they will likely struggle in the Big Ten.
Indiana is 0-1 after an embarrassing 35-14 defeat at North Carolina State. The game featured 2 blocked punts and under 300 yards of total offense for the Hoosiers, whose experiment with Antwaan Randle-El at wideout failed badly. Even when Randle-El lined up at QB, the Wolfpack shut down the option. Randle-El's final numbers were 37 yards rushing, 7 passing, and 30 receiving. Versatile, yes, but certainly not very effective, as Indiana didn't even score until the 4th quarter. The Hoosiers do not look like contenders in the Big Ten right now, and an Iowa victory on October 20th seems likely.
Michigan, the wild card of the conference, had a disappointing loss at Washington last Saturday. The 23-18 loss drops the Wolverines to 1-1, the lone victory coming against Miami of Ohio. In the Washington contest, Michigan had been dominating and was preparing to kick a field goal that would have made the score 15-6 in Michigan's favor, but it was blocked and bounced right into the hands of Washington's Roc Alexander, who runs a sub-4.3 40. Less than a minute later, an interception returned for a touchdown put Washington up 20-12, but even then the ending was almost a foregone conclusion. This late collapse, combined with Michigan's struggle against Miami, gives the impression that the talented Wolverines are not yet experienced or focused enough for a run at the Big Ten title. The game at Iowa on October 27th is shaping up to be one of the most exciting and important games in the past 5 years for the Hawkeyes.
Michigan State has only played 1 game thus far, in which they dispatched Central Michigan in easy fashion, 35-21. It was 35-7 going into the 4th quarter, and both of CMU's 4th quarter scores came on blocked punts, so the final score doesn't indicate the domination that MSU showed. However, it does indicate that the Spartan special teams need some work. RB T.J. Duckett looked strong, as usual, and the two-headed passing attack of Jeff Smoker and Ryan Van Dyke combined for almost 300 yards of passing. The Spartan squad is very talented at the skill positions, and could give Iowa fits when the two teams meet on October 13th.
Minnesota is still recovering from a season-opening 38-7 drubbing at the hands of Toledo, and even a 44-14 defeat of Louisiana-Lafayette didn't answer all the questions surrounding the team. Like the Hawkeyes, the Gophers have shown they can easily beat a bad team; however, the Hawkeyes easily dispatched their "challenge" from a mid-major team, and the Gophers, well, they didn't. Their passing game needs help, as neither of their quarterback combination of Travis Cole or Asad Abdul-Khaliq has emerged as a clear leader. While Cole has gotten the majority of the snaps, his 22-42 passing mark against an unimpressive non-conference slate is not very good. Abdul-Khaliq has been a better passer, but neither has thrown for a score, even with All-Big Ten WR Ron Johnson at wideout. Fortunately for Minnesota, a home game against Baylor is next, so the Gophers ought to be able to at least come into the conference season with a winning record. When Iowa and Minnesota tangle to end this season, expect the roles to be reversed from last year, as Iowa will be the team fighting for a bowl spot, and Minnesota languishing in the cellar. Furthermore, expect Iowa to win the game this season and bring Floyd back home where he belongs.
Northwestern is another tough call to make for prognosticators. They did take a share of the Big Ten title last season, and they return almost all of their impact players. Common practice dictates that a team with their returning experience and record should get the nod for the top spot in the conference, but nobody thinks the Wildcats won on sheer talent last year. Damien Anderson is a fine running back, as evidenced by a 113-yard performance against UNLV in a 37-28 win to start the year. QB Zak Kustok accounted for all 5 of the team's TD's in the game, throwing for 2 and running for 3 more, and is an exciting player to watch. Although the element of surprise is gone from the Wildcat arsenal, heartfelt motivation from the death of Rashidi Wheeler has been added. The Wildcats look like contenders, and could be Iowa's toughest road game when the two lock horns in November.
Ohio State, coming off a puzzling 28-14 victory over lowly Akron in their only game of the year thus far, has undeniable talent but unresolved leadership issues. Steve Bellisari, their quarterback, eclipsed a 100 quarterback rating just twice last year, against then-patsies Fresno State, and (yes, sadly) Iowa. He threw for 2 touchdowns and 246 yards, but coughed the ball up 4 times, and threw multiple passes that a Big Ten secondary might have picked off. He no longer has the gifted and experienced receivers in Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo to throw to, and another year of struggling behind center may follow. New coach Jim Tressel has never been the head coach of a Division I program before, so despite his astounding track record at Youngstown State, growing pains are imminent within the program. Look for a conference finish somewhere in the middle of the pack for the Buckeyes, encouraging wins against top teams, notably Michigan, and maddening losses against lower opponents.
Penn State and Joe Paterno can look forward to one fact: There are no more current title contenders on their schedule. After the pounding Miami unleashed at Happy Valley, on a night that completely favored the Nittany Lions, questions once again arose about Paterno, and how long ago he should have left. The bad news is that the upcoming schedule has no sure wins on it until a game with Indiana… in the middle of November. A home victory against Virginia seems likely, but that's not certain, and after the Cavaliers, the Nittany Lions must face Wisconsin, Iowa, #17 Michigan, #19 Northwestern, #21 Ohio State, Southern Mississippi, and Illinois. The Iowa, Northwestern, and Illinois games are on the road, as well. Paterno's chase of legendary Bear Bryant's record of most wins coaching a I-A team has drawn incredibly close, as Paterno has 322 wins to Bryant's 323. However, any talk of Paterno finally reaching Bryant's record is sobered by the fact that Paterno may own the record for a couple weeks, if that, before Bobby Bowden (317 wins) surpasses both. The upcoming game against Virginia will be a better indicator of where the Penn State program is right now, but if things don't go well, it could be another ugly year in Happy Valley. Iowa would probably be favored between the two if they were to play this week, and that should keep up for the next 3 weeks.
Purdue is another confusing contender in the Big Ten race. Anyone who thought they wouldn't miss Drew Brees and Vinny Sutherland was proven wrong in Purdue's 19-14 struggle with Cincinnati. In it, the Bearcats clearly overcame the differential in talent, and new QB Brandon Hance was ineffective. It took a late interception from super FS Stuart Schweigert to seal the victory. That quality of play will not win very many Big Ten games. Luckily for Purdue, their defense that returns 10 starters from last year will probably be their strength, and in a conference that looks so balanced, such returning experience can win some games for the Boilermakers. Nonetheless, Purdue must improve its play, or else an Iowa win in West Lafayette won't be considered an upset.
Wisconsin is in a tough position. They handled Virginia, who is not bad. They led in the second half against two Top 15 teams, namely Oregon and Fresno State. At the same time, they are still 1-2, and their second-half play has left much to be desired thus far. Oregon's Joey Harrington picked apart the vaunted Wisconsin cornerbacks all day, and aside from a long score against Oregon, RB Anthony Davis's production thus far has yet to yield a touchdown for the Badgers. WR Lee Evans is terrific, and QB's Jim Sorgi and Brooks Bollinger each have their strengths. Wisconsin, though 1-2, is another team to watch in the conference. Iowa at Camp Randall on November 3rd will be a big game, and both teams could easily be ranked by that time.
To say the Big Ten is wide open is an understatement. Thus far, only Indiana and Minnesota have politely excused themselves from conference contention with embarassing losses. Purdue, Ohio State, and Illinois have had unnecessarily close wins as well. Iowa looks like a middle-to-top-tier team in the conference right now. Whether or not the Hawkeyes will parlay this into a bowl appearance remains to be seen.