Who's Big Ten's Top Coach?

If any team wants to make excuses for injuries, tell them to look at Northwestern. They lost their top RB, their best DL and their top CB in pre-season - and haven't looked back other than a blow-out loss to ASU in Tempe.

Here's how I'd grade the Big 10 coaches based on pre-season expectations and their team's performance to date this year. It's done on the bell curve, so there's only one A and one F - everyone else falls in between.

A+ - Randy Walker, Northwestern (5-2) - Yes, he has a senior QB who's really stepped up, but to have this team at 5-2 and legitimately going into week 8 with a chance at the Big 10 title is amazing - and that's with IU not on the Wildcat schedule.

If anyone wants to make excuses for injuries, tell them to look at NU. They lost their top RB, their best DL and their top CB in pre-season - and haven't looked back other than a blow-out loss to ASU in Tempe.

All that came on top of losing four starters on the OL, their leading rusher and three starters on the DL.

To top it all off, Northwestern is the second-youngest team in the league starting 4 sophomores and 5 freshmen. If NU gets to a bowl, Walker should be the Big 10 Coach of the Year hands-down, if they win seven, he should (but won't) be national coach of the year.

B - Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin (6-1) - Well, two years in a row it appeared UW would struggle only to greatly overachieve.

After losing all four DL starters, it's amazing to think they could overcome all the injuries they've had their, yet, they haven't skipped a beat.

They're 6-1 right now and likely to be 7-1 after playing Illinois this weekend. At this point, I'd project 10-2, which is pretty impressive for a team picked seventh to ninth in the Big 10 by most.

Brian Calhoun has been terrific and John Stocco has shown that if you key on the running game, he has enough to beat you passing. Defensively, a group of frosh and soph DL have done enough to keep UW in every game.

B - Joe Paterno, Penn State (7-1). Terrific job in bringing PSU back to prominence and what is likely a BCS bowl if they beat Wisconsin in Happy Valley in 10 days.

The biggest thing that's occurred with this team is that Michael Robinson hasn't been making the mistakes that cost them from the QB position in recent years and the young kids have made enough big plays to put some points on the board.

Should Paterno be given a better grade? I'd say no based on expectations as they had the Big 10's best defense a year ago and returned most everyone. They're also the most experienced team in the Big 10 with 13 senior starters.

B - Terry Hoeppner, IU (4-2) - Hoeppner's quietly done a terrific job in Bloomington and he's doing it with his two best players kids who had little to no experience heading into the season. In fact, if IU should beat MSU this weekend and then go on to knock off Purdue in Bloomington, you can make an argument for Hoeppner as CoY. I'd guess that IU would be pretty excited to get a Motor City Bowl berth in December and it could happen.

Big thing here is that soph QB Blake Powers and r-frosh WR James Hardy have become the Big 10's leading passing combination.

IU has gone from a power running attack to a passing team with some considerable success. The defense also has tightened up noticeably over the course of the season. They played Wisconsin very tough and kept OSU close for three quarters.

One thing to note, IU did return 13 starters including the entire OL, so that's hastened the learning curve. Yet, there are few who didn't pick the Hoosiers dead last this season and not many thought they could be competitive.

C - Glen Mason, Minnesota (5-2). Most expected Minnesota to be battling for an upper division finish in the Big 10 and they are. Yet, Mason's Gophers have the ability to move him to a B - and might be only one play away from something higher if they had simply not mis-handled a snap on a punt vs. Wisconsin.

Huge game this week vs. OSU in Columbus, win that and the grade moves up. In fact, if Minnesota wins this weekend, I'm not sure the Gophers can't run the table and finish 9-2 and find themselves playing on New Year's Day.

Imagining what Glen Mason could do in a situation where he could get more talent is scary. At this point, he's almost lodged into a situation where they can't improve dramatically simply due to the talent level discrepancy.

C - John L Smith, MSU (4-3). Well, it's been an interesting journey showing brilliance at times and ineptitude at others.

Yet, when it all comes down to it - most of the free world would have pegged MSU at either 4-3 or 5-2 at this point.

Big key is that three of their wins came against teams that 10 members of the Big 10 would be 3-0 against in Kent State, Hawaii at home and Illinois.

Most expected a win over Northwestern for the fourth win - and some expected a win over ND for #5. Yet, 4-3 with a difficult run to the finish is not a surprise. I picked MSU at 5-6 at the start of the season with the potential to win 8 if everything broke their way - at this point, I'd still say 5-6 with a shot at 6-5.

If there's one way to describe MSU, it's consistently inconsistent.

C - Jim Tressel, Ohio State (5-2). This one barely gets a C and arguably should be a D, but the pounding they gave Iowa pushes Tressel up one notch.

The longer his tenure goes on, the less I think of Jim Tressel as a coach. His team's really should be better than they are, but his conservative nature really holds them back. To have such a productive defense and, in contrast, have an offense that accomplishes so little is mind-boggling.

Yet, OSU could easily be undefeated and closing in on a BCS berth right now. They gave Texas everything they could handle and were one dropped pass away from winning that game. In their other loss to PSU, they did little offensively other than give the game away on a game-changing interception that was returned inside the OSU 5 and eventually led to the game-winning TD for PSU.

For a team that was considered a pre-season top-10, they've shown they're likely a top-25 in reality. Should have lost to MSU, but for MSU's coaching blunders...yet, pounded Iowa like a HS team.

A win this weekend likely has OSU playing for a New Year's Day bowl against UM the last week of the same - the more things change, the more they stay the same.

D - Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (5-3). A pre-season top-10 team that isn't guaranteed a winning season for the guy many consider to be the Big 10's best coach. At 5-3, Iowa will need to win on the road at Northwestern or Wisconsin or knock off Minnesota to avoid Ferentz's first losing season since the three-win team of 2000.

It turns out the pre-season predictions were probably too high considering they lost all four starters on the DL. I'd guess part of that prediction was simply due to the Ferentz factor.

I'd guess this year is an aberration, though. They'll have a senior-loaded team next year with a terrific group of frosh that mostly are redshirting this season.

D - Ron Zook, Illinois (2-5) - Ok, how does a team picked for 9th or 10th under-perform? Well, they did return 16 starters from a team that was consistently competitive last year (10-point loss to Iowa, 8-point loss to Purdue, OT loss to NU).

Since the non-conference season ended, Zook's team has basically been fodder for Big 10 competition losing on average 50 to 11. MSU and PSU have set offensive records in games played in Champaign. IU blew them off the field....get the drift?

Zook has the youngest team in the Big 10, but until he shows he can actually coach it probably doesn't matter who's on the team. With that said, he's putting together a pretty darn good class for a last-place team.

D - Lloyd Carr, Michigan 5-3. Wolvie fans might say that UM is a play or three away from being undefeated...Carr bashers might suggest they are 3 plays away from being 2-6.

Either way, a pre-season top-five choice and Big 10 pre-season favorite that returned 16 starters shouldn't be playing every game down to the wire. At this point, UM could still be playing on New Year's Day...on the other hand, the Motor City Bowl isn't out of the picture if they lose at Evanston this weekend and to OSU to close out the campaign.

Could it happen? Well, that likely depends on who gets the ball last in those two games.

F - Joe Tiller, Purdue, 2-5. Just how does a pre-season top-15 pick and popular choice to win the Big 10 start off the Big 10 season 0-4? Good question, but a loss this weekend at Penn State will officially knock them out of bowl contention.

The offense turns the ball over, the defense has struggled to stop anyone - despite the fact that all 11 starters returned from a good defense last season.

It's not hard to imagine chemistry problems at PU when things start to go wrong. Tiller's been one to turn on his players pretty quickly and that's when they've been winning.

Bright spot for PU is they have been improving as of late and they close the season with the other teams at the bottom of the Big 10 standings in MSU, Illinois and IU. Win those and they can still finish 5-6 - maybe even get a bowl with an upset this weekend.

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