What we learned last week: All is not quite lost in the Big Ten. At least not yet...
So a couple of weeks after the roof fell in on the Big Ten, the league had a pretty good day Sept. 20. Twelve of the league's teams won, but how much does it matter if neither of them were Ohio State or Michigan? The Buckeyes didn't play, of course, but the Wolverines continue to contribute mightily to the perception problems the Big Ten has faced for the past eight or so years.
Truth is, Michigan hasn't been Michigan for longer than that. The 2003 squad was a truly excellent team, though it ran into the best in the country in the Rose Bowl and thus contributed to the league's overall futility in the Granddaddy of Them All. The Wolverines graduated a bunch of talented seniors after that season, and they have never really recovered. The 2004 class made a big splash early with big names such as Chad Henne and Mike Hart, but their share of the Big Ten title as freshman remains the last the Wolverines have won.
That is the longest Big Ten title drought for Michigan since the 1960s, and they may be in need of another Bo Schembechler to revive their fortunes, as he did then by taking what he learned from Woody Hayes at Miami and Ohio State to pull the Wolverines out of one of the worst periods of the program's 14 decades.
Brady Hoke is proving recruiting well is not the only panacea the program needed (more on this later). The most damning thing you can say about his Michigan program is the same problems seem to be present every season.
After properly pegging the Wolverines to have a disappointing season last year because of youth on the offensive line and a lack of proven players on defense, I was bullish on them entering this season because of a combination of the recruiting rankings and the aging process. And, hey, some of the new kids entering the lineup can't be much of a drop off if any from their predecessors, right? They might even be better! Well so far that hasn't been the case. The offensive line is still not good enough to mash quality opponents, and that means a lot falls back on talented but inconsistent quarterback Devin Gardner, who has only one weapon to throw to this year after struggling to get by with two last season. They haven't given up a lot of yards defensively, but the secondary has looked vulnerable and the pass rush hasn't generated much. There is probably still time for that unit to improve, but Greg Mattison might have used up all his miracles in year one of his return to Ann Arbor.
History has told us Michigan has to be pretty good for the Big Ten to be an elite league, but it remains to be seen if that is true moving forward. Certainly there needs to be one team that is consistently high in the rankings if for no other reason than to give the rest of the league a measuring stick, but simply keeping a handful of other programs in the top 25 on a regular basis might be enough overall to fix the perception problem the Big Ten faces now. That figures to be a lot easier than putting multiple teams in the national championship chase from year to year, which seems unlikely ever to happen.
With its history and proximity to Ohio , Michigan has the best chance to be an elite Big Ten team (aside from Ohio State), but plenty of teams in the Big Ten are far from maxed out based on the resources they do have even if they are probably never going to be real national players. Upward mobility might be the same in every power league, but I do believe there is a lower ceiling for Midwest programs that just aren't as close to as much great talent as those in the South, Texas and California. Elite talent is the deciding factor in winning at the highest level, but good coaches can win 8-10 games consistently with merely good players. Shoot, even Bret Bielema did that.
But Bielema was also smart to get out of Wisconsin when he did for a variety of reasons, the top being that going to Arkansas got him closer to more players even if he had to beat more good teams to get them and get to the top of his conference. I also think that program was maxed out and he didn't want to have to deal with unreasonable expectations when they didn't win the conference again under his leadership.
Bielema's staff made him successful, and most of the best of them were gone by the end, and I think his complaints about competitive compensation are a factor that extends to other schools in the Big Ten as well. Having a great head coach is awesome, but having multiple great assistant coaches is probably going to have a greater effect on more players in terms of both recruiting and development. I think that's where the league has fallen behind the furthest.
And for all of the concern about shifting populations, the league has not kept a high enough percentage of local talent home in recent years. Last year, Ohio State signed the top six players in Ohio, but the top-rated player in Illinois went to LSU and Alabama took the best from Iowa. Those are anecdotal examples, sure, but with the aforementioned potential population problems, the conference really can't afford to lose any of its best players to schools from other regions.
Those are concerns for another day, though. What about the league's teams this year?
Michigan State has trounced two terrible teams, but the no-fly zone was bombed at Oregon, where the Ducks averaged 11.4 yards per pass attempt during a 46-27 loss on that aforementioned dark day for the Big Ten. There is still much to learn about the Spartans, but it will have to wait until at least Oct. 4 when Nebraska visits.
Wisconsin is in much the same boat, though the Badgers' loss to LSU doesn't look as strong as MSU's setback out west. The Badgers can still batter bad teams on the ground, but they are as one-dimensional as they come at this point, and LSU showed they are thin up front defensively. Whether or not they have the athletes to play the scheme they want to defensively remains to be seen.
Being allowed to think about getting bowl eligible is nice for Penn State, but I don't think the Nittany Lions will be much of a factor in the conference title race given their offensive line and defense. Christian Hackenberg and a group of skill players that still looks strong despite the loss of Allen Robinson give them a puncher's chance against anyone as long as they can protect the quarterback, though. The Lions showed some moxie in pulling out a win at Rutgers, but both teams looked majorly flawed for most of that night.
Indiana proved the past two weeks it has a long way to go but is making progress under Kevin Wilson. The Hoosiers showed great offensive balance (252 yards through the air and 241 on the ground) while winning at Missouri on Saturday one week after being upset by Bowling Green. Perhaps more time in the new defensive scheme will pay dividends down the road for Indiana, which has been pretty good on offense for a few seasons now.
Maryland may end up being a solid addition to the league as the combination of its location and Big Ten cash could make the Terrapins a regular in the rankings, but there is work to be done. Right now they look like another Indiana-type with a great offense and suspect defense.
Ohio State and Michigan State both still figure to be on a collision course for a de facto Big Ten East championship game Nov. 8 in East Lansing. If any team can emerge from the West with a chance to leave a mark on the national scene, it is Nebraska. The Cornhuskers look to be the real deal on offense with a rebuilt line protecting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and paving the way for dynamic running back Ameer Abdullah, but the jury is still out on a defense that gave up 359 yards passing to a true freshman quarterback from Miami (Fla.) last week. To their credit, the Blackshirts forced three turnovers and had six tackles for loss, including two sacks. If you can't be a shutdown unit, making big plays is a solid alternative.
At any rate, I think it will be an interesting Big Ten race whether or not there are many national implications.