What to make of the Big Ten.... Well, I'm not quite sure, but I've got some ideas.
Ohio State and Michigan State still appear to be on a collision course for Nov. 8, when the Buckeyes and Spartans are all but certain to decide the Big Ten East champion. The reason for this is not only that both teams are clearly better than anyone else in the division but also that the loser essentially falls two games back in the race because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. I'm not quite sure yet who is going to win when the Buckeyes and Spartans play, but I do have a hard time seeing the winner losing two other times.
The Big Ten West is just as wide open as it looked like it would be, perhaps more so.
With Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska all looking like potentially solid-or-better teams with some holes, I thought the schedule could tip things in favor of the Badgers. That's not an indication of which team is necessarily better, of course, just a projection of who would end up with the best record based on who it has to play. Because record is all that matters when they decide who goes to Indianapolis.
Northwestern's win over Wisconsin on Oct. 4 opened the door wider for someone else to take the crown, however. Yes, Nebraska also has a loss, but the Cornhuskers' loss at Michigan State was already expected when preseason picks were done. They still control their own destiny even though they had to do something the other teams out of the top trio didn't: Face the defending champions (on the road, to boot).
At 2-0 in league play and with a win over the aforementioned Wildcats, Minnesota has to be considered a factor at this point as well. Of course, that schedule deal that I mentioned potentially holding back Nebraska in the division race also might ding the Golden Gophers, who are the only one of the top four teams in the West that has to face Ohio State. That comes at a potentially fortuitous time for Jerry Kill's club, though, as the Buckeyes will visit Nov. 15, one week after what figures to be a physical and emotionally charged night game in East Lansing. How much gas with Ohio State have in the tank? Only time will tell, but even if Minnesota pulls the upset that day, trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin wait to close the regular season.
So who is going to come out on top? I am still leaning toward the Buckeyes in the East, and I like Nebraska in the West.
The Cornhuskers look like the best team in their division, the loss to Michigan State notwithstanding. That game was an interesting one to dissect because it had such a swing from the first three quarters to the final one, but I came away impressed with the Spartans in the trenches and wondering about both quarterbacks. Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr. hardly ever looked comfortable that night, and some of the stress seemed to come from within. Bad throws and questionable decisions plagued a player who up to that point in the season had looked like he had just about every answer to what a defense might do to defend him. Michigan State's Connor Cook did not look much better, though, as he was inconsistent all night.
While the Spartans have continued to see their secondary appear to be a work in progress throughout the first half of the season, they appear to have the best cast of wide receivers in the conference. Those guys make Cook's life easier, without question, as they can go up and get the ball and break tackles once they have it.
Armstrong has a very good supporting cast, too, but he didn't get as much help that night at Spartan Stadium as did Cook.
Those receivers will present a major challenge to an Ohio State secondary also still trying to find itself. Meanwhile, the Buckeye receivers have shown great progress so far but have some work to do to reach the level of Michigan State's.
Nebraska has more firepower than anyone else in the West and should be able to outscore anyone else it plays in the regular season. If Wisconsin could get any type of passing game going, it would become much more dangerous, and the same could perhaps be said of Minnesota. I would not be optimistic about either of those things happening, though. Iowa? I'm just not sure what the Hawkeyes hang their hat on, so I can't see them winning a majority of those games against the best of the West.
Ohio State is the top team in the conference as far as the overall F/+ rankings, a mix of drive and play-by-play data that has the Buckeyes 16th in the country up to this point. Michigan State checks in 19th while Nebraska (22) and surprising Rutgers (24) join them in the top 25. The biggest difference between the Buckeyes and Spartans in these measurements is special teams, where Ohio State is 13th and MSU just 40th.
We will find out much more about Rutgers this weekend, of course, as the Scarlet Knights make their first Big Ten roadtrip. They have already outperformed my expectations by winning five games this season, and the aforementioned rankings reveal a team greatly improved on both sides of the ball (they were 91st overall last season, ahead of only No. 114 Purdue).
Although Rutgers has a pair of Big Ten pelts already on its wall, neither is all that impressive, either in how it looked when gathered or how their victims (Penn State and Michigan) have looked for most of the season.
The Buckeyes can't afford to slip if they want to win the East and get back in the playoff picture (I still have a feeling a one-loss OSU, MSU or Nebraska gets in but doesn't do much upon arrival), and they will find an opponent that has enough big-play ability on offense to have a puncher's chance.
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