Every Thursday, Pickin' On the Big Ten tries to explain what's going on in the nation's least explicable conference.
RIGHT: What it felt like to be a Big Ten fan this week.
You had to expect a certain amount of grave-dancing and dead-horse abuse in the wake of Penn State's loss in Iowa City last weekend. What was unexpected was the number of pundits who spun this loss as a good thing for the Big Ten. Another title game loss (which everybody assumed would've happened) would have damaged the conference's reputation even more, if that was even possible.
Still, the loss actually is good from the Big Ten's point of view. It shows some of the second-echelon teams are beginning to come back to life. It also bears out Hasty's Law of College Football: Competition creates competitors.
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Yeah, I know. The Big Ten's non-conference schedule is as weak as nursing home coffee. Whose isn't in the BCS conferences? In-conference competition creates competitors too, even though I created Hasty's Law to poke fun at Bill Snyder's nearly-annual November collapse.
Penn State hadn't really been tested, at least not in the way Iowa had been. They played a close game at Purdue and another close one at Ohio State. The Hawkeyes played four close games and lost all four by a total of fourteen points. They knew they didn't want to lose a fifth one. They felt the burn, and they did what they had to do.
Brighter days are coming in the Big Ten, because Ohio State no longer looms as the 500-pound gorilla. It seemed safe to assume, over the past few years, that nobody could win the conference without beating OSU--unless the Buckeyes weren't on your schedule. Michigan State lost to OSU (oh boy, did they ever) but the Spartans are in first place in the conference. The Big Ten pack still has too many losses, but the teams in it are getting better.
Well, mostly. One team that isn't getting better hosts this week's first game:
OHIO STATE @ ILLINOIS
Could the Illini really go from Rose Bowl to no bowl? Um, yeah. There's this game, against a Buckeye squad with at least two chips on their shoulders, and there's the fact that all year the Illini have been less than the sum of their parts. The Illini need one more victory to clinch the possibility of a return trip to Detroit, though I wouldn't blame them if they never wanted to go to Ford Field again after what happened there last week. (Forget beating the SEC and the Big 12; let's start with beating the MAC, mmmkay?)
At any rate, what are the Illini's chances in this game? About the same as the fire hydrant's chance against the dog. You can't beat a good defense if your offense is just one guy, even if that one guy is freakishly talented.
|TORTILLA CHIPS SOUND GOOD||34|
|CHAMPAIGN WISHES, DIET SQUIRT REALITY||13|
PURDUE @ IOWA
Trap game alert. Purdue has been lying in wait all season, eternally ready to get somebody. They've hung with two of the best teams in the conference, and with a bowl game officially off the table, they've got nothing to lose but another football game. Remember the wacky Purdue offense we all used to know and love? Get ready to see it come back in this game.
Of course, it must be noted that the Hawkeyes are giving up a whopping 1.3 touchdowns per game. Purdue's giving up more than twice as many, and the Hawks have to have some of their swagger back after last week, with the prospect of an eight-win season and a New Year's Day bowl hanging in front of them. Plus, they don't lose at Kinnick very often. Hawks, but it'll be another close one, I think.
|LINKED TO THE CLEVELAND BROWNS JOB ALREADY||21|
NORTHWESTERN @ MICHIGAN
In the ten seasons I've been writing POTBT, I think this is the toughest conference game I've had to pick. It looks like a total mismatch on paper. We know Michigan's not good; we've only been hearing that since Week One.
Have you seen the Wolverines the past couple weeks? They're getting better. They just swatted Minnesota so hard you would've thought it was last season.
Meanwhile the Wildcats are fresh off a flogging at the hands of Jim Tressel, who channeled his inner Steve Spurrier and would not let up on Pat Fitzgerald's team. That had to be demoralizing, though it probably wasn't much worse than losing to Indiana was. CJ Bacher may return, but why? Mike Kafka is the sort of quarterback this year's Michigan defense can't handle. I'd sit Bacher another week, coach.
This won't be the mismatch the two teams' records may lead you to think, but in the end, NU will shrink the size of the Big House just a little bit more.
|WE SPIT ON YOUR ACADEMICS, TOO||35|
|IT'S ALMOST BASKETB ... NEVER MIND||19|
INDIANA @ PENN STATE
If this wasn't a conference game, you'd think it was a nonconference game, and you'd wonder who the heck scheduled it.
|FEEDING A COLD||48|
MINNESOTA @ WISCONSIN
Okay, well, Tim Brewsterwas a lock for Big Ten Coach of the Year, and may still get it, but the Gophers are fading faster than dollar-store draperies. The Northwestern loss was just "whoever makes the last mistake loses," though the yardage they gave up to Mike Kafka suggested that the defense wasn't quite back yet. Last week's Michigan game removed any lingering doubt about the quality of the Gopher defense. The Gophers give up rushing yards like they can afford to do so. This isn't the Big 12, brother; if you play intramural defense, you'll get blown up eventually. What's the one thing Wisconsin has done well all season? Run the ball. With gametime temperatures in the 30s and a chance of snow showers, Paul Bunyan's Axe is one more trophy Brewster's minions won't be bringing back to Minneapolis.
|BACK TO THE BOWLS WE FIRED THE LAST COACH FOR GOING TO||17|
|OKAY, MAYBE WE'RE NOT COMPLETELY INCOMPETENT||28|
Next week's games!
- Iowa @ Minnesota: Goodbye Humpty Dump, a/k/a Kinnick North
- Illinois @ Northwestern: Because Illinois should lose this game, they'll win
- Michigan @ Ohio State: This game has no implications whatsoever
- Michigan State @ Penn State: This game is much bigger than anyone expected
- Indiana @ Purdue: First 5,000 fans through the gates get to leave early
- Cal Poly @ WIsconsin: Uh, go check out Cal Poly football this year