Big Ten No Longer One-Horse Race
by Trevor Whenham - 09/11/2008
Remember when the Big Ten was supposed to be a one-team league? Ohio State was viewed as a highly elite team coming into the season, and the rest of the league seemed to have atrocious, insurmountable problems. My, how things can change in two weeks. Ohio State has had two lackadaisical performances and an injury to their best player, and suddenly they are so far out of favor that they have gone from seven to 10.5-point underdogs against USC in three days. On the other hand, both Penn State and Wisconsin are turning heads with very impressive play, and people are already beginning to utter the previously unthinkable - maybe the Buckeyes aren't destined to win the Big Ten after all. But can that happen? Have things changed that much in just two weeks? Here's a look.
Ohio State - As a huge Michigan fan it pains me to do this, but I have to defend the Buckeyes a bit. People aren't being rational in their consideration of this team. They are being bashed largely because they were pretty lousy against Ohio. So what? Did you honestly expect anything else? Beanie Wells wasn't playing. The game meant nothing to the Buckeyes, but to Ohio it was the biggest game any of its players would ever play. Jim Tressel certainly wasn't going to bring out any new wrinkles to the offense or the defense because USC had nothing to do that day but watch the game. All that and they still won by two scores, and would have won by more if they hadn't fumbled in the endzone. I don't see a whole lot of reason to panic there. The fact remains that the Buckeyes are at worst the third deepest and most talented team in the country, and that hasn't changed since the beginning of the year. They are in deep against USC, but they do have a senior QB going up against a guy making just his fifth career start, and who is facing by far the best defense he has ever seen. As much as I wish it wasn't the case, it is way too soon to rule out the Buckeyes just yet.
Wisconsin - The Badgers' wins over Akron and Marshall were solid by themselves, but it's how they won them that makes Wisconsin a team to watch. In the first game they passed for just 75 yards, but made up for it by running for 405. It would have been easy to assume that Wisconsin was going to be a one-dimensional team. They dispelled that notion in game two, though. They passed for 329 yards the second time around, and ran for a comparatively modest 158. That kind of versatility can make them tough to play against. We'll get a better sense of what kind of team they are after this weekend. They play a feisty Fresno State team in the Bulldogs' home stadium. It won't be easy to get through that one, but if they do it well then we know they are for real. That's not the only tough part of their schedule, either. They are lucky enough to play both Penn State and Ohio State at home, but they have to play them in consecutive weeks. If things start to go off the rails they could get really ugly. The thing that will keep the Badgers competitive in their conference, though, is their offense. The Big Ten used to be known as the home of smash-mouth football, but now only two teams aren't running some version of the spread. Wisconsin is one of those two, and they do what they do well - take big guys and pound the defense with them relentlessly. That gives them a real chance of making things interesting. If anyone is going to beat Ohio State, I think it will be Wisconsin.
Penn State - I would have sworn that Joe Paterno was way past his prime. I don't think I am wrong, yet somehow he has managed to put together a coaching staff that is doing one heck of a job. Their offense has been outstanding - 55.5 points and 524 yards per game. It's no fluke, either. Daryll Clark is in his first year as a starter, but already he looks more poised and confident in the pocket than Anthony Morelli ever did. It helps that he has big, bruising receivers who can catch or immobilize a defensive player with equal skill, and an offensive line that gives him all the time he could want. That line also has been able to open massive holes for running back Evan Royster to run through, and he has done that extremely well - he has six touchdowns already. The big problem we have in evaluating this team is that we won't really know what they are until they start conference play. Their first two opponents have been lowly Coastal Carolina and struggling Oregon State. Their next two aren't any tougher - Syracuse and Temple. That means that their first real test will be against Illinois. They'll be particularly tested by traveling to Wisconsin, then to Ohio State two weeks later. We are dealing with incomplete evidence here, but my hunch is that this is only the third best team in the conference. Their offense is potent, but it's new, and it is being run by relatively inexperienced players in key positions. They are on the rise, but I don't believe in meteoric ascents when there are other more established teams ahead of them.