This conference is not playing out like the preseason narrative told us it was supposed to. This was supposed to be a story of two teams. Ohio State was the best team in the country by a wide margin - the defending National Champions with almost unprecedented strength at QB and a soft schedule. Michigan State was going to be very good - clearly the second-best team in the country and a playoff contender. And then there were 12 other teams that weren't going to be much. Transition was a recurring theme - new coaches in Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin, coaching controversies at Illinois and Rutgers, and plenty of concerns elsewhere. It was not set to be a very good group.
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Things rarely work out like they are supposed to in college football, though, and this has proven to be no exception. Four teams - Ohio State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa - are unbeaten and all are ranked - along with 4-1 Michigan. Three other teams are also 4-1, including both Illinois and Indiana, which is just shocking. Things aren't all good, of course - Purdue is just terrible, and Nebraska, Rutgers, Maryland and Minnesota are only varying degrees of better.
Most striking is what isn't working out just as expected. Though undefeated and still ranked No. 1, Ohio State has not been good and may not even be the best team in the conference when all is said and done. Michigan State and ferocious defense are things that have long gone hand in hand, yet nine different teams in the conference have allowed fewer points, and they gave up four touchdowns to an Oregon offense that just hasn't been good since.
Ohio State: Most of the rest of the country would love to have the problems that Ohio State has, but things have not gone to plan. Wins against Northern Illinois and Indiana were far tougher than they ever should have been. An opening win against Virginia Tech means nothing now that the Hokies have lost two more games and are going nowhere. Quarterback play has been a problem - just seven touchdowns and as many interceptions - and outside of Ezekiel Elliott the offense isn't scaring anyone. Their last two games - at home against Michigan State and at Michigan - aren't going to be nearly as easy as they might once have appeared. Before the season, it was hard to imagine this team being anywhere other than in the playoff. Now it would be far from a surprise to see the falter.
Michigan State: All you really need to know is this - Purdue is a really awful team, and last time out Michigan State only beat them 24-21 and was lucky to do so. They also had some issues against Air Force and barely beat an Oregon team that has since been exposed. Injuries have been a real issue, quarterback hasn't been near the strength it was expected to be, and the defense lacks teeth. They were supposed to be setting up for a game for the ages at Ohio State on Nov. 21. That may be the case, but first they have to survive a trip to Ann Arbor and beat other teams better than Purdue, too. They are still more than good enough to go far, but they haven't impressed anyone lately.
Northwestern: The Wildcats have the top scoring defense in the country and just shut out Minnesota. They totally shut down Stanford, and the Cardinal have looked great since. Things get much tougher going forward - at Michigan next then hosting Iowa the next week, with Penn State, and Wisconsin down the road. The team isn't likely as good as they have looked, but they are better than it seemed they would be and can't be discounted. Ten wins is a reasonable goal, and that would have seemed impossible before the season.
Iowa: Iowa hadn't played much of a schedule. Then they went into Wisconsin and won a tight, tough defensive battle. It was gutsy and impressive, and they looked sharper than they have in a few years. Led by junior DB Desmond King and his five picks in the last four games, the Hawkeyes play tough defense and have a schedule that could easily get them to double-digit wins if they keep up their current play. If you say you saw that coming then you're a liar.
Michigan: The first game at Utah was pretty much what was expected for this year. They did some things well and looked generally sharper than last year under Brady Hoke, but mistakes doomed them. It seemed like they would be improved from last year but that turning things around would take a while. Oregon State scored in the first quarter of the next game, and the theme seemed the same. But then the Wolverines flipped a switch. In the 15 quarters since the only time they have been scored on was a garbage-time TD from UNLV - a team that went out the next week and scored 80. They have shut out both BYU, which was ranked at the time, and Maryland, and the two foes have averaged less than 105 total yards against. This team has taken massive steps forward in each game and is completely unrecognizable from the squad of last year. Before the season, eight wins seemed like a reasonable goal. Now 11 isn't completely out of the question - not if they keep playing defense like this and the offense continues to improve. They get their three toughest opponents - Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State - all at home. Their three remaining road games are very much manageable. Don't sleep on this team.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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