The following is a guest article from a longtime reader, Bryant Schoenle. I’ll admit, I need a break, the Tigers have worn me out. If you’d like your article to be featured on The Sporting Mitten, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s that time of year again. The leaves are falling, the air is crisp, and Big 10 football is in full swing.
As I look over the past few weeks, I feel discouraged about being a Big 10 fan. The conference’s only undefeated team is banned from a bowl game. Only 2 other teams made it through their nonconference schedule without a loss: Northwestern needed a miracle at Syracuse, and Minnesota didn’t play anyone stronger than Western Michigan. The coming bowl season could be a rough one for the conference; right now I wouldn’t be that surprised if we didn’t win any January bowl games.
Below I have broken down the conference by team, with short recaps and predictions for the season. The teams are listed by current position in the Big Ten standings.
Also, I want to make it known that I am a die-hard Wolverine, so it’s hard for me to be entirely impartial. I did my best.
Michigan (4-2, 2-0)
Obliteration against Alabama on national TV. A scary win against Air Force and their always-tricky triple option. A mistake-filled turnoverpalooza in South Bend.
Needless to say, Wolverine fans had reason to worry as their team entered the conference season. In the last two games, Michigan has outscored their opponents 89-13 and is finally beginning to gel on both sides of the ball. True, these wins came against Purdue and Illinois, but there is still reason to hope in Ann Arbor. There is certainly room for improvement though. The offense needs to work on getting the ball out of Denard’s hands. Fitz Toussaint was outstanding at RB last year, but has been a shadow of his former self and desperately needs a big game. The defense has weaknesses, but has been excellent at times, allowing only 13 points to Notre Dame despite 6 turnovers and a missed field goal. Michigan absolutely must beat their in-state rival this year, and for the first time since Lloyd I am actually confident that they have a chance. State has dominated Denard in all of their meetings, but Michigan should find a way to score enough points to beat the Spartans-given Sparty’s offensive woes this year, it shouldn’t take many. Still, the Spartans have never forgotten Mike Hart’s infamous “Little Brother” comment and know they can turn their whole season around with a win, and they certainly can’t be counted out.
Looking at the rest of the season, Michigan certainly has the ability to win every game between now and their showdown against Brady Hoke’s favorite school, but they likely won’t. They still have to go on the road against Nebraska, under the lights, and also have to play Iowa and Northwestern, against whom they almost always play poorly. I predict that the Maize and Blue will lose one game before heading to Columbus, and will likely lose to the Buckeyes as well. However, given the current state of the Big Ten, there is no reason for them not to set their sights on Indianapolis.
Iowa (4-2, 2-0)
After a terrible start to the season, where their only win was a squeaker against FCS foe Northern Iowa, the Hawkeyes have started the conference slate strong and find themselves contenders in the race to Indianapolis. They had a strong win against Minnesota, and a big comeback in East Lansing that ended with a win in double OT. They don’t play Ohio St or Wisconsin this year, and they get to play Penn St and Nebraska at home. Those 2 games, and a trip to Ann Arbor, are their biggest obstacles moving forward. Based on how inconsistent they have been, and how they really don’t have an impressive win yet, I don’t think they can weather the storm. The Hawkeyes will stumble down the stretch and finish a couple games back in the Legends.
Northwestern (6-1, 2-1)
The Wildcats find themselves bowl-eligible following a win over Minnesota. This alone is typically reason to celebrate at a school known more for academics than athletics, but with their (relatively) strong start and the conference in such turmoil this year, they definitely have higher goals. Unfortunately for them, the road gets much tougher starting next week. Their next four games are against Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, and MSU, and they must go on the road against both teams from the Mitten State. They could very easily lose all those games, and would likely need to beat Illinois in order to secure a bowl invitation. I do think they will find a way to win one, possibly two, of their next four games, but anything higher than that is probably a pipe dream. Northwestern will likely end up in one of those post-Christmas bowls that get lost in the pre-January shuffle.
Nebraska (4-2, 1-1)
The Cornhuskers entered the conference with high hopes. The Big 12 is generally considered to be tougher than the Big 10, and many experts thought they would dominate from the start. Their three conference losses showed that, although the Big 10 doesn’t have the speed and skill of some other conferences, the week-in, week-out physicality is very tough to endure. This season is shaping up to be more of the same. They had a narrow win against Wisconsin before getting humiliated by the Buckeyes. That being said, Nebraska is still one of the more legit contenders for the conference title. If they can beat Michigan at home, they can probably book their tickets to Indy.
Michigan State (1-2, 4-3)
The best word to describe the Spartans’ season so far is disappointment. Last year they beat OSU for the first time in seven tries, continued their dominance against “Big Sister,” and were one roughing-the-kicker flag away from going to Pasadena. Star DE William Gholston began the year saying that the Spartans were looking beyond the Roses and wanted to contend for a National Title. Thanks to an offense that can’t move the ball, none of that is going to happen. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell has shown potential as a starter, but he is still way too inconsistent and his receivers haven’t done their share to help him out. Le’veon Bell was supposed to be a gate-crasher at the Heisman presentation this December, but that dream has faded as well. Their season so far has been hard to read; they were very close to beating Iowa and Ohio St, but they were just as close to losing to Indiana and Boise St. Realistically, they need to win in Ann Arbor to stay in the title hunt. However, I think this is the finally the year that the Wolverines overcome their demons. State will make a nice bowl game, but they won’t be smelling roses this year.
Minnesota (4-2, 0-2)
By far the weakest team in the Legends division, the Golden Gophers are not ready to contend for a conference title. They only need two more wins to become bowl-eligible, but their only winnable games are likely against Purdue and Illinois. A 6-6 Minnesota team wouldn’t likely get a bowl invite anyway. The Gophers looked nice when they were-, but two bad losses against mid-tier Big Ten teams shows why they haven’t been contenders in years.
Ohio State (7-0, 3-0)
The best team in the conference will spend their winter break on the couch, regardless of how many teams they beat. This team has surprised me the last few weeks. They looked absolutely horrible at times against cupcakes like Central Florida and Alabama-Birmingham, and probably would have lost to Cal if Cal’s coach had made better decisions late in the game. Braxton Miller is really the only reason the Buckeyes were undefeated when they headed to East Lansing. Miller’s shaky passing ability, combined with the Spartans’ strong defense, had me predicting a Buckeye loss. They pulled out the win, largely thanks to Sparty’s inept offense, and followed it with a destruction of Nebraska under the lights in Columbus. As I look at the rest of their schedule, I see no reason why they cannot go undefeated. They do have to face Penn St and Wisconsin on the road, but both of those teams have been inconsistent and still have a lot of weaknesses. They conclude their season with “The Game” against their friends to the north. The Buckeyes know this is their bowl game and will want to win it for their seniors, and to establish something for next year.
Penn State (4-2, 2-0)
The Nittany Lions are probably the most surprising team in the conference this year. They started the season with a loss to an Ohio team that is tougher than many people realize, and a heartbreaking 1-point loss at Virginia, where they missed four field goals and an extra point. If I had a vote for the conference’s Coach of the Year, it would go to Bill O’Brien, who has managed to inspire this team to play hard every week, despite the fact that almost no one on the team can expect to ever play in a postseason college game. Like the Buckeyes, all they can really do this year is damage other teams’ records. I don’t see them beating the Buckeyes at home in what may be the most meaningless game in conference history, and I also don’t see them winning at Nebraska, who will still be playing for a conference title. Their other big game is Senior Day against Wisconsin, who should be in the driver’s seat for the Leaders Division title. The next four years in Happy Valley are all about staying hopeful when there is no hope in sight; O’Brien is the right guy for the job, but there are many hardships ahead for the Nittany Lions.
Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1)
What can I say about the Badgers? They began the season ranked 12th in the nation, and have since fallen out of the rankings thanks to very shaky quarterback play and an unreliable defense. They are probably only the 3rd best team in the division, but lucky for them the top 2 teams aren’t going anywhere. Purdue was their only threat, and they took care of business this week. There is no reason the Badgers cannot return to Indy, but they will likely have 2 or 3 more losses when they get there.
Purdue (3-3, 0-2)
The Boilermakers started the season strong and came closer to beating Notre Dame than any other team has so far. Many were saying Purdue was a dark horse to win the Leaders Division, primarily because of their defense. That defense has failed them the last two weeks, as they have surrendered a total of 82 points to Michigan and Wisconsin. They still must play Ohio State and Iowa, so a late December bowl game is probably the best they can hope for.
Indiana (2-4, 0-3)
There really isn’t much to say about a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2007 and whose last bowl win was in 1991. The Hoosiers are definitely better off sticking to basketball.
By the way, does anyone actually know what a Hoosier is? I’ve done some research and it seems like even their fans can’t agree…
Illinois (2-5, 0-3)
The Fighting Illini have lost 9 straight conference games dating back to last year. Their last conference win came against Indiana, who just so happens to be their next opponent. A game against the Hoosiers is just what they need to end their losing ways. After that, the future is pretty bleak. They might get a home win against Minnesota or Purdue, but likely won’t win anything else. Illinois probably shouldn’t have gone bowling last year; they almost definitely won’t go this year.