Wednesday, October 01, 2008

State of the Big Ten

Well, I'm getting all amped up today because tomorrow I leave for my triumphant return to the old stomping grounds: Ann Arbor. It's Mudbowl weekend and obviously, no stone went unturned to ensure I would be there. And it seems I'm arriving on campus at a near-perfect, what with Michigan football coming off a "No way they should come from behind" comeback victory over Wisconsin last weekend.

Like I said last week, I thought the Rich Rod era was going to take its first major step in this weekend's game against Ilinois since they run a spread offense that I thought the defense would be more than ready for considering they play against one every day in practice. Clearly, I was a week off in my prediction.

After a first half that saw the Wolverines offense gain 21 total yards and have another five fumbles, I don't think I was alone in shaking my head in befuddlement at just how anemic this team can be. And although Threet and company looked mighty impressive in the second half, I think it's vital that we not get ahead of ourselves here. With such a young team, it's impossible to guess what kind of offensive output you're going to get from week-to-week. As we saw against the Badgers, this squad is capable of greatness (like that awkward-looking, but still impressive Threet run in the second half) and the atrocious (cough cough 11 fumbles in the past two games) What I'm trying to say is, the Wisco win was another step in the right direction. But I'm not sold on it being that moment where everything clicked for the Rich Rod era. There are still some growing pains to go through.

All that said, it was still a win, and a comeback win that should do wonders for this team's confidence level. They now have confirmation that can compete with anyone in the Big Ten. The offense is going to come in fits and spurts, but as long as the defense can continue its bend, but not break tendency of showing up at just the right time, Michigan should be in every game it plays the rest of the way out. Don't expect 27-point halves every week, though.

So while I'm not ready to make any broad declarations about Michigan after just one win, I am ready to say the Big Ten is as wide open a conference as there is in the BCS. Anyone who tells you Penn State is the favorite is a moron. Yes, the Nittany Lions should certainly be in the conversation, but I don't think one lousy win over what I've been calling a suspect Illini team at home merits a jump to No. 6 in the country.

Penn State hasn't even touched its toughest stretch of the season, which begins after this week's game against Purdue. Not only could that game in West Lafayette be a potential upset (Joe Tiller's Last Stand anyone?), but they follow that up with a road game at Wisco, a home game against Michigan, and finally a trip to Columbus. That's the next four weeks for the Nittany Lions. If they come out of the next month with just one loss, I'll be impressed. Crowning them now seems way too premature to me. For God's sake, they haven't even played a road game yet (and no, playing one of the worst teams in Division I at a half-empty Carrier Dome doesn't count in my book). I'm saying now that the Nittany Lions will barely escape Purdue this weekend, followed by losses in their two big road games at Wisco and at the Horseshoe. All that and I almost forgot to mention they haven't beaten Michigan in more than a decade.

Wisconsin looked mighty suspect losing to Michigan, but take into consideration it was outside of MadTown, where the Badgers play particularly well. However, what shocked me is that Wisco is usually the type of team that once they get a lead, they grind you into submission with its running game. That certainly didn't happen against Michigan because Scott Shafer and the Wolverine D knew what was coming and loaded the box. Basically what I'm trying to say is they need a quarterback, or at least something resembling a human with a throwing motion. Allan Evridge, you have been put on notice because I think it's a bad thing when people are throwing around crazy phrases like "Man, I wish we had John Stocco still."

The Badgers have three of their next four at Camp Randall, though. The only catch is those three games are Ohio State, Penn State, and Illinois. I expect Wisco to lose this weekend against the Terrelle Pryor Experiment in a close one, but three losses in a row is out of the question. That's why Penn State goes down.

I guess a sleeper is Michigan State, who has started the season with just one loss, but c'mon, it's State. That team is good for at least two boneheaded losses that shouldn't have happened plus at least one more against a team like Ohio State or Penn State. Although, the Buckeyes have to go to East Lansing later this month, and I've got a weird feeling Spartan fans will rush the field at the end of that one.

That leaves us with Ohio State, who a lot of people threw to the curb after that USC debacle. And while nationally that was the right thing to do, a loss to the Trojans doesn't mean jack in terms of the Big Ten. The Bucknuts are the best team in the conference in terms of talent, it's just a question of how quickly Terrelle Pryor can become a difference maker. Right now, he's doing a good job at quarterback, but this team to take the next step Pryor must become a dynamic playmaker.

Here's the thing, though. I was going to predict Ohio State runs the table against all the top tier teams, but I just don't think it'll happen. Frankly, none of the teams in the Big ten are going to sweep through the competition. The winner of the conference is going to have at least two losses since no one is overwhelming.

What I'm trying to say is Michigan has as good a shot as any, especially if they start the conference 2-0 with a win over Illinois this weekend.

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