RIGHT: One of these is the alpha cub. But which one is it?
They're 6 and 1. They've lost to the only good team they've played. Their signature win thus far is over a team that, in retrospect, may not really be that good. They're solid on one side of the ball but they have issues on the other. Quick, which 6-1 Big Ten team am I talking about?
Answer? All of them. Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Northwestern ... on some level, they're all the same team. You know about OSU. Lost to USC, has a gutty win over Wisconsin which seemed huge at the time, solid defense but an offense that suddenly isn't doing so hot. Minnesota lost to the Buckeyes but beat Illinois. So have two other teams. The Gopher defense is much improved but still isn't great. No complaints about the offense.
Northwestern has seen tremendous improvement in its defense. coupled with an inexplicable drop in its offensive production. The Cats' biggest win is over ... who? 3-2 Duke? Or 4-3 Iowa? 3-2 Southern Illinois? Those are the only teams NU has defeated who currently have winning records, and SIU doesn't really count, being a
Oh, and what about Sparty? Does Mark Dantonio's team break the pattern?
Not really. They did lose to a pretty good Cal team, and Northwestern is their signature win, but who knows if the Wildcats are for real? We all know about Javon Ringer, but the MSU offense doesn't have much besides him, and the Spartan defense is one against which you can throw with impunity. You just know that's killing Mark Dantonio.
So it's impossible to sort out right now which of these six-win teams will wind up in the Capital One Bowl, and which will win between zero and two more games. We've got one game this weekend that will go a long way towards un-Gordianizing the Big Ten's 6-1 knot ... and another one that could be a trap for the 6-1 team that's in it.
INDIANA @ ILLINOIS
Neither of these teams is as good as most people thought before the season. It wasn't hard to guess that Indiana could take a step back. Illinois is more of a surprise, but then again, Ron Zook may have set the bar too high for Juice Williams. Both these teams are in season-saving mode now, but it's already too late for Indiana. The Hoosiers are almost certainly going to lose to Northwestern and Penn State. That means they have to win every other game just to get themselves in line for the Motor City Bowl. Since they're not going to beat Illinois this week, they might as well plan to watch Tom Crean's first few games over the holidays.
|BRING US BOB KNIGHT'S FOOTBALL EQUIVALENT||13|
|CHAMPS SPORTS, BABY||33|
WISCONSIN @ IOWA
Wisconsin is having problems right now, which is hardly news. What I can't figure out is why so many people still think the Badgers are just going to snap out of their funk and start playing the kind of football they have over the past two seasons. Please, people, listen carefully: Woody Hayes is dead. You can no longer win the Big Ten by kicking up the biggest cloud of dust as you're rushing for three yards. And even though it's looking like the Allan Evridge Project has run out of time, Dustin Sherer hasn't completely proved he can throw the ball.
But that's okay. The Badgers have such an embarrassment of riches at running back that it doesn't matter. They can just pound the ball, over and over, wearing down defenses and chewing up clock. Right?
Wrong. The Badgers have the fifth-best rushing offense in the Big Ten. They're averaging 16 points scored in their conference games. And they're going up against the conference's stingiest scoring defense this week. The Badgers are not going to bounce back from their three horrible losses.
Speaking of bouncing back, are the Hawkeyes back? The win over Indiana last weekend was just what Kirk Ferentz needed. The Hawkeyes have some serious issues in the passing game, but they have more oomph than the Badgers, and that's going to make the difference in this game.
|WE'D KILL YOU IN HOCKEY||18|
|HOW? WE DON'T HAVE A HOCKEY TEAM||21|
OHIO STATE @ MICHIGAN STATE
In case you didn't know, this is the game that will help the Big Ten fall into place. These two teams match up well with each other. Both want to run the ball as much as possible. The main difference is that Sparty has one guy who totes the rock, while the Buckeyes have two.
Turnovers will be a big factor in this game (as they are in all games, of course) but it most be noted that, if the Ohio State defense has a weakness, it's the running game. They lost too many people from last year's excellent D-line, and their replacements haven't yet snapped into place. If Michigan State can control the ball and get the ground game going, they can beat the Buckeyes.
That's what I would say if Sparty's defense was better, at least. Ohio State's offense has flamed out more than once this season, but Michigan State has trouble stopping people no matter who they are. Prepare your moans of existential dread; the Buckeyes are going to put one of their fellow 6-1 squads in its place.
|PUT THROUGH THE RINGER||16|
PURDUE @ NORTHWESTERN
"We've switched the wide-open offense normally served at this northwest Indiana university with a lethargic unit that can't run and can't score. Let's see if anyone notices."
They won't, really, because Purdue has become Bizzaro Purdue in Joe Tiller's final season. The offense certainly isn't anything to write home about, yet Tiller's traditional ¡Viva el matador! defense has become the only unit to slow down Penn State even a little bit. Purdue is a better team than their record would indicate, and their strength (defense) plays right into Northwestern's weakness (offense).
NU lost for the first time last week, and it wasn't close. If Purdue can get some sort of rhythm on offense, they can win this game. The odds are very much against that, however, so I like Northwestern in this one. It won't be a pretty win, however.
|WE'D MIGHTY LIKE A ROSE||14|
|WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD||17|
MICHIGAN @ PENN STATE
Even I am sick of talking about Penn State's Spread HD offense. It'll be interesting to see how it stacks up against Michigan's "break but don't bend" defense. Actually, the Wolverines are halfway decent on defense, but they're not stout enough to keep the Nits out of the end zone ... and the Wolverines aren't going to see the end zone all day. This won't be as dramatic as the Wisconsin sandblasting of a week ago, but there is little doubt the Nittany Lions will be 8-0 come Sunday morning.
|WE WANT OUR MONEY BACK, WEST VIRGINIA||0|
|THEY HAVE FOOD IN THE PRESS BOX!||34|
Next week's games!
- Northwestern @ Indiana: A good tonic for any sputtering offense
- Michigan State @ Michigan: Sparty has a lot of frustrations to work out
- Penn State @ Ohio State: All the marbles, baby
- Minnesota @ Purdue: Somebody's gonna make a statement
- Illinois @ Wisconsin: Big trouble for the Badgers