It hasnt been the best start of the season for the Big 10. The grades are in at the quarter point and, well, C’s might get you degrees, but they wont get you too many college football wins. More than half the league grades out as average at best as we head into the final weekend of September (already!). A week after seeing Iowa fall to Iowa State, Penn State unable to walk across the street agaisnt Alabama and Minnesota loss to New Mexico State, the out-of-tune hits kept rolling off the line for the conference in Week 3. Ohio State and Michigan State looked pathetic in their first true tests of the season. Penn State needed a late score to beat freaking Temple. Iowa needed a miracle comeback to avoid another loss. Northwestern lost to Army. Outside of Wisconsin, every other league team seems fatally flawed. So, whats my knee jerk reaction to the state of the conference? Try the fact that I am combing the internet today to find any enterprising sportsbook out there that will give me future odds on any of the hypothetical Big 10 vs SEC bowl matchups. A lot can change over the next two months, but right now those bowl games look like they will be SEC runaways. Or, in other words, exactly like a year ago. The conference suddenly can win ACC/Big 10 Challenges in Basketball, but can it play top flight football anymore? I just dont know.
I talked about the state of the Big 10 with Brian and Ace over the weekend as we taped a podcast for MGoBlog. They havent posted the final product, but I will quickly give you our summation: Everything. Is. Terrible. So much so that we said foolish things like an average Michigan team is a league contender given the down state of the conference. And we said a bunch of mean things about a lot of Big 10 teams. I might have predicted a losing record for Ohio State. I cant recall. But I felt bad for trashing the league on the podcast, that I am now determined to throw out some positives. It was a downer Week 3 overall for the Big 10, but I’ve dug around in the Optimism Mine and unearthed some positives from this past weekend.
ILLINI DOMINATE PAC-12 FOE WITH DEFENSE
The best thing we saw out of the Big 10 over the weekend was Illinois. Specifically, their front-7 on defense. The Illini handcuffed Arizona State, everybody’s trendy breakthrough team from the Pac-12, dominating with their defensive front en route to a 17-14 win. I’m sure everyone in ChamBama is stoked at the news that Saturday’s efforts against the Sun Devils netted them not only some national respect, but a spot on my blog poll ballot this week, checking in at #19, After the Rose Bowl Berth in 2007, its probabaly the Zookers most notable achievement as Illini head coach. Of course, creating a nasty front-7 on defense the year after losing all-world players Martez Wilson and Corey Liguet may pass cracking the blog poll on the achievement hierarchy. They destroyed the ASU offensive line, blowing up the dangerous ASU passing attack with six sacks, countless QB hurries and a total of 12 TFLs on the night. Thanks to the pressure generated up front, the Illinois secondary was able to play confident pass defense, breaking up seven of TJ Osweiler’s passes. Yes, the tall, lanky Sun Devil QB landed some haymakers, but for the most part he was running for his life and throwing into coverage. Illinois lost its three best guys from last year’s front-7, but the replacements already seem ready to wear. Fourth-year junior DE Whitney Mercilus is blossoming into a star after several years as a competent role player, with a pair of sacks and a forced fumble against ASU. After a solid freshmen campaign contributing off the bench, LB Jonathon Brown made a Big 10 Defensive Player Of The Year type of statement Saturday night with 8 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3.5 total TFLs and a pick. When the season started, Nebraska had the Big 10′s best front-7 on paper. With three actual games entered into the evidence, the reality is the best front-7 might belong to the Illini. And in a weakened Big 10, that might be more than enough for a title run. Look for Illinois to be 6-0 when they host Ohio State in the middle of next month. They’ll be favored to win that game. As long as they can avoid the upset bug along the way, I give them a decent shot of entering their November 19th showdown at home against Wisconsin undefeated. At the worst, I’d be stunned if they werent still alive in the divisional race when that day rolls around.
THE CONTINUED EXCELLENCE AND EFFICIENCY OF WISCONSIN
Ladies and gents, not only your Big 10 favorite, but probably the only team that can make waves nationally. Yes, Nebraska is still 3-0, but they’re looking vulnerable on D and ragged on offense if they cant get a big play from Martinez. Wisconsin, meanwhile, looks every bit as imposing and strong as they did a year ago when they won 11 games and played in the Rose Bowl. Montae Ball and James White are ripping off 6 ypc. Nick Toon is finally healthy and looks bent on proving that he’s the league best WR. The addition of QB Russell Wilson has been everything as advettised. Every bit as officient as Scott Tolzien, the man he’s replacing, but also bringing explosiveness to this position the Badgers have never had before. They’ve outscored opponenets 134-24 and have been up by at least 20 points at the half in all three games so far. They havent been tested, but they havent showed any flaws either. Oddsmakers have taken notice. Over the summer, on the futures board, the Badgers were -3 favorites at home vs Nebraska, at MSU and at Ohio State. Today? They are -6 for their showdown with Nebraska next weekend, and have opened up to full touchdown road chalk at -7 in those games in Columbus and East Lansing. They’ve mushroomed from -8.5-point chalk to -14.5 for the home closer against Penn State. Despite how strong the Illini looked, money is coming in on the Badgers in that game as well with Wisconsin growing from -6 to -8 chalk since the season began. Both Wisconsin’s excellent play and the rest of the Big 10′s average play to this date have moved those lines.
ARE MAIZE AND BLUE PLAYMAKERS FINALLY EMERGING?
Its been a long climb out of a deep hole for Michigan the last several years. Among their many ills in recent years, lets highlight a basic one–a dearth of playmakers. They had nothing in 2008. In 2009, if Tate Forcier wasnt making plays on O and Brandon Graham doing the same on D, then trouble ensued. A year ago, those roles were played by Denard Robinson and Mike Martin. Basically, Michigan has been a one-man show on both sides of the ball. When Martin went down with an injury for a spell a year ago, it was remarkable how much worse a bad defense was able to still get. Let’s not even talk about the offense without Denard. But, is all that changing? Are other Wolverines finally stepping up to the forefront? Are we getting close to having a bevy of playmakers ready to rock and roll in Ann Arbor? Bevy might be too strong of a word, but through three weeks, Michigan is slowly, but surely evolving beyond their one-man shows on both sides of the ball. Against the Irish, everyone raved about Denard, but it was the entire WR corps that won that game for Michigan. When was the last time Michigan won a game of import that wasnt on the arm, legs and play of its mercurial young QBs (we include Forcier and his ’09 ND comeback win into this mix)? We’d have to dip into the Mike Hart era for that. Junior Hemingway is one of the Big 10′s best deep threats. They might have a tailback in Fitzgerald Toussaint if he can ever prove to handle carries in consecutive games without succumbing to a nagging injury. And, how about Jeremy Gallon? Those who had him as the team leader in catches through three games, step right up. The redshirt Sophomore and former 4-star recruit has had big catches to move chains and set up scores in each of the first three games. And, he might have finally solved Michigan’s punt return woes. Not only can he catch punts–one of many sore spots under Rodriguez–but at 10.8 yards per return have given the Wolverines a little go in that spot for the first time since Steve Breaston was in town. Are special teams and defense suddenly a positive for the Wolverines? I wouldnt go that far, yet. Defensively, major talent issues remain. But, you can see a core of playmakers beginning to emerge. Jordan Kovacs early season play will have him in position for first team all conference honors. Jibreel Black, Jake Ryan, Brandin Hawthorne, Tom Gordon and William Campbell have all made highlight plays. They still give up a lot of yards, but they’re generating turnovers and, unlike the last couple of years, this unit appears to get better as the game wears on. Michigan has given up 21 first quarter points this year, but only 23 points in the second through fourth quarters. I am about to spotlight a sequence that took place against Eastern Michigan, so take it with a silo full of salt. But, with the game still in the balance at 7-3, the officials forced Martin off the field with an equipment issue and Campbell subbed in. He blew up the following play spearheading a loss of yards for the Eagles. I dont know how many times the last 3 seasons, regardless of competition, that the Wolverines took out their best player on defense and not only a great play followed, but was created by the guy replacing their star. Martin going to the sideline in the past was a disaster. But, not if Campbell, whose presence inside on the line helped changed the Notre Dame game, continues to play well. He was the team’s top defensive recruit in 2009. And for the first time at Michigan, he’s been a positive contributer in back to back games. Its hardly a good stop unit in Ann Arbor, but its pretty clear its a better outfit under Hoke and Mattison and that their system has brought out the best in Campbell and an asortment of other young playmakers.
IOWA WIDE RECEIVERS AND PASSING ATTACK
We said some hurtful things about the Big 10 during this week’s MGoPodcast, but I saved my meanest comments for the Iowa Hawkeyes. I may have said some things about their defense in Iowa City that I might not be able to take back. I might have even accused it as looking very much like the Michigan defensive outfits we’ve seen in recent years. But, I am here in this spot to highlight the positives. I might be down on the Hawks D right now, but I am buying shares of their offense. Especially their starting wide receivers. It’s Wide Receiver U in Iowa City these days. How many Big 10 teams have a better 1-2 punch out wide than the Hawks with Marvin McNutt and Keenan Davis? McNutt already was a proven Big 10 playmaker and he’s off to a flying start as a senior with 18 catches through three games and a guady 17.9 yards per catch. Davis has been a revelation. After just 15 career catches his first two seasons in Iowa City, the junior has already surpassed that mark with 17 grabs this season. He had 95 yards against Iowa State two weeks ago and had his best game as a collegiate in the comeback against Pitt with 10 grabs, 129 yards and a score. He’s finally living up to the recruiting hype that had Rivals designate him a 4-star as one of the top WRs in the 2009 class, and one of the best overall players in the nation, ranking him 138th in their overall top-250. He delivered big catch after big catch for the Hawks on Saturday. They have a dangerous 1-2 punch, but also have depth. Kevonte Martin-Manley has caught three touchdowns turning into a nice third target as a redshirt freshmen, and an array of tight ends have combined for 15.1 yards per catch. It all adds up to a lot of weapons in the passing game. New QB James Vanderburg seems more than capabale of using them. Dont forget, he almost led the Hawks to a win in the Horseshoe with a Rose Bowl berth on the line in 2009 filling in for an injured Ricky Stanzi. Now, we’re seeing what he can do with the fulltime job. As he gets more comfortable and confident, dont be surprised to see this passing attack, with assistance from likely 1,200 yard back Marcus Coker, be the driving force behind an autumn run out of the Hawkeyes. Davis and McNutt both could end up with 1,000 yards receiving. Given the state of their defense, they might need to hit those numbers to keep the Hawks in the race this season.
JERRY KILL COACHES AND WINS
I dont think Minnesota will do great things this year, but I am a big fan of Jerry Kill. He’ll prove to be the Gophers best football coach since Lou Holtz. It was not only great to see them tuck away their first win of his tenure at Minnesota, but it was better just seeing him. After his scary bout with seizures the week before and a stint in the hospital, Kill was on the sideline, water bottle in hand, directing the Gophers to a better-than-it-looks win over Miami. Dont forget, Miami was the MAC a year ago and gave Missouri all it could handle opening week. It had to have been a tough, challenging week of practice and preparation given the situation with Kill, so really this qualifies in the ‘any win is a good win’ category. Kill will have Minnesota respectable faster than we think. Dont be surprised if he engineers an upset or two this fall. More than anything, it was awesome seeing him healthy and coaching up a storm this past weekend.
Jordan Hall ran hard for Ohio State. He looks like a player. Otherwise, we’ll spare Ohio State fans out there any discussion today on the debacle in Coral Gables. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah is going to set the Big 10 on fire in the return game. Nebraska’s offense is nothing more than occassional big runs and moonballs from Tyler Martinez and bogs down often. They need the special teams burst and Abdullah, the true freshmen 3-star from Homewood, Alabama, is providing that. In each of the last two weeks, he changed the course of the game with big returns. He scored a TD against Fresno on a kickoff after the Bulldogs trimmed the margin to a single point. While he muffed a punt against Washington, he’s still averaging 42.5 yards per kickoff return and 13.1 yards per punt return, giving the Huskers a huge edge in hidden yards. Penn State didnt have much to crow about in their squeaker over Temple. But Silas Redd might end up becoming a good Big 10 back by the end of the year, and the defense did hold Temple’s factor back Bernard Pierce to just 50 yards rushing.