- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The LSU-Alabama game left no doubt about the SEC's identity in 2011, as the nation's top two defenses dominated play in Tuscaloosa with bone-crushing hits, superb fundamentals and brilliant takeaways.
About 575 miles away from Bryant-Denny Stadium, two of the Big 12's top teams combined for 97 points and 1,082 yards in a wildly entertaining shootout. Oklahoma State prevailed against Kansas State 52-45, as the teams produced 32 fourth-quarter points, more than twice as many as LSU and Alabama recorded in four quarters plus overtime. Four other Big 12 teams scored 39 or more points Saturday.
The Big 12's identity in 2011 is the same as it has been in 2010, 2009 … pick a year. It's all about the offenses.
The SEC and Big 12 know what types of leagues they are.
The Big Ten, meanwhile, isn't so sure about itself.
Is this an offensive league or a defensive league? Or both?
If you're unsure, you're probably not alone.
The inclination is to label the Big Ten a defensive league. Five teams are ranked among the top 16 nationally in total defense: Michigan State, Illinois, Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. The same five squads are ranked in the top 14 nationally in fewest points allowed.
The lone Big Ten team unbeaten in conference play, Penn State, is undeniably a defense-driven team. The Lions rank 88th nationally in total offense, 100th in scoring offense and 106th in pass efficiency. They have scored 16 points or fewer in four victories (Temple, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois).
On the flip side, the team many still consider the Big Ten’s most complete squad, Wisconsin, is fueled by an offense putting up video-game numbers for the second consecutive season. The Badgers rank fourth nationally in scoring (47 ppg) and have racked up 48 points or more in six of nine games. They rank ninth nationally in rushing and 10th in total offense.
The Big Ten has five teams averaging more than 400 yards of offense per game and five averaging more than 31 points per game. Six teams are ranked among the nation's top 35 rushing offenses.
Four Big Ten teams -- Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota, Indiana -- are undeniably better on offense than defense, and with all due respect to Wisconsin's defense, the Badgers should be included in this group, too.
While many folks took their pot shots at the Big Ten after low-scoring games like Michigan State-Ohio State (10-7 MSU), Iowa-Penn State (13-3 PSU), Ohio State-Illinois (17-7 OSU) and Illinois-Penn State (10-7 PSU), the league's three signature games this season have been the furthest thing from the offense-challenged, cloud-of-dust image some lazy media members love to use for the conference.
The Big Ten has hosted three of the nation's most exciting games this season: Notre Dame-Michigan, Wisconsin-Michigan State and Wisconsin-Ohio State. All three contests featured plenty of points – the average score was 35-30 and 29 points was the low mark -- and wildly entertaining fourth quarters that kept the scoreboard operator busy. Sorry, SEC, but Saturday night's 9-6 slugfest wasn’t nearly as entertaining as what we saw in Ann Arbor, East Lansing or Columbus.
See where the confusion lies? Is the Big Ten defined by its highest-ranked team (Penn State) or its best games?
Several squads haven’t helped to solve the riddle.
Nebraska entered the season with what looked like the Big Ten's most decorated defense. But aside from a 24-3 Huskers win against Michigan State on Oct. 29, the offense has spurred Big Red, while the Blackshirts have been inconsistent at best.
Illinois stormed out of the gate behind QB Nathan Scheelhaase and WR A.J. Jenkins. But the Illini offense has vanished in the past three games, while the defense continues to look sharp. Illinois has recorded more yards and more first downs than each of its past three opponents -- and lost all three games. Are the Illini a defense-driven team now? Sure looks like it.
Michigan has made obvious strides on defense after three porous seasons. The Denard Robinson-led offense thrives on big plays but has gone cold at times. Still, Michigan's biggest win to date, against Notre Dame, came courtesy of a huge fourth quarter from Robinson and Co. What's the Wolverines' identity?
Ohio State's offense reached its low point in the Michigan State loss, nearly being shut out at home for the first time since 1982. The Buckeyes have played four games since. In three, they averaged 31.3 points and 285.7 rush yards. In the other, they completed just one pass and attempted only four. Who are these Buckeyes?
It’s clearly hard to pin down the Big Ten’s identity. But does it matter? Is a league better off fitting into a category like the SEC and Big 12?
Balance is always good, and the unpredictably of Big Ten games makes this conference a lot of fun to watch. But ultimately, teams and leagues benefit from being able to rely on certain areas. They want to look in the mirror and see who they are.
Right now, the Big Ten is seeing double.