- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
On the surface, it seems like little has changed for the Big Ten at halftime of the 2009 season.
Once again, the league is struggling for national respect after a poor nonconference performance in which members went 5-8 against BCS conference teams and Notre Dame. The Big Ten struggled in its premier intersectional matchups, falling to USC, Cal, Missouri and Oregon and dropping two of three against Notre Dame.
Once again, the league has been defined by superb defense and subpar quarterback play, dominant pass-rushers and questionable offenses. And once again, the Big Ten will need to wait to prove itself in postseason play.
This is a carbon copy of 2008, right? Not exactly. Several interesting new developments have taken place through the first seven weeks.
The league's balance of power has shifted, as Iowa sits alone atop the standings. The Hawkeyes have overcome adversity to put together their best start (7-0) since 1985. Ohio State's conference hegemony is very much in doubt after last week's loss to Purdue, as Terrelle Pryor and the offense continue to sputter.
Michigan has clearly turned a page on the worst season in team history, and Rich Rodriguez's offense leads the league in scoring (37.3 ppg). The Wolverines are still searching for more signature wins but appear destined for a decent bowl. Wisconsin also has been a pleasant surprise, winning its first five games before falling on hard times, and Indiana already has eclipsed its wins total from 2008.
Michigan State is proving that its days of total meltdowns are over, rallying from a 1-3 start to win three straight.
Illinois, meanwhile, is proving that top-level recruiting classes don't translate to victories or even competitive play, as the Illini sit at 1-5.
And let's not forget the league's crackdown on player conduct, as three one-game suspensions were handed out in as many weeks.
As the second half beckons, there are several key questions: Will Iowa run the table? Will Michigan win some more big games? Will Big Ten quarterbacks pick up their play? How good is Penn State? Can Ron Zook keep his job?
The biggest unknown is whether the Big Ten can reverse its postseason fortunes. If not, it will be more of the same for an embattled league.
Offensive MVP: Minnesota WR Eric Decker
It's scary to think where Minnesota's offense would be without Decker, who leads the league in receiving yards (104.4 ypg) and ranks fourth in receptions (47) despite slowing down a bit recently. There isn't a tougher wide receiver in America than Decker, who still struggles for national respect but has the admiration of every coach in this league. There honestly aren't many strong candidates here, but honorable mentions go to Wisconsin running back John Clay, Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark, Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier and Purdue wideout Keith Smith.
Defensive MVP: Michigan State LB Greg Jones
A lot of good choices here, but the Big Ten's preseason Defensive Player of the Year gets the nod for backing up the hype. After leading Michigan State in tackles in each of his first two seasons, Jones leads the Big Ten with 85 stops, eight more than any other player. His tackles total also leads the nation and Jones has recorded five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Honorable mentions go to Wisconsin defensive end O'Brien Schofield, Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman, Iowa safety Tyler Sash, Michigan cornerback Donovan Warren and Indiana defensive end Jammie Kirlew.
Biggest surprise: Iowa
The Hawkeyes brought back a good team from 2008, but they also lost the nation's best running back (Shonn Greene) and two of their top defenders (tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul). A brutal road schedule and a season-ending knee injury to running back Jewel Hampton before the season further tempered expectations. But it seems like the more adversity Iowa faces, the better it responds. The nation's most resilient team has come from behind six times in its seven victories and finds itself in the driver's seat for the Big Ten title.
Biggest disappointment: Illinois
For the second straight year, the talented Illini teased us, only to fall flat. But unlike last year's team, which showed flashes of its potential, Illinois has been a disaster pretty much from the opening kickoff against Missouri. Senior quarterback Juice Williams already has lost and then regained his starting job, wideout Arrelious Benn still doesn't have a touchdown catch and the defense has struggled without middle linebacker Martez Wilson. Zook is facing his fourth losing season in five years, a stretch that could end his tenure in Champaign.
Best game: Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 12
Two of college football's most tradition-rich programs produced a dandy at Michigan Stadium. The game featured several plot twists, tremendous offensive play on both sides, a questionable coaching decision from Charlie Weis and a gutsy game-winning drive led by Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier. Other memorable contests include Michigan-Michigan State, Michigan-Iowa, USC-Ohio State, Purdue-Oregon, Michigan State-Notre Dame, Indiana-Michigan and Notre Dame-Purdue.
Best coach: Iowa's Kirk Ferentz
Ferentz built his reputation on maximizing talent, and after a three-year lull from 2005-07, he's doing it again. Iowa has picked up where it left off after a strong finish to last season and extended the nation's-second longest win streak to 11 games. Ferentz and his staff have filled in the gaps along the defensive line, put their faith in quarterback Ricky Stanzi and received decent play from young running backs Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher. It hasn't been easy for Iowa, but Ferentz is finding ways to win.