- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Look at the Big Ten standings at the halfway point, and there are not a lot of surprises.
Ohio State stands undefeated, as expected and just like in 2012. Michigan State and Nebraska have glittering records despite some lingering (though perhaps dissipating) questions about one side of the ball. Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin are all still very much in contention but a notch below the Buckeyes. For the most part, these teams are who we thought they were.
But that doesn't mean there haven't been some unforeseen twists and turns along the way during the season's first half.
Wisconsin lost at Arizona State when some Pac-12 officials turned into the Keystone Cops in the final 15 seconds. Kenny Guiton, not Braxton Miller, looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback for a couple of games while Miller was out, prompting some to actually debate whether Ohio State should play its backup. Indiana beat Penn State for the first time in 17 tries. Michigan very nearly lost to Akron and UConn during a 5-0 start, then lost at Penn State in one of the weirdest four-overtime games you'll ever see. Bo Pelini found himself in a firestorm after a two-year-old, secretly-recorded, profanity-laced audiotape was leaked. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill had two more game-day seizures and took an indefinite leave of absence. Four different teams turned to freshmen starting quarterbacks.
We've also learned that there's not much of a separation between most of the teams in the league. The Buckeyes might be undefeated, but they got pushed to the wire at home versus Wisconsin and on the road against Northwestern. The Legends Division is a five-way scrum -- yes, five, because Iowa has greatly improved from 2012 -- with Minnesota the only real non-contender. (The Gophers could still get to a bowl game if they ever rediscover the forward pass.) The November showdowns involving Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern, in particular, should provide outstanding drama.
The Leaders Division race is far more defined with Ohio State in the pole position and Wisconsin hoping for a 10-car pileup. But that division also has three of the conference's best offenses, in Illinois, Indiana and Penn State, the latter of which proved against Michigan that it is not going to simply succumb to NCAA sanctions as long as Bill O'Brien is the coach. The Illini and Hoosiers still hold out hope for a postseason bid. As for Purdue, well, there's always next year.
And there’s always the second half of the season to give us plenty more unexpected developments.
Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. The Badgers' home-run hitting back ranks third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards through six games, and he's averaging an eye-popping 9.7 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. He has scored on an 80-yard run and a 71-yard dash this year. Others in consideration: Penn State WR Allen Robinson, Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah.
Defensive MVP: Wisconsin LB Chris Borland. He is third in the league in tackles and seemingly is involved in every play as the Badgers' defensive leader. Others considered: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier, Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard.
Biggest Surprise: The revitalization of Illinois' offense. Nearly punchless last season in a 2-10 campaign, the Illini have turned things around under new coordinator Bill Cubit and a healthy Nathan Scheelhaase. They are scoring 36 points per game, while Scheelhaase is averaging nearly 260 passing yards per game. Illinois has already surpassed last year's win total at 3-2.
Biggest Disappointment: A coaching change and a brutal early schedule spelled trouble all along for Purdue. Still, we didn't think the Boilermakers would be this bad. They are 1-5, with the lone win coming in a nail-biter against Indiana State, and the team ranks near the bottom of the FBS in just about every major category. Remember that Purdue went to bowls in each of the past two seasons. First-year coach Darrell Hazell should eventually turn things around, but so far his early tenure has been ugly.
Newcomer Of The Year: Penn State handed the reins of its offense to true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, and he has rewarded that decision. Hackenberg leads the Big Ten in passing yards (1,672), and while he's had some ups and downs, he has also displayed great poise and a big-time arm. We'd say he's a future star, but he kind of already is one.
Best Coach: Sometimes we make these things too complicated, looking for coaches who have overachieved. No one has achieved more during his time than Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He has guided the Buckeyes to a 6-0 start, including key wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern, and has done so despite a young defense and some crucial injuries. An 18-game streak of perfection isn't too bad, either.
Best Game: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30, Oct. 5. Joey Bosa's fumble return for a touchdown on the final play made the margin look wider than it actually was. ESPN's "College GameDay" came to Evanston, and these two teams did not disappoint, engaging in a back-and-forth thriller that hinged on a late fourth-and-one play by Northwestern. It was Ohio State's toughest test of the year so far, and it made for great theater.
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