What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 9

October, 30, 2011
10/30/11
10:00
AM ET
Five lessons from a full slate of Big Ten conference play in Week 9:

1. The race to Indy is wide open: Division play, parity and the lack of a truly dominant team have combined to add serious drama to the Big Ten title chase. Nebraska's 24-3 win over Michigan State helped create a three-way tie atop the Legends Division between the Huskers, Spartans and Michigan. You could make a strong case for any of the three earning the trip to the inaugural Big Ten title game. Nebraska is the only team that controls its own destiny, but the Cornhuskers still have to go to Ann Arbor and State College, while Michigan would lose a tiebreaker against Michigan State, which has the easiest schedule the rest of the way. Wisconsin's second straight heart-breaking loss leaves Penn State in control of the Leaders Division. But the Lions' remaining schedule (Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin) means that race is far from over. Ohio State could get to Indianapolis by winning out and having Penn State lose one of its other two games. It should be a November to remember in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Silas Redd
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSilas Redd and Penn State are flying high with a perfect 5-0 conference record.
2. Penn State is living dangerously: Who would have thought that Penn State would be the last unbeaten team in Big Ten play? Or that the Nittany Lions would be 8-1 at this point? We've seen it, but we're still not sure we believe it. Penn State has won all of its five league games by 10 points or less, and Saturday's 10-7 victory over Illinois was the latest example of the football gods smiling on Happy Valley this season. Quarterback Matthew McGloin and the offense stunk for most of the game but somehow drove 80 yards for the tying score with a little more than a minute left. The team held on when Derek Dimke -- who hadn't missed a field goal all year -- bounced one off the upright as time expired. Hey, 8-1 is 8-1, and Joe Paterno deserves some good fortune. But can the Lions keep this up when the meat of their schedule arrives after the bye week? The good news: every other team in the Leaders Division has at least two Big Ten losses.

3. Ohio State has reasons to believe: An Ohio State program that has been beaten up on and off the field in recent weeks and months finds itself with new life -- and a very real chance to make noise in the Leaders Division. The Buckeyes defense seems to be getting better by the week and stifled Wisconsin for much of Saturday night's game. Braxton Miller is the same player we saw at the start of the month and showed he not only can pass the ball but make a huge throw at the most important time. Ohio State has zero margin for error if it wants to reach Indianapolis, but Luke Fickell and his players seem to be thriving on adversity and, as Fickell often says, the need to gain momentum. Right now, the Buckeyes have momentum entering a month where they've always thrived.

4. This is a different Michigan team: Excitement over Brady Hoke's early success has been tempered because Michigan started strong and faded the past couple of years under Rich Rodriguez. But Hoke is not RichRod, and this Wolverines team looks different. They made a statement on Saturday by bouncing back nicely from the Michigan State loss and trouncing Purdue 36-14 at home. Even without an superstar performance by Denard Robinson, Michigan still ran for 339 yards as Fitz Toussaint had a career day. The defense stiffened after an early touchdown, and defensive tackle Mike Martin's safety highlighted his terrific day. Because the Wolverines now can actually stop people and run the ball with more than just Robinson, they can be good in November instead of just September.

5. It's just not Iowa's year: The Hawkeyes were holding out hope of making the Big Ten title game, with both Michigan schools having to play in Iowa City. But that balloon popped when Minnesota pulled off a shocking 22-21 upset to keep the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in the Twin Cities. Kirk Ferentz and his staff haven't been able to plug the holes on defense all season, and a normally high-scoring offense couldn't cash in opportunities against the Gophers. Simply put, this is just not a very good Hawkeyes team. Their wins have come against mediocre or bad opponents, and they've lost two rivalry games they shouldn't have (Iowa State being the other). Given the team's five-game road losing streak and the remaining schedule (Michigan, Michigan State, at Purdue, at Nebraska), it's fair to wonder whether or not the 5-3 Hawkeyes will even make a bowl this season.

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