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Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Big Ten midseason report

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Before the season, the Big Ten landscape looked fairly straightforward.

Best team: Ohio State

Heisman candidate: Chris "Beanie" Wells

The rest: Did anyone really care?

Midway through the season, the scene looks quite different.

Ohio State lost Wells in the opener to a right foot/toe injury, which became the dominant story of college football the next two weeks before the star was ruled out of the much-anticipated USC game. The Buckeyes had another mainstage flop, and the 35-3 disaster had consequences. Senior quarterback Todd Boeckman lost his job, wunderkind Terrelle Pryor stepped in and Ohio State tweaked its offense, with limited success. Four wins have followed, but the Buckeyes are no longer the team in the spotlight.

That would be No. 3 Penn State, which has stormed onto the national title radar in dominant fashion, winning its first seven games by an average of 34.3 points. The Spread HD offense has been a smashing success, as first-year starting quarterback Daryll Clark and his arsenal mass-produce touchdowns and big plays. An underrated defense survived suspensions, injuries and dismissals, and the team's success has added to the drama surrounding 81-year-old coach Joe Paterno, whose coaching future beyond the season is unknown. A hip injury has forced Paterno to walk with a cane and coach from the press box, but his team looks like it runs on autopilot.

With Wells sidelined, Michigan State running back Javon Ringer has emerged as the league's top Heisman candidate. Ringer's incredible workload is almost as impressive as his production, and he leads a Michigan State team that backed up its preseason hype with a 6-1 start, its best since 2003. The Spartans find themselves in the league title mix along with Ohio State and Penn State.

The league has had its share of disappointments and surprises. Wisconsin went from a top 10 team on Sept. 27 to 0-3 in the league. The transition at Michigan has been tumultuous, as Rich Rodriguez's offense ranks 109th nationally and the Wolverines are on pace for their first losing season since 1967. Illinois has backslid despite impressive play from quarterback Juice Williams. The Big Ten also features arguably the nation's biggest surprise in Minnesota, which went from 1-11 last fall to bowl eligible and 6-1 after last Saturday's win at Illinois. Northwestern also made history with a 5-0 start, its best since 1962.

The next two weeks should reveal a lot, as Ohio State visits Michigan State before hosting Penn State. The Lions' BCS title hopes and Ringer's Heisman candidacy will dominate the headlines heading into the home stretch.

Biggest surprise -- Minnesota

No one outside the Twin Cities thought the Gophers would be bowl eligible by Oct. 11, not after a 1-11 season dragged down by the nation's worst defense. But an influx of junior college players on defense and, more important, the improvement of several returning players (Willie VanDeSteeg, Adam Weber, Marcus Sherels) has spurred Minnesota's renaissance behind second-year coach Tim Brewster. An aggressive defense leads the nation in takeaways with 20, and Weber and Eric Decker have formed one of the nation's top passing combinations.

Biggest disappointment -- Wisconsin

It's easy to pick on Michigan, especially after last Saturday's disaster against Toledo, but we knew the transition would be tough in Ann Arbor. Wisconsin entered the year with BCS hopes, a veteran-laden defense and a powerful rushing attack. But after inexplicably blowing a 19-point halftime lead to the flawed Wolverines, Wisconsin has flat-lined, dropping three straight to fall out of the BCS mix and Big Ten title contention. After a blistering start, coach Bret Bielema is just 7-7 in his last 14 games, and merely getting bowl eligible could be a challenge for the Badgers.

Midseason Offensive MVP -- Javon Ringer

Michigan State makes no secret about its intentions on offense. The Spartans feed the ball to Ringer until somebody stops him. So far, no one has. The senior running back ranks second nationally in rushing (158.9 yards per game) and tied for third in scoring (12 points per game). He has 68 more carries than any other FBS back and does much of his best work in the fourth quarter, where Michigan State is outscoring its opponents 57-34. Daryll Clark, Shonn Greene and Juice Williams also deserve to be mentioned.

Midseason Defensive MVP -- Aaron Maybin

Joe Paterno wishes Maybin could put on more weight, but Big Ten quarterbacks are getting a steady diet of the Penn State sophomore defensive end. Thrust into a major role because of suspensions, dismissals and injuries on the defensive line, Maybin has stepped up to lead the Big Ten in sacks (8) and tie for the lead in tackles for loss (12.5). Other mentions go to Illinois linebacker Brit Miller (12.5 TFLs, 10.2 tackles per game, 2 forced fumbles) and Michigan State safety Otis Wiley (4 interceptions, 11 pass breakups).

Top newcomer -- Traye Simmons

This award really should be shared by several of the junior college players that have helped boost Minnesota's defense. Simmons leads the Big Ten and ranks 13th nationally in passes defended (13), and he's one of three Gophers defenders with two interceptions this season. His teammate Tramaine Brock (team-high 42 tackles) also deserved to be mentioned. Terrelle Pryor has shown great poise as Ohio State's starting quarterback, but the unit's struggles to score are becoming a major concern.

Midseason Coach of the Year -- Tim Brewster

Brewster arrived with big dreams for Minnesota, and the team is on its way to achieving them in his second season as head coach. He made a great hire in defensive coordinator Ted Roof and successfully blended a group of junior college players with the returnees on defense. After finishing 114th nationally in turnover margin last year, Minnesota now ranks second. That's a testament to the head coach. Paterno and Mark Dantonio also merit recognition.

Bowl bound: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin