Big Ten: what we learned 090212

Five lessons from the opening week around the Big Ten:

1. Michigan is not at the elite level: Let's make something clear. Saying that the Wolverines -- or the Big Ten, for that matter -- can't hang with the SEC because Alabama clubbed Michigan is like saying the Big Ten or ACC can't play with the SEC in basketball because Kentucky won the NCAA title. The Crimson Tide, and maybe LSU, are on another level above everybody, but that doesn't mean the rest of that league -- which had several members look downright mediocre in Week 1 -- deserves as much credit. Regardless, the Wolverines clearly don't have the same level of athletes, especially on the lines, to beat a team like Bama. Very few teams do. They were probably overrated at No. 8. But Wolverines coach Brady Hoke knows he has to improve the depth and size on the lines and has gone about doing just that in recruiting. Give him a couple of years to build a roster full of his players. The bigger question is whether Michigan is still good enough to win the Big Ten. We don't know that yet. But we do know that there's a substantial gap between the nation's best and the Wolverines.

2. Michigan State has two-thirds of a championship formula: The Spartans' defense was dominant at times Friday night against Boise State, holding the Broncos' offense to just 206 yards and two field goals (one set up by a turnover). Running back Le'Veon Bell was spectacular in rushing for more than 210 yards on 44 carries. But that won't be enough to win the Big Ten unless Andrew Maxwell and the receivers don't improve enough to provide a competent passing game. There were opportunities for big throws against Boise State, but Maxwell either missed them or the wideouts couldn't hold on too many times. They are bound to improve -- it was the first start for Maxwell and the first significant playing time for many of the receivers. They'd better do so quickly, or else Bell might be worn out by the time Big Ten play starts.

3. Penn State's confidence will be tested early: After a difficult and emotional offseason, Penn State players couldn't wait to get back on the field Saturday at Beaver Stadium. But a team that already has dealt with so much faces another challenge as its confidence took a hit in a 24-14 loss to Ohio, its first season-opening defeat since 2001. Although Ohio proved to be as advertised and could win the MAC this season, Penn State looked overmatched at times in the second half, and the typically stout Lions defense surrendered 499 yards of offense. Although Bill O'Brien's offense looked good early, the Lions couldn't finish drives, establish a run game or stretch the field vertically. After so much transition and turmoil, it's fair to wonder how much more this team can take. The Lions' nonconference schedule does them no favors with upcoming games against Virginia, Temple and Navy. It's crucial the Lions respond well next week at Virginia, or the confidence question really will come into play for a program in the crosshairs. After Saturday's loss, O'Brien's job might be harder than anyone thought.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Dave WeaverTaylor Martinez wowed in Nebraska's opener with a career-high 354 yards.
4. Martinez and Miller have done their homework: Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ohio State's Braxton Miller both are among the nation's best athletes at the quarterback spot. But both men also entered 2012 with questions about their passing skills after one (Martinez) took a step backward in 2011 and the other (Miller) barely threw the ball in his freshman year. Although Southern Miss and Miami (Ohio) didn't provide the best competition, both Martinez and Miller look a lot more comfortable in the pocket. Martinez, whose throwing motion has sparked nationwide mocking, completed 26 of 34 passes for a career-high 354 yards and five touchdowns. And he looked good doing so, showing better mechanics and footwork and making several throws on the run. Martinez completed 10 of his first 12 pass attempts and spread the ball to 10 different targets. Miller performed well in the Urban Meyer offense, connecting on 14 of 24 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns, and added 161 rush yards and a score on the ground. While both men must prove themselves against superior competition, the early signs are promising.

5. Slim margin of error for Big Ten's second-division teams: If you're a fan of Northwestern, Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State, get ready for a wild ride this season. These teams showed in Week 1 that their margin for error is slim. Northwestern once again showed it can't play with a lead, and while the "Cardiac Cats" rallied late for the win, the issues on defense put a lot of pressure on the offense to put up points. Iowa didn't look good for most of its game against Northern Illinois and survived by the slimmest of margins. Minnesota struggled with a flawed UNLV squad before prevailing in the third overtime, while Penn State missed opportunities on offense and caved defensively in the second half of its loss to Ohio. Even Illinois, which beat Western Michigan rather handily Saturday, lacks the offensive firepower to pull away and, like last year, must rely on a talented defense to carry the way. These teams should be in a lot of close games this fall, and their ability to mask their weaknesses will determine how far they go.

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