Monday, October 1, 2012
Big Ten: Looking back and forward
By Adam Rittenberg
Check your calendar. It's Oct. 1, which means the first month of the college football season is in the books. As you know, it hasn't been a great one for the Big Ten.
Let's take a quick look back at the Big Ten's September before spinning it forward.
Best of September
1. Miller time: Braxton Miller came to Ohio State to play for Jim Tressel, but the Buckeyes sophomore quarterback is meant to play in an offense like the one Urban Meyer has brought to Columbus. While more accomplished Big Ten offensive stars (Denard Robinson, Montee Ball) have struggled, Miller has been spectacular through the first month, recording 577 rush yards, 933 pass yards and 15 touchdowns (8 pass, 7 rush). He's very much on the Heisman Trophy radar entering the October.
2. Purple reign: Aside from Ohio State, Northwestern is the only other Big Ten team to truly take care of business in the early going. The Wildcats accounted for three of the Big Ten's six wins (Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College) against teams from automatic-qualifying conferences and recorded their third 5-0 start in the past five seasons. The coaches have used quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter well and received improved play in both rushing offense and rushing defense. Northwestern exits September ranked in both major polls for the first time since 2008.
3. Surprise stars: September didn't bring too many positives from the team level, but the Big Ten saw its share of surprise stars around the league. Mark Weisman came out of nowhere -- actually, the Air Force Academy -- to rescue Iowa's rushing attack in Week 3, and he has piled up 507 rush yards and seven touchdowns in the past three games. Penn State's Allen Robinson, who entered the year with just three career receptions, has been the Big Ten's top wide receiver (32 receptions, 439 yards, 5 TDs). Other surprise standouts include Northwestern running back Venric Mark, Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and Minnesota defensive end D.L. Wilhite.
Worst of September
1. Big-game woes: The Big Ten flunked its nonleague exam, failing in nearly every big-game opportunity through the first four weeks. Things got off to an ominous start when Alabama crushed Michigan 41-14 in Week 1. Things only got worse the following Saturday, as the Big Ten went 6-6, including three road losses to Pac-12 foes. The Big Ten went 0-3 against Notre Dame, and its members suffered ugly losses against teams like Central Michigan and Louisiana Tech. Aside from Michigan State's season-opening win against Boise State and Northwestern's triumphs, there was nothing to celebrate in nonleague play.
2. The thin red line: No one doubts Wisconsin lost a game-changer in quarterback Russell Wilson, now starting for the Seattle Seahawks. But the Badgers still returned a Heisman Trophy finalist in Ball at running back, an NFL prospect in tackle Ricky Wagner and other solid pieces of an offense that set records each of the past two seasons. Few could have seen Wisconsin's rapid drop in offensive production. Coach Bret Bielema already has replaced offensive line coach Mike Markuson, made a quarterback change and seen Ball sustain a concussion. Although the unit is showing a bit of life lately, its short-yardage struggles at Nebraska reconfirmed that Wisconsin isn't Wisconsin right now.
3. No offense: With a few exceptions, Big Ten teams were pretty brutal to watch on offense during the season's first month. Only four league squads rank among the nation's top 50 in total offense, and just five rank in the top 50 in scoring. Wisconsin's decline has been the most shocking, but Michigan State hasn't replaced the production it lost in the pass game. Iowa couldn't reach the end zone until Weisman came along. Illinois has scored just 21 points in its two games against major-conference opponents and has yet to form an identity under its new coaching staff.
Three storylines for October
1. Search for separation: If the recent power rankings and bowl projections haven't made it clear, the Big Ten is a muddled mess after the first month of the season. There's very little separation among the top eight teams. Fortunately, four more Saturdays of league play -- and particularly key division matchups -- should identify the teams to beat in each division. Almost every Big Ten squad looks capable of making a run to Indy right now, particularly in the wide-open Leaders Division. The pool of teams that can make this claim in a month will be reduced.
2. Penn State's progress: Written off by many after a 0-2 start, Penn State has turned its season around with three consecutive wins. First-year coach Bill O'Brien has done a tremendous job of keeping his players focused on the present, rather than the program's uncertain future. O'Brien has molded McGloin into a solid Big Ten signal-caller, while the defense has turned things around after a rough opener, as senior linebacker Michael Mauti leads the way. It'll be interesting to see if Penn State can keep up its winning ways and continue to surprise folks who saw the program falling apart immediately after the NCAA imposed severe sanctions in July.
3. Mitten fight: The Big Ten's two members from the Mitten State -- Michigan and Michigan State -- entered the season as the most popular picks to win the league, but the first month hasn't gone as planned for either squad. The teams are a combined 5-4 with two losses to Notre Dame. It'll be interesting to see if both the Wolverines and Spartans can get back on course during the first two weeks of the month before they meet Oct. 20 in Ann Arbor in a game that could decide the Legends Division. The in-state rivalry had been designated a potential Big Ten game of the year before the season. We'll soon find out how significant it will be.