Sizing up the Big Ten title race

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten lacks the compelling cannibalism of the SEC or the elite quarterback play of the Big 12, but the league more than makes up for it with a motley crew of championship contenders.

After the first four laps -- three for some teams -- it's time to take a closer look at the field.

The temptation is to pick the flashiest and fastest car, the one with the 10-cylinder engine and the cool name. Don't be fooled by the octogenarian at the wheel. This thing can flat-out move. But it will have to avoid a meltdown on foreign courses. Penn State certainly looks like the class of the Big Ten, but the high-powered Lions have yet to play a meaningful road game and travel to both Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Many people are sick of seeing this next car in the race, but they can't deny its track record against familiar opposition. Ohio State has dominated Big Ten play the last three seasons, going 22-2 with two outright titles. The senior-laden Buckeyes have underperformed to date, imploding against USC and struggling against Ohio and Troy. But star running back Chris "Beanie" Wells is healthy again and forms an exciting backfield tandem with freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Like Penn State, the schedule doesn't favor Ohio State, which must visit Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois.

Wisconsin is the Volvo station wagon of this race: sturdy, steady, but not something to get too excited about. The Badgers grinded out a win at Fresno State and were in great position to begin their unprecedented Big Ten opening stretch -- Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State -- on a good note, but a punch-less second half led to a crushing loss. Their league title hopes rest on doing what they do best, winning at home. Wisconsin hosts Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois at Camp Randall Stadium, where it has never lost under coach Bret Bielema.

Michigan State has backed up its preseason hype with a 4-1 start and boasts the Big Ten MVP to date in senior running back Javon Ringer. The Spartans still need a little more from quarterback Brian Hoyer and an improved defense, but the schedule sets up well. A defensive makeover has spurred Northwestern to its first 5-0 start since 1962, and if the Wildcats negotiate a manageable upcoming four-game stretch, they could be a surprising entrant for the home stretch.

Despite a shaky start, Illinois has too much talent to be counted out. And Big Ten teams shouldn't sleep on the refurbished car toward the back of the pack. You know, the one with maize streaks lining its body.

Michigan still could have a say in this thing before the checkered flag.