- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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First, the hard truth: The Big Ten is a Michigan loss to Notre Dame away from flunking its nonconference exam.
If the national title drought, the New Year's Day debacles and the high-profile scandals weren't enough, the Big Ten has limped out of the gate in 2012. The league endured a humiliating Week 2, saw arguably its top two teams (Michigan and Michigan State) humbled by Alabama and Notre Dame, respectively, and most likely excused itself from the national title chase before the leaves begin to turn brown. The Big Ten is absent from the top 15 of this week's polls, and the league's highest-rated team, Ohio State, is on postseason probation. Even the perennially underachieving ACC is rated ahead of the Big Ten in ESPN Stats & Information's conference power rankings.
These are tough times for Big Ten fans. The league's performance is indefensible, and if the haters aren't piling on, it's probably because they're bored.
Here's my advice to you: don't listen to them. The Big Ten will have to wait until January to improve its stock among the other leagues. Right now, it's all about you and your league. This season still can be a lot of fun.
The reason: a truly wide-open league, creating division races that should keep you on the edge of your seat from Sept. 29 until Nov. 24. Good luck handicapping this league after the first three weeks.
If the first quarter of the season has shown anything, it's that the Big Ten lacks a dominant team. Every squad has moderate to serious flaws, and, at least for now, no one looks ready to run away with this thing. Nearly every team should be in the mix, and while Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the Big Ten title game, both will impact the race -- and both can still claim an official Leaders Division title.
Michigan State looked like the class of the conference -- and still might be -- entering Saturday night's game against Notre Dame. But the red flags about the Spartans entering the season -- new receivers, new quarterback -- showed up in a convincing loss to the visiting Irish, and were compounded by a shorthanded line that couldn't protect the pocket. Although Michigan State remains a reasonable pick to reach Pasadena, it will need to generate more offense to survive the Big Ten slate.
Looking elsewhere, teams have their strong points and weaknesses. Nebraska boasts tremendous offensive firepower but still seems fragile away from Lincoln and can be prone to turnovers and defensive breakdowns. Michigan and Ohio State both are led by dynamic, do-it-all quarterbacks (Denard Robinson and Braxton Miller), but both teams are young and shaky on defense.
Wisconsin's supposedly easy trip to a Leaders Division title has been sidetracked by poor offensive line play and a lack of execution throughout the unit. Don't count out the Badgers by any means -- not with star running back Montee Ball and a defense holding its own so far -- but they are by no means a shoo-in to return to Indy.
Purdue will be an increasingly popular pick in the Leaders, and the Boilers could finally be putting it together under Danny Hope. The defense looks very strong and so does the run game, but questions at the quarterback spot create some hesitation. By no means are the Boilers dominant at this stage.
Northwestern and Minnesota are the league's best stories so far, and the only Big Ten squads, besides Ohio State, yet to lose a game. While no one is putting the Wildcats or Gophers on the national title radar, they could be factors in the Legends Division race. Both teams are better along the line of scrimmage on both sides, and both are showing they can win in different ways. But both are also relatively young teams and likely will have some stumbles along the way.
Like many Big Ten teams, Illinois hopes to show an early blunder was more of an aberration than a sign of things to come. The Illini are strong in the defensive front seven, and if offensive weapons continue to emerge and the team's health improves, Tim Beckman's team could challenge Purdue and Wisconsin in the Leaders.
Iowa and Penn State both have had challenges finishing drives on offense, but both squads should hang around in a lot of games this season. While few expect Indiana to challenge for the division title, the Hoosiers are an improved team that has showed passing prowess and more resiliency than it did last season.
The outside world won't be kind to the Big Ten until bowl season. So what? Tune them out. A wild and unpredictable league title race is just around the corner.
Enjoy the ride.
4hSam Khan Jr.
1dMax Olson and Jake Trotter