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Monday, October 10, 2011
Big Ten midseason review

By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett

The doubts remain. The criticism hasn't been curbed.

Halfway through the 2011 season, the Big Ten has done little to improve its position in college football's hierarchy. There are worse leagues -- hello, ACC and Pac-12 -- but after the New Year's Day debacle and with its national title drought approaching a decade, the Big Ten needed a strong start to boost its national image. It didn't happen.

While Wisconsin has done its part and both Michigan and Illinois have been nice surprises, the overall league landscape looks rather bleak six weeks into the season.

Russell Wilson
Russell Wilson has elevated Wisconsin to a 5-0 record at the midseason point.
Many expected Ohio State to backslide after a nightmarish offseason that saw the departures of coach Jim Tressel and starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor. But few envisioned the Buckeyes to be sitting at 3-3, 0-2 in Big Ten play, with a tough second-half schedule ahead and quarterback questions to sort out. The program that has won or shared the past six Big Ten championships needs a major surge to join the title race -- and could be in danger of missing the postseason altogether.

New Big Ten member Nebraska hasn't made the big splash many envisioned before the season. After some shaky moments in non-league play, the Huskers got clobbered by Wisconsin in their Big Ten debut. Big Red might have saved its season with a historic comeback Saturday against a Braxton Miller-less Ohio State team, but there's a lot to fix going forward, namely a defense that has underachieved.

Minnesota and Indiana own two combined wins and several unsightly nonconference defeats (North Texas, New Mexico State). Big Ten teams also have lost games to the likes of Rice and Army. The league went 1-2 against Notre Dame (both losses were blowouts) and looked thoroughly overmatched in its lone matchup against the dreaded SEC (Alabama beat Penn State 27-11 in State College). Teams like Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue have disappointed to varying degrees.

Now here's the good news. Wisconsin looks like the real deal, as star quarterback Russell Wilson has put the fourth-ranked Badgers into the national title discussion and himself into the Heisman Trophy mix. Brady Hoke and his staff have revitalized Michigan, which is making tangible strides on defense and performing better during the course of games. Illinois is finally building consistency and will reach consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1991-92 -- and most likely a very good bowl this year.

Michigan State boasts the nation's top-ranked defense, while Penn State's defense has been the league's most heroic unit, overcoming key personnel losses and its own offensive woes to win five of the first six contests.

The Big Ten features several dynamic offensive tandems -- Wisconsin's Wilson and RB Montee Ball, Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead, Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase and WR A.J. Jenkins -- as well as one of the nation's most exciting players in Michigan QB Denard Robinson. Several surprise defensive stars have emerged such as Penn State DT Devon Still and Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus.

The best news for the Big Ten is that plenty of time remains. Several teams likely will play much better in December than they do right now. Leagues are defined in the postseason -- the Big Ten knows this better than most -- and it's still quite possible the league will send a stronger group of teams to the bowls than it did last year.

It's halftime of the 2011 season, and the Big Ten needs to regroup and recharge. There's a lot of football left to play.

Offensive MVP: Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. The NC State transfer has been all the Badgers could have hoped for -- and much, much more. He had a simply sensational first five games, completing 74.8 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and only one interception. He leads the Big Ten in passing yards and leads the nation in efficiency. Michigan's Denard Robinson is a close second, as he tops all Big Ten players in both rushing and total yardage. But Wilson gets the nod because of Robinson's nine interceptions.

Defensive MVP: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Few people talked about Mercilus in the preseason, but he has been a beast off the edge for the Illini in the first six games. Mercilus leads the Big Ten in sacks (8.5), tackles for loss (10.5) and forced fumbles (four) for Vic Koenning's aggressive defense. Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still deserves mention, too, as the league's most dominant interior lineman so far.

Biggest Surprise: The undefeated starts for Illinois and Michigan. We thought both the Illini and Wolverines could get off to good starts because of their schedules, which allowed them to play their first five games at home. Still, both are 6-0 and ranked in the top 16, which qualifies as a surprise. The Illini are off to their best start in more than 50 years, while Michigan has greatly improved on defense.

Biggest Disappointment: Ohio State. It's no surprise that the Buckeyes have had some struggles after a tumultuous offseason and the suspension of several key players. But hardly anyone predicted this much struggle. The offense was impotent in losses to Miami and Michigan State, and a program that hadn't lost more than one Big Ten conference game since 2004 is already 0-2 in league play. With games against Illinois and Wisconsin remaining this month, Ohio State is in danger of going 0-for-October. Other disappointments include Nebraska's defense, Northwestern and Iowa.

Best Game: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31 on Sept. 10. This game featured three scores in the final 72 seconds and a 17-point comeback by the Wolverines in the fourth quarter. Michigan looked beat after the Irish scored with 30 seconds left but managed to drive the field for the game-winning touchdown with two seconds to go. Add in the electric atmosphere for the first night game in Michigan Stadium history, and there wasn't a better game in college football during the first half of the season.

Best Coach: Brady Hoke, Michigan. Hoke is a candidate for national coach of the year honors after leading the Wolverines to a 6-0 start and engineering a defensive renaissance. Of course, Rich Rodriguez had some strong starts, too, so Hoke still must prove he can keep it up in the second half. Illinois' Ron Zook and Wisconsin's Bret Bielema are right in this conversation as well.