Sunday, November 24, 2013
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 13
By Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:
Brady Hoke's team suffered another tough loss Saturday against Iowa.
1. The Big Ten title game will tell a lot about both participants: The desired matchup is set for the league championship game, as Ohio State and Michigan State will meet Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. But what do we know about both teams? Both have made strides during Big Ten play, particularly Michigan State, which doesn't resemble the team we saw in September. Both have excellent offensive backfield tandems in Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, and Michigan State's Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford. Yet there are still some questions to be answered about both squads, as the respective schedules have provided few significant tests. Ohio State's best win remains a seven-point home decision against Wisconsin, while Michigan State has some decent wins (Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) but nothing special. There are so many compelling storylines about this game, but perhaps the best is that both teams will be facing their biggest test of the season. Can the game kick off already?
2. Hoke, Fitzgerald and Wilson deserve some heat: Michigan, Northwestern and Indiana all entered the season with high expectations, and for good reason. The Wolverines and Wildcats both were in the mix for the Legends Division title, and Indiana had a schedule with eight home games, just needing to win six for its first postseason appearance since 2007. But all three programs have significantly underachieved, and all three coaches should feel some heat. Hoke's team completely lacks an identity on offense. Michigan couldn't beat Iowa despite a 21-7 halftime lead and a plus-3 turnover margin. Northwestern outplayed Michigan State for much of the first half but Coach Fitz continued to look like Scaredy Pat, twice punting in Spartans territory. Michigan State's first three touchdowns all came after Northwestern punts in plus territory. The Wildcats, enduring their longest losing streak since 1998, also failed to score a touchdown. Indiana had the most explosive offense of the three, thanks to Wilson's fast-paced scheme. But the Hoosiers once again were grounded in a blowout loss at Ohio State. Northwestern and Indiana are assured of no bowl trip, and while Michigan will be playing in the postseason, the future looks murky in Ann Arbor. All three coaches have some soul searching to do.
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3. The Big Ten's BCS at-large hopes are looking better: Rich Rodriguez might not have fond memories of his time in the Big Ten, but he provided a big assist for the league Saturday, when his Arizona Wildcats upset Oregon to hand the Ducks their second loss. The Pac-12 can keep talking about its parity and cannibalistic nature all it wants, but it won't be sending two teams to BCS bowls, as every league squad has at least two losses. Tough tacos, Pac-12. The Big Ten, meanwhile, is in better shape for multiple BCS entries if its contenders can qualify. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said his team is playing for a BCS bowl next week against Minnesota, confident the Spartans will remain in the top 14 of the final standings even if they lose in Indy. Wisconsin, meanwhile, strengthened its case for at-large selection with a road win against Minnesota. The Badgers still need to climb into the top 14 but should end the season on a seven-game win streak. A Clemson loss this week against South Carolina would help the Big Ten even more.
4. Iowa-Nebraska is worth watching: The Heroes Game hasn't lived up to its name the first two years, as Iowa and Nebraska have played two relative snoozers on Black Friday. This week's contest has some more intrigue as both squads come in with some momentum following mini turnarounds. Nebraska has won three of its last four, beginning with the Hail Mary triumph against Northwestern, and still could finish at 9-3. Will that be enough to keep coach Bo Pelini around for another year? We'll soon find out. Iowa also has won three of four following its come-from-behind victory against Michigan. An 8-4 regular-season record with a win against a supposed rival would look pretty good for an improved Hawkeyes squad. The division races are wrapped up and the Ohio State-Michigan game could turn into a blowout, so Iowa-Nebraska might be the best contest of rivalry weekend.
5. Tim Beckman should get another year at Illinois: Had Beckman's Illini lost at Purdue on Saturday, their Big Ten losing streak would have reached 21 games with no real end in sight. And that might have been enough to justify dumping Beckman after just two years in Champaign. The Illini didn't exactly dominate the lowly Boilers -- they needed a defensive stop late to preserve a 20-16 victory -- but at least the team finally got it done. Perhaps now that the albatross has been lifted, the program can move forward. The Illini host Northwestern in next week's finale, and given the state of the Wildcats right now, it's not inconceivable that Illinois could start a Big Ten winning streak. Regardless, Illinois has made progress, however incremental, in doubling its win total over last year, and the offense has made obvious strides. Beckman should be given another season to try to right the ship on defense and continue the offensive fireworks with likely new starting quarterback Wes Lunt.