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Big Ten Preview: A Somewhat Disappointing Ohio State Team Wins Again

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No conference has softened more over the last ten years than the Big Ten, which has watched Michigan, Purdue, and Michigan State fall badly from fringe title contenders in the mix for the Big Ten every year, to really fringe programs.  It’s watched Penn State have some BCS bowl bids, only to fall hard in those games (exception an overtime squeaker in the 2006 Orange Bowl over equally dying Florida State).  Wisconsin and Iowa have been among the better programs in the Big Ten, but were also-rans for most of the decade.  Iowa for a while might not have been the best team in it’s own state (though Iowa State has now decisively fallen to among the worst programs in FBS competition).

Only one program, Ohio State, survived the overall decline of the Big Ten to remain an elite program.  Ohio State returns as the prohibitive favorite, but the conference as a whole figures to be much stronger this year than in any of the past three.  Michigan isn’t going to win the title (or beat Ohio State), but they are good enough to win eight games.  Wisconsin, Iowa, and Penn State all could win the conference, and they all should win at least seven games, and potentially as many as nine.  But once again, the only program that is bound to put up double digit wins this season is Ohio State — and they may just barely hit that threshold, given the inevitability of a bowl appearance.

One thing that went really well last year for the Big Ten, perhaps the only thing, was that they did very well in bowls across the board.  They went 4-3, but Northwestern, Michigan State, and Minnesota had the three losses, and two of the three opponents (Auburn, Texas Tech) are expected to return stronger this year.  Minnesota may only have received a bowl bid because Notre Dame declined one and because Michigan came up a game short of eligibility.  The conference’s 4-3 record included a 2-0 mark in BCS bowl record, with Ohio State winning the Rose Bowl, and Iowa taking home the Orange Bowl.  PSU beat LSU, so that was hardly a cupcake walk.  Wisconsin’s win over Miami may have been even more impressive.

Michigan is the focal point of the regular season in the Big Ten, where every game for Rich Rodriguez is the biggest game of his career.  They still schedule quite well: Michigan dipped into the ranks of the FCS to play UMass this year, but they aren’t a cupcake opponent (Delaware State, on the other hand…).  Michigan should have the edge over Penn State when they go to Happy Valley in the middle of the season, but that game only has relevance in the Big Ten Championship picture if Michigan can protect the Big House against either Iowa or Wisconsin.  Putting away in-state rival Michigan State shouldn’t be much of an issue, but it’s something they have now failed to do in consecutive years (though Chad Henne’s impressive comeback in 2007 still stings Sparty as much as ever).  The key to Michigan’s season may be avoiding an 0-2 start against UConn and Notre Dame.  Few college football teams open up that difficult, that is to say, there are plenty of scheduled two game non-conference schedules tougher than two borderline-unranked teams, but most teams have a cupcake at the beginning of the season as not to begin oh and two.  Michigan had the right idea in 2007 when they scheduled Utah in the second week, and then to make sure they started at least 1-1, they brought in, uh, Appalachian State.  Well, at least they won’t be caught off guard this time.

Penn State is notorious for scheduling softly non-conference, so they did about as well as they could this year for a team that still pays Youngstown State to come in and get beat: they play at Alabama.  Temple is about as strong as any team in the MAC this year, save CMU, so the Penn State/Temple game might be more than just an in-state game that must be played this year.  Still, a 3-1 start for the Nittany Lions would be expected.  Then, at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium, where Penn State tries to break a two game losing streak to the Hawkeyes, clearly the game of the year on their schedule.  The toughest stretch here involves a three game stretch with Michigan, Northwestern, and then at Ohio State.  If Penn State can overcome Iowa, they can possibly see a very successful 6-2 conference record, probably coming up a bit short of the conference title, but 9-3 would be a good finish given the improved schedule.

Iowa has a difficult game this year at Arizona, a long trip to play one of the better Pac Ten teams, but if we assume that Iowa is done playing close games against vastly inferior opponents, a 3-1 (or better) start for a top ten team is practically insured.  This is the team that can take down the Buckeyes this year at home, but it means nothing if they can’t also handle the Badgers.  Combine that with a Penn State team who also comes to them looking for a measure of revenge, and Iowa has all the meaningful games on their schedule at home this year, but also has the pressure of needing to win all home games to preserve their fast track to the big ten title.  This pressure, I imagine, would make them not the favorite to do so.

I think, with the Big Ten rebounding a bit this season, Wisconsin is going to reap the benefits of a weaker non-conference schedule with a 6-0 start, and I also predict that Bret Bilema’s team will head to a BCS bowl this season.  Position for position, they aren’t the team best suited to beat the Buckeyes on the field, but this is a team that is built for the long haul.  Over the season, they should outlast the Hawkeyes, running their regular season record to 10 or 11 wins (all losses in conference is going to hurt them), and seal up an at large berth for the Orange Bowl (or potentially, the Rose) even if they aren’t technically the Big Ten Champs.

That’s because, even though the competition is at an all time high, Ohio State is still the best team in the conference.  Ohio State has the scheduling advantage of playing all four non-conference games at home.  Miami is good enough on the field to threaten them at home, and possibly beat them late (one of the few QBs in college football more dangerous than Terrelle Pryor is Miami’s Jacory Harris).  Miami’s ability to hang with (or beat) OSU will put on display some of the weaknesses of the Buckeyes as a viable title contender.  But when they get in to conference play, the Big Ten will be decided when Ohio State rattles off six straight comfortable conference wins before getting tripped up at the end of the year by Iowa, and by Michigan in “The game”, which Ohio State still wins for a seventh straight year.

It’s a conference that is a lot better, but Ohio State can help show it’s not all the way back yet by running through all other teams as the only true title-contending team in the conference.

LiveBall Sports Projected Order of Finish

  1. Ohio State (7-1)
  2. Wisconsin (7-1)
  3. Penn State (6-2)
  4. Iowa (6-2)
  5. Michigan (5-3)
  6. Purdue (4-4)
  7. Northwestern (3-5)
  8. Michigan State (3-5)
  9. Indiana (2-6)
  10. Illinois (1-7)
  11. Minnesota (0-8)
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  1. Brian
    September 3, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Do you know where you are?

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