Ohio State is winning with limited style points. Michigan is showing signs it can give Jim Harbaugh the big season he needs. And Wisconsin needs to regroup in a crowded West.
Five Things We Learned About Big Ten Football in Week 7
1, The Big Ten might be more up for grabs than we thought
Going into the season, the assumption was that Ohio State and Wisconsin were the class of the league, followed by Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan.
What do we have now? The Buckeyes and Badgers are still the best bets. But the gap may be narrower than we think. And the potential for a jumbled mess became larger on Saturday.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Not only did Ohio State let Minnesota hang around in the Horseshoe a week after it let Indiana hang around in the Horseshoe. It’s nice that Dwayne Haskins is putting up big numbers. But can you imagine the angst if Alabama had held halftime leads of 28-20 and 17-14 against teams with a combined league record of 1-6?
Michigan State which won a shocker at Penn State, and Michigan, which steamrolled past Wisconsin 38-13, made statements that they could be dangerous to the Buckeyes’ health.
2, Michigan is a serious contender, in the league and in the playoff picture.
No question, the Wolverines’ dismantling of Wisconsin came in a game that set up well for Michigan. The Badgers’ secondary was banged up. Even before that, the Badgers had not lived up to their hype as a potential College Football Playoff team. It was a game Jim Harbaugh desperately needed. And it came in the Big House, where the maize-and-blue do their best work.
That said, Michigan, with its dominant performance, emerged as a team that might be able to play with just about anybody. Its opening loss at Notre Dame is looking more understandable with the Irish in position for big things.
And graduate transfer Shea Patterson is giving Harbaugh the presence he lacked at quarterback.
How high can Michigan go? The playoff sky is the limit. The Wolverines checked in at No. 6 in this week’s AP poll. They’ll have their hands full in their next two games. They travel to Michigan State on Saturday and host Penn State after a bye week.
Win those two and their Nov. 24 trip to Ohio State could be another monumental chapter in one of the nation’s greatest rivalries.
3, The Big Ten West title goes through State College, Pennsylvania
Remember that assumption that Wisconsin would skate to its fourth title in the five years of the Big Ten West? The Badgers remain in position to realize that goal despite their messy night in Ann Arbor. But this isn't looking like a cruise with the way they're playing. Before the Michigan loss, Wisconsin gave up 400 passing yards to Nebraska. And then there was that BYU disaster.
That said, Wisconsin already has won at Iowa. And while its meetings with the other one-loss teams in the West are on the road at Northwestern and Purdue, the Wildcats and Boilermakers will have to prove they can go toe-to-toe with the physical Badgers.
Here’s where things get tricky: Iowa goes to Penn State on Oct. 27. The Badgers go there on Nov. 10. If the Hawkeyes, who are 5-3 in their last eight trips to Happy Valley, can work their magic again, they’ll force Wisconsin to do the same or put their division-title hopes at risk.
Another factor: The Nittany Lions are 2-2 at home, and they would have been 1-3 if not for a dramatic rally against Appalachian State. That's hardly Top 10 stuff. Does that make them vulnerable at home? Or more determined?
4, Penn State and Michigan State are wild cards lurking behind frontrunners Ohio State and Michigan.
We’ve seen the flaws. Michigan State has had trouble running the ball and finishing games. Penn State has had its hands full stopping the run and coming up with clutch toughness.
And yet, both have rosters capable of achieving big things on Saturdays when they address their weak spots. If the Spartans, with their 19 returning starters from last year’s 10-win team, keep playing the way they did in grinding out a 21-17 win at Penn State on Saturday, they can do a lot of damage.
Penn State also has a big upside if it digs in and corrects some issues. And after the setback against Sparty, it should be motivated to do that.
The bottom line: All of the remaining meetings between the East Division heavyweights have the potential to be very interesting.
5, Land of Lincoln rivals are taking divergent paths
A week ago, there were smiles all around Illinois. The state’s two Big Ten schools had won conference games on the same day for the first time since Oct. 15, 2016. Things were looking up.
Northwestern built on its surprise win at Michigan State by a staging a dramatic comeback to beat Nebraska 34-31 in overtime. If the Wildcats handle their trip to Rutgers this week, they’ll likely set up a showdown with Wisconsin on Oct 27 that will have major West Division implications.
And then, there are the Illini. Buoyed by their win at Rutgers, they were looking forward to continued success in their homecoming meeting with Purdue. It would be a measure of the progress Illinois seemed to have made when it ended its 13-game Big Ten losing streak.
Instead of giving the Boilermakers a battle, though, the Illini surrendered meekly in a 46-7 rout. They didn’t have to win. They did have to show better than that.
``Sorry that we played this way,’’ an apologetic coach Lovie Smith said. ``Disappointing loss . . . Nothing went right.’’
Meanwhile, Iowa State is coming off a huge upset of West Virginia. Why do I bring up Iowa State? The Cyclones are coached by Matt Campbell, who was the Toledo offensive coordinator when Illinois hired Toledo’s head coach, Tim Beckman. . . the guy who created the mess Lovie is trying to clean up.
I know. The timing was wrong. Campbell was too young, barely 31. And yet, Pat Fitzgerald was only about a year older when he got the Northwestern job. It’s strange how the college-football world works. And how worlds turn on hiring the right guy.[/membership]