Rich Rodriguez has beaten Western Michigan, Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan with freshman quarterbacks and tiny receivers. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
Big Ten football is like a trusty old shoe, with patent leather and thick soles, caked with mud. When it stomps, it hurts. When it runs, it's slow. When it takes off the shoe and wiggles its toes, yuk.
There's comfort in redundancy, and with our beloved Big Ten, there are heapin' piles of redundancy everywhere you step. For a conference that can't count (Big Ten motto: "We boast slightly more than 10 teams!") and usually doesn't count on the national stage, at least it seldom strays from normalcy. As the real season begins, so many things are blessedly familiar.
For starters, Michigan is back to being 3-0 and ranked, although it won't be long before Rich Rodriguez faces conference sanctions for using way too many players that run the 40 in sub-5.8. Oh, trust me, when Rodriguez walks into those Big Ten cocktail parties, most of the coaches turn away and murmur, leaving Rodriguez standing there with his plate of Swedish meatballs and mozzarella sticks, trying to chat up the Indiana coach (whoever that is).
Speaking of normalcy, you have Michigan State at 1-2 and back to being the Conference Tease, cooing and whispering, then fumbling around in the backseat and burping loudly when Central Michigan and Notre Dame get too close.
You have Penn State ranked in the top five but without the slightest semblance of national credibility. Joe Paterno still orders the early-bird special every non-conference season, featuring marinara sauce and multiple helpings of Akron.
You have Ohio State seeking a record fifth consecutive Big Ten title, but without the nagging pressure of waiting to blow its fraudulent BCS championship hopes. Love the Sweater Vest's strategy -- get the big loss out of the way, go have fun, then act like beating Michigan is validation!
You have Iowa again wearing a wrinkled suit a bit too tight and pants a bit too short, its spit-combed hair parted down the middle, trying to sneak into a place it doesn't belong.
You have Illinois back to playing like Lou Tepper's Illinois and Purdue back to playing like pre-Joe Tiller Purdue and Northwestern back to playing defense like a nerd protecting his protractor and Minnesota back to playing outdoors so it can choke away leads in a natural setting.
You still have the Wisconsin Fraudgers promising to be thinner and more dynamic, yet poised to gorge on mistakes.
And you still have Indiana, although I'm not sure why.
Still Big, gosh darn it
Yes, the Big Ten is back, although it really hasn't gone anywhere special, and honest to goodness, I think that's OK. This is a conference that was 1-6 in bowl games last season and hasn't won a BCS bowl since 2006, yet still gets prime TV coverage and fancy trips. It still has a commissioner, Jim Delany, who so desperately wants Notre Dame to bring its hype and mushy defense to the conference, he suspends opposing players whenever Charlie Weis asks.
Big Ten storylines rarely change and the national mocking never ends, no matter how many times Michigan apologizes for Appalachian State, Toledo and 3-9, and no matter how many times everyone apologizes for Ohio State fans.
From muddy shoes to a big nasty Horseshoe in Columbus, the Big Ten is a reliable rock of round-shouldered sameness. Someone has to win it -- Penn State will -- and someone has to look sort of good without really proving it. Time to haul out the size 13s and lace 'em up, and may the least-mediocre team prevail!