Big Ten preview: Conference battle kicks off

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

While the rest of the country has been busy piling on the Big Ten, even after last week's 12-1 mark, the conference will begin to focus on itself as 10 teams begin conference play this weekend.

And as teams get to the task of deciding division champions that will battle in Indianapolis for the conference title, the Big Ten will get a chance to show it's not as weak as the rest of college football, or the records, say it is. The Big Ten is 5-11 against teams from the other power five conferences, and has three losses to Mid-American Conference teams.

But according to Bo Pelini, coach of one of two unbeaten teams in the conference, making any declarations this early is careless.

"You look across college football, it's every week," the Nebraska coach said. "You've got to come every week, and some weeks are better than others. I think there's a lot of parity and there are a lot of good football teams out there. It's hard to bring it week to week.

"All the stuff people are making judgment on anybody, any team, any conference after two or three weeks is ludicrous. That's why you play a full season. You see every week the highs and lows or the team people are high on, then the next week they're writing them off. It's a long season, a 12-game season, and you're gonna have some of that."

Nebraska had some of it, almost losing to a Football Championship Subdivision team (McNeese State), but bounced back with a victory over Miami. Along with a resurgent Penn State, they are the only Big Ten teams without a loss.

Indiana, however, has a road victory over Missouri, and it will be in the spotlight this week hosting Maryland in its first Big Ten game. "We do know that it's very important because it is the first Big Ten game we're going to play," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "But we also understand that we have to treat this just like any other game."

Biggest surprise

There's a few solid candidates, including Penn State's penchant for the dramatic in a 4-0 start as well as an impressive 3-1 opening from Rutgers. But in one week, Indiana ran away with this one with its victory over Missouri.

Considering Indiana was coming off a loss to Bowling Green, a win at Missouri didn't seem likely. But the Hoosiers not only won, but they also rallied in the second half and played solid defense to knock off a ranked Southeastern Conference opponent.

It was the signature win for the Big Ten, and the Hoosiers are hoping it springboards them to success in the conference.

"We haven't accomplished anything," coach Kevin Wilson said. "We had one good week. "We talked about a season. It's a football season, not a football week."

Biggest disappointment

Northwestern could get a few votes in this category, but Michigan takes it, hands down.

The Wolverines haven't scored an offensive touchdown in two losses, and has a full-fledged quarterback controversy as coach Brady Hoke is deciding between senior Devin Gardner and sophomore Shane Morris.

But what's truly disappointing is that Michigan was supposed to contend in the East Division. Technically, it can still make a run, but considering road games against Michigan State and Ohio State await, that seems unlikely.

Offensive MVP

It's tough not to go with Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah, especially after he ran for better than 200 yards in a victory over Miami. But Indiana RB Tevin Coleman has been outstanding, leading the Big Ten with 189.7 yards.

He doesn't get nearly the attention of Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, but Coleman is arguably the best player in the conference. Coleman ran for 247 yards and two TDs against Indiana State and 190 yards and three scores against Bowling Green. In the victory over Missouri, he had 132 yards and one TD.

Defensive MVP

Maryland CB Will Likely has been a difference-maker. In a victory over Syracuse, the sophomore had nine tackles and an INT he returned 88 yards for a TD, the longest by a Maryland player since 1989.

Likely has 27 tackles, five pass breakups and two INTs, and has been solid on special teams. He is averaging 27.5 yards on punt returns and returned a punt 63 yards for a tying TD in a loss to West Virginia.

"Nothing he does surprises me because of the way he prepares and how he goes about his business," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "All he wants to do is do things to help the team win."

East winner

It seems clearer than it did before the season started, but Michigan State is the best bet to head to the conference title game for the third time in four seasons. After a loss at Oregon, it bounced back with a dominating victory over Eastern Michigan and has one more tuneup (Wyoming) before conference play.

Ohio State is still breaking in a freshman quarterback, and while Penn State has started quickly, the Nittany Lions could have issues running the ball consistently. Maryland and Rutgers have had intriguing starts, but no other team in the division has the balance and depth that Michigan State does.

West winner

Despite an escape against McNeese State, Nebraska has established itself as the favorite. It trails only Michigan State in scoring offense, and an improved defense is allowing 20.2 points, fifth-best in the Big Ten.

And while the Cornhuskers might not have the greatest passing attack, they do have one of the best running backs in Ameer Abdullah and a quarterback (Tommy Armstrong) who has proven to be a decent dual threat.

East dark horse

It's Maryland, which has the offense to play with just about anybody, and its defense has been better than expected.

There are plenty of tough games, including trips to Wisconsin and Michigan as well as home games against Ohio State and Michigan State, but if Maryland can get a few breaks and some help, it could surprise and end up in Indy.

West dark horse

Minnesota is often overlooked, but coach Jerry Kill has the Gophers in as good a shape as they have been in since the mid-2000s when they went to seven bowls in eight seasons. But while many are talking about Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa, Minnesota sits at 3-1 entering conference play.

The quarterback position is still a question, but with a running game led by David Cobb, the Gophers have been able to move the ball fairly consistently. If they can find any sort of a passing attack, the Gophers could pull off a few upsets and grab the West Division.