Big Ten at the halfway point: It's Ohio State, and everyone else
We’ve reached the halfway point of the Big Ten season, and what better time to make some conclusions about what we’ve seen and what we will see over the final few weeks of the season?
Every team has played at least four conference games while a couple have played five. So, yes, it’s a much of a halfway point as we’ll get in a conference that plays nine games while teams across the nation are squeezing in two bye weeks this season.
What’s become abundantly clear is this: If the Big Ten expects to end its playoff drought, it’s putting all its chips on Ohio State.
Why only Ohio State? Well, a quick rundown of what happened this weekend should be a pretty good indicator.
The Buckeyes, per usual, hardly broke a sweat in a lambasting of Northwestern while Wisconsin went to Illinois — yes, Illinois — and lost on the final play of the game. Sure, Penn State and Minnesota are still unbeaten, but the way the Nittany Lions’ offense disappeared for big chunks of the final three quarters against Michigan at least instills some doubt they can run the table.
As for the Golden Gophers, well, we’ll dive into that here shortly, but let’s just say this: They haven’t exactly been beating up on the best and brightest.
With that, let’s take a look at where things stand in the Big Ten, from good to bad … and there’s plenty of bad so far in 2019.
Best in the Fields
Is there anything about Ohio State that has people thinking the Buckeyes are not the team to beat? They’ve got the best offense in the Big Ten, averaging 526.7 yards and 49.7 points a game while they’re also arguably the best defensive team, limiting opponents to 229 yards and eight points a game and collecting 29 sacks, which is tied for second in the nation.
The individual talent is scary on both sides of the ball, and any doubt about transfer quarterback Justin Fields was dashed weeks ago. He’s completing better than 70 percent of his passes for nearly 1,500 yards with 22 touchdowns and one interception. Fields also has 291 rushing yards with eight more touchdowns while J.K. Dobbins has run for 947 yards and seven touchdowns.
This week’s matchup with Wisconsin is clearly huge. Get past the Badgers and Ohio State will have two near locks with Maryland and Rutgers before closing with Penn State and Michigan. So, there’s no free pass, but it sure looks like the Buckeyes are the team to make it through unscathed.
Tough stretch for Penn State
And what about Penn State, you ask?
Through one quarter on Saturday night against Michigan, it looked like the Nittany Lions were a team that might threaten Ohio State. The offense was rolling and the defense was making big plays.
The final three quarters, however, the offense stalled, benefiting from one big play, while the defense allowed Michigan to score touchdowns on three straight trips to the red zone, a dropped pass being the only reason it didn’t become four.
There is a lot to like about Penn State, and the Nittany Lions will get challenged the next few weeks with trips to Michigan State and Minnesota before hosting Indiana. That leads into the showdown at Ohio State, one Penn State will need to put together a full four quarters to win. We’ll see if it can.
Can Badgers bounce back?
Oh, Wisconsin. So dominant for so many weeks only to suffer what can only be called a colossal collapse on the road against an Illinois team that had been winless in the Big Ten.
The Illini were the first team to score 20 points on the Badgers this season, and while we’ll probably chalk this one up as a fluke that doesn’t kill Wisconsin’s shot at winning the West, it sure does serve a significant blow to its playoff hopes.
Running the table might be enough, especially because that would potentially mean two wins over Ohio State. But the Badgers aren’t Ohio State, the only team in the conference that has gotten a break from the committee since it formed.
Expect the Badgers to bounce back. It might not mean a win this week against Ohio State, but they’ll certainly play better. The only problem is the margin for error has disappeared.
Fool's gold for Golphers?
There’s still one unbeaten team left in the Big Ten and that, of course, is Minnesota.
We’ll go ahead and say it here: The chances of the Golden Gophers remaining undefeated for much longer are slim, at best. They get Maryland at home this week, a game they should win. After that, three of the final four games include matchups with Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin. They’ll be favored against Northwestern. Other than that, probably not.
Give credit to the Gophers for being unbeaten, but take a closer look. Nonconference play included three one-possession wins over the likes of South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. The four conference teams they’ve beaten have a combined conference four wins.
Minnesota has the chance to prove it belongs on the field, and if it does that, then it will be a heck of a story. It’s just not likely the Gophers end up in Indianapolis.
Mediocrity in Michigan
As for the two teams from here in Michigan, the only emotion can be a resounding, “Meh.”
Neither Michigan nor Michigan State are very good, but neither is terrible. They’ll both almost certainly make a bowl game and there’s still a chance either the Wolverines or Spartans pull and upset that can throw a kink into the Big Ten race.
But for two programs that expect to contend for championships, the season so far has been far from a success. Michigan looks like its offense is coming around while the defense played well for three quarters at Penn State. Michigan State continues to have offensive issues while the usually reliable defense has now faltered.
Neither team will be in Indy, most likely, so once again it’s just bragging rights when they meet in Ann Arbor on Nov. 16.
... And the rest
What does that leave? A lot of uninspiring football from the rest of the conference.
Iowa lost two straight and can’t seem to move the ball with any consistency while Nebraska proved the preseason buzz was just that — buzz. Maryland has predictably sputtered after a quick start while injuries have helped knock Purdue out of the discussion.
Northwestern has been awful since winning the West last season, while it’s hard to think of Rutgers as anything but a team taking up space at the bottom of the East as it heads into an offseason coaching search.
There have been a couple of bright spots. Illinois at least looks to have some life after the win over Wisconsin, but it’s Indiana that has been most impressive. The Hoosiers still aren’t great defensively, but with five wins, they’re on a path to get eight wins for the first time since 1993.