With three weeks under our belt and every Big Ten team (save bye-week Illinois) playing a non-BCS opponent at home this Saturday before starting conference play in 11 days, it seems like a good idea to look at the state of Big Ten football.
The Big Ten is 26-6 as a conference right now, having gone undefeated against the MAC, Big East, ACC, Sun Belt, Conference USA, WAC, and Mountain West Conferences. We're 7-1 against D-1AA teams (thanks Goldy), 1-1 against the Big 12, 1-1 against the SEC, 2-1 against Notre Dame, and 1-2 against the PAC 10. In other words, we're 7-5 against BCS opponents (including ND), which might be good enough for the Humanitarian Bowl, but isn't going to cause folks to start re-thinking their general impression of the conference.
Most disturbingly, the conference is 1-3 against currently ranked opponents (beat Miami, lost to Alabama, USC, and Arizona), but nevertheless have six teams in the top 25 in both polls. Four of those teams (Iowa, Michigan, PSU, MSU) are ranked 18th or higher, Wisconsin's 10th or 11th depending on which poll you're looking at, and Ohio State is the consensus second-best team in the country.
At this point, it's clear that Ohio State is the class of the Big Ten this year and the conference title--and a spot in the national championship game--is theirs to lose. But it's decidedly unclear which is the second best team in the Big Ten. According to the polls, it's Wisconsin, but I could argue that they've actually played the worst of the six ranked teams thus far. They were a blocked extra point from needing overtime to beat Arizona State at home, and their wins against UNLV and San Jose State weren't particularly convincing either. Coach Brett Bielema seems to be trying to find ways to win that don't involve just feeding carry after carry to John Clay, but QB Scott Tolzien and company haven't really responded so far.
Iowa had looked strong beating FCS foe Eastern Illinois and demolishing Iowa State, but they slept through the first quarter in the desert against Arizona on Saturday night and weren't able to find the strength to battle all the way back. The statistics show them outplaying the Wildcats, but special teams count, too, and errors there killed their chances. It appears as if the good vibes that carried Ricky Stanzi and the Hawkeyes to so many close wins last year might have disappeared.
Michigan's and Michigan State's best wins are against a 1-2 Notre Dame team that could have beaten either team and that is not demonstrably better than the team that failed to play in a bowl last year. And Penn State's best offensive plays against meaningful competition were likely dropped passes by the wide receivers that are supposed to be the strength of the offense.
Of the other five teams, Northwestern deserves to be in the conversation about possibly finishing second--or maybe even tying for first if they only lose once and someone upsets the Buckeyes. The Wildcats have an easy schedule: they don't play Ohio State or Michigan, they host Iowa and MSU in Evanston, and play in Happy Valley in between our games against Michigan and Ohio State. Their toughest game is likely at Camp Randall on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but if they get lucky there and/or in Beaver Stadium, it wouldn't be unreasonable to find them playing in Pasadena in early 2011.
After that, Indiana is still Indiana even if they are undefeated. Minnesota lost to the D-1AA South Dakota Coyotes (though fought hard against USC), Purdue looks at least a year away, and Illinois couldn't even cover the 7 point spread against Northern Illinois on Saturday.
Besides saying that Ohio State looks to be the best team in the Big Ten right now, the next most definitive thing to say about the conference at the moment might be that if Nebraska was in the conference this year, the Cornhuskers would be better than everyone else except maybe Ohio State.
In short, the State of the Big Ten is unclear. There appears to be a lot of parity in the middle of the conference, Ohio State seems to be in a class of its own, and the usual cellar dwellers will likely be there again this fall. At this point, thankfully, Ohio State is only the undisputed best team in the conference on paper. We actually get to watch the games be played on the field, and until that time, the Hoosiers will still have the same record as the Badgers, the Buckeyes, and Northwestern. Until at least October 2, Penn State still has as good a chance to win the Big Ten as anyone else, and for that matter, so do the Illini, the Golden Gophers, and Michigan.