The Big Ten Reset: Taking Stock of the Conference at the One-Third Mark

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Breaking down the Big Ten so far.

We're four games into the season for most Big Ten teams and conference play is just about to get underway (although Wisconsin and Purdue got things kicked last week), so now seems like a good chance to take stock of where things stand with the league and its teams and see how they compare to what we thought about them before the season began.

LEGENDS

MICHIGAN (4-0)

Results So Far:
W, 59-9, Central Michigan
W, 41-30, #14 Notre Dame
W, 28-24, Akron
W, 24-21, at UConn

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
7. Big Blue is 4-0, which is what we would have figured before the season. But... anyone who's watched Michigan the last two weeks would know that they're hardly the most convincing 4-0 team in the land. A bounce here or a catch there over the last two weeks and they could easily be 2-2. So how much stock do we put in those last two games? Good question. It probably depends on whether or not Devin Gardner is going to figure out his turnover problem. Through four games, he has 8 interceptions and a pair of fumbles. He's on pace to cough the ball up 30 times this year, which would be... bad. Let's just go with that.

Games Remaining:
9/28: BYE
10/5: Minnesota
10/12: at Penn State
10/19: Indiana
10/26: BYE
11/2: at Michigan State
11/9: Nebraska
11/16: at #17 Northwestern
11/23: at Iowa
11/30: #4 Ohio State

Title Aspirations:
Despite their flaws -- Gardner's turnover issues, the offensive line's inconsistency, and the occasional shakiness of the defense, to name three of them -- Michigan is still well-equipped to win the division and play Ohio State in back-to-back games this year. Big Ten play starts off fairly easily; a challenging road trip to Happy Valley is sandwiched between home games and Minnesota and Indiana. But Michigan's title contention bona fides will be tested in November, with games against Michigan State, Nebraska, and Ohio State (and Iowa too!). If Michigan can run that gauntlet, they'll have a great shot at bringing home a Big Ten title.

Bowl Prognosis:
Excellent. Michigan already has four wins and two of their next three games are home games against Minnesota and Indiana. It would be quite a surprise if Michigan doesn't have bowl eligibility locked up before Halloween. November will be all about trying to improve that bowl destination.

MINNESOTA (4-0)

Results So Far:
W, 51-23, UNLV
W, 44-21, at New Mexico State
W, 29-12, Western Illinois
W, 43-24, San Jose State

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
8.5. Minnesota's undefeated with four blowout wins, which is as expected after playing a slate with no BCS opponents. In other words, they've re-established the Glen Mason formula for success. For now, Minnesota's excelled behind a dominant ground game and a very opportunistic defense (five touchdowns by the defense or special teams). We'll know a lot more about them after they play a few Big Ten games.

Games Remaining:
9/28: Iowa
10/5: at #18 Michigan
10/12: BYE
10/19: at #17 Northwestern
10/26: Nebraska
11/2: at Indiana
11/9: Penn State
11/16: BYE
11/23: #23 Wisconsin
11/30: at Michigan State

Title Aspirations:
Middling. The record is there (so far), but the schedule isn't very kind. Road games at Michigan, Northwestern, and Michigan State should be challenging and there isn't a single gimme win among the home games, either (Iowa, Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin). It's hard to imagine a better ticket-selling crop of home games for Minnesota, though. So they've got that going for them.

Bowl Prognosis:
Check back after the Iowa-Minnesota game. Minnesota's already 2/3 of the way to bowl eligibility, but missing Illinois and Purdue is unfortunate and the spunky, Kevin Wilson-ified Hoosiers won't be a pushover in Bloomington, either. If Minnesota beats Iowa on Saturday, it's not that hard to imagine them grabbing another B1G win somewhere to get to six wins. But if they fail to beat Iowa, trying to find two more wins in those games -- where the Gophers figure to be underdogs more often than not -- gets tricky.

NORTHWESTERN (4-0)

Results So Far:
W, 44-30, at Cal
W, 48-27, Syracuse
W, 38-17, Western Michigan
W, 35-21, Maine

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
7. They came into this season as a trendy pick to contend for a Big Ten title (or at least to take the Legends Division's berth in the Big Ten Championship Game) and they've got the undefeated record to back that up, but they haven't always looked the part of a potential division champion. They're coming off back-to-back wins over Western Michigan and Maine that were solid, but not exceptional and while they avoided the Big Ten's bad mojo when it comes to West Coast games by actually beating Cal, their defense looked shaky at times. Maybe the 'cats have been holding something back for Big Ten play.

Games Remaining:
9/28: BYE
10/5: #4 Ohio State
10/12: at #23 Wisconsin
10/18: Minnesota
10/26: at Iowa
11/2: at Nebraska
11/9: BYE
11/16: #18 Michigan
11/23: Michigan State
11/30: at Illinois

Title Aspirations:
Better than theoretical, but not assured. Northwestern draws maybe the three best teams in the Leaders division as their cross-divisional opponents (give or take Penn State for Illinois) and facing Ohio State and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks to start their Big Ten campaign will immediately tell us whether they're championship contenders or pretenders. If they can split those games, though, that mid-November clash with Michigan sure looks like it could be a de facto Legends division title game.

Bowl Prognosis:
Strong. They've got four of the six wins you need and they've looked good enough to grab at least two more wins (the games against Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois look like the best bets) from this schedule. There's a very good chance that they'll be in a January bowl game again in a few months.

IOWA (3-1)

Results So Far:
L, 30-27, Northern Illinois
W, 28-14, Missouri State
W, 27-21, at Iowa State
W, 59-3, Western Michigan

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
7.5. A 3-1 record through non-conference play was a pretty typical prediction before the season and the outcomes of the games themselves have gone the way a lot of people expected: sweep Missouri State and Western Michigan, split with Northern Illinois and Iowa State. Some areas that were question marks before the season have been shaky at times so far (like the DL, at least in terms of pass rush, or the defensive secondary and wide receiver position), although the biggest question mark (quarterback) has mostly been a pleasant surprise and the offense in general looks improved from the hopeless mess it was a year ago.

Games Remaining:
9/28: at Minnesota
10/5: Michigan State
10/12: BYE
10/19: at #4 Ohio State
10/26: #17 Northwestern
11/2: #23 Wisconsin
11/9: at Purdue
11/16: BYE
11/23: #18 Michigan
11/30: at Nebraska

Title Aspirations:
Let's not get crazy, yeah? There might not be a breakout favorite in the Legends Division race, but Iowa still has a lot of question marks and a schedule with all four of the Big Ten's currently-ranked teams, which is no fun. If Ioaw gets out of October with a 3-1 record in the Big Ten, then we can start dreaming about Indianapolis.

Bowl Prognosis:
See: Minnesota. That Iowa-Minnesota game this weekend really looks crucial for the Big Ten bowl picture. It's easy to see the winner of that game in a bowl come January (or, more likely, late December); it's much harder to see the loser of that game also making a bowl, especially Iowa, who would need to find three wins from their last seven games. Beat Minnesota and Purdue on the road and the bowl calculus comes down to finding one B1G win at home, which I think Iowa can do.

MICHIGAN STATE (3-1)

Results So Far:
W, 26-13, Western Michigan
W, 21-6, South Florida
W, 55-17, Youngstown State
L, 17-13, at #22 Notre Dame

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
10. Before the season, we figured Sparty would have a brilliant defense and an offense full of question marks and one month into the season... they have a brilliant, BCS-caliber defense and an offense would struggle to score 20 points if you spotted them two touchdowns. They are exactly who we thought they were.

Games Remaining:
9/28: BYE
10/5: at Iowa
10/12: Indiana
10/19: Purdue
10/26: at Illinois
11/2: #18 Michigan
11/9: BYE
11/16: at Nebraska
11/23: at #17 Northwestern
11/30: Minnesota

Title Aspirations:
It's hard to envision them contending for anything with that wet fart of an offense, but given the uncertainty of the Legends Division, you can't rule them out yet. They do have a pretty favorable schedule, ducking Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State from the other division, and opening up with four very winnable conference games. If they go into the game against their hated big brother on 11/2 with a 4-0 record, well, who knows what could happen.

Bowl Prognosis:
That offense would typically make it hard to make a bowl game (see: 2012 Iowa), but the Sparty defense is so good and the schedule is soft enough that finding three more wins shouldn't be that difficult for them. If the offense is able to find some semblance of form by November, Michigan State might even be able to dream of something better than the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

NEBRASKA (3-1)

Results So Far:
W, 37-34, Wyoming
W, 56-13, Southern Miss
L, 41-21, #16 UCLA
W, 59-20, South Dakota State

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
8.5. The Nebraska offense has been pretty much as advertised, at least when Taylor Martinez has been healthy... with the exception of the UCLA game, when the offense apparently went home in the second quarter. Unfortunately for Nebraska the defense has also been pretty much as advertised -- if not worse. The defense got shredded by Wyoming in the season opener and barely held on, but that was only a prelude to what UCLA would do to them in the final two and a half quarters of that game. Defense kept Nebraska from accomplishing anything significant last year and, barring a miraculous turnaround for that unit, looks set to do the same to Nebraska this year.

Games Remaining:
9/28: BYE
10/5: Illinois
10/12: at Purdue
10/19: BYE
10/26: at Minnesota
11/2: #17 Northwestern
11/9: at #18 Michigan
11/16: Michigan State
11/23: at Penn State
11/30: Iowa

Title Aspirations:
Given their pedigree and their offense, Nebraska can't be discounted in the Legends Division race. They also have a reasonable schedule, avoiding Wisconsin and Ohio State from the other division. On the other hand, that defense makes it difficult to consider them a legit contender for anything. Their title hopes will probably come down to a three-game stretch in November when they play Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State. If the defense can cobble together enough decent performances for Nebraska to win two of those three games, they could make it to Indianapolis.

Bowl Prognosis:
Solid. They have three wins already and between Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, and Iowa, there should be at least another three wins on that schedule. Unless the bottom falls out... which isn't a complete impossibility, given the horrendous defense and the discontent swirling around the program.

LEADERS

OHIO STATE (4-0)

Results So Far:
W, 40-20, Buffalo
W, 42-7, San Diego State
W, 52-34, at Cal
W, 76-0, Florida A&M

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
9.5. They went 12-0 a year ago and returned most of the key players from that team (at least on offense). So, no, it's not exactly a shock to see them 4-0 and decimating opponents. They haven't always looked flawless -- the defense looked vulnerable in spurts against Buffalo and Cal -- but there's also not much point in peaking in September. Amusingly, Ohio State has also managed to improve their scoring output every game so far this season; on current form, they should score around 200 against Michigan. We thought Ohio State would be the class of the Big Ten before the season and so far they aren't doing much to alter that opinion. They've even done it with their back-up QB, Kenny Guiton, logging heavy minutes so far.

Games Remaining:
9/28: #23 Wisconsin
10/5: at #17 Northwestern
10/12: BYE
10/19: Iowa
10/26: Penn State
11/2: at Purdue
11/9: BYE
11/16: at Illinois
11/23: Indiana
11/30: at #18 Michigan

Title Aspirations:
Excellent. They're the best team in the league and they've looked the part so far this season. Their toughest games come at the beginning (Wisconsin, at Northwestern) and the end (at Michigan) of the season. The creamy middle of their Big Ten season should lead to quite a few blowouts. The only thing that kept them from playing for a Big Ten title last year were NCAA penalties; that won't be a problem this year.

Bowl Prognosis:
Um... not too shabby, you know? The only real intrigue is whether they'll get a chance to play for the crystal football or if they'll have to settle for one of the other BCS bowls.

PENN STATE (3-1)

Results So Far:
W, 23-17, Syracuse
W, 45-7, Eastern Michigan
L, 34-31, UCF
W, 34-0, Kent State

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
7.5. Penn State scraped out a win over Doug Marrone-less Syracuse team, then lost at home to UCF. UCF is a solid team, but... yeah. They did paste a few MAC patsies, but that doesn't really tell us too much about this team. Christian Hackenberg has looked the part of a blue-chip QB prospect at times, but he's also looked like a true freshman starter at other times. This is definitely a team in transition and they look the part so far.

Games Remaining:
9/28: BYE
10/5: at Indiana
10/12: #18 Michigan
10/19: BYE
10/26: at #4 Ohio State
11/2: Illinois
11/9: at Minnesota
11/16: Purdue
11/23: Nebraska
11/30: at #23 Wisconsin

Title Aspirations:
Thanks to their NCAA sanctions, they can't technically contend for a Big Ten title this year. But I don't think they would contend even if the sanctions weren't in place. It's tough to have too much faith in a team that lost at home to UCF and barely scraped by Syracuse. O'Brien is a good coach and, given more time, could definitely establish Penn State as a legit challenger in this division (or the upcoming Eastern division)... it's just not gonna happen this year.

Bowl Prognosis:
NCAA sanctions say "nope."

WISCONSIN (3-1, 1-0)

Results So Far:
W, 45-0, UMass
W, 48-0, Tennessee Tech
L, 32-30, at Arizona State
W, 41-10, Purdue

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
8.5. Wisconsin can maul fools in the running game and the defense is solid, but the passing game looks sketchy... wait, is Bret Bielema still in charge? Yeah, things haven't changed too much with Gary Anderson in charge. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

Games Remaining:
9/28: at #4 Ohio State
10/5: BYE
10/12: #17 Northwestern
10/19: at Illinois
10/26: BYE
11/2: at Iowa
11/9: BYU
11/16: Indiana
11/23: at Minnesota
11/30: Penn State

Title Aspirations:
Four B1G titles in a row? I don't think so. They are the top challengers to Ohio State in this division, so if they can spring the upset on the Buckeyes this weekend, they'll be in pole position to head back to Indianapolis (again)... but this team just doesn't seem strong enough to do that. They cruised past three of their four opponents so far and losing in the desert thanks in part to shady Pac-12 officiating is a Big Ten rite of passage (welcome to the club, Gary Anderson!), but they just don't seem to have the talent across the board (and especially at QB) to unseat Ohio State this year. Still, that schedule looks really soft after the opening games against Ohio State and Northwestern, so maybe...

Bowl Prognosis:
Halfway there now and they should have little trouble getting the three remaining wins they need, although a pair of bye weeks in October and their two toughest B1G games of the year (at Ohio State, Northwestern) means that they may need to wait until November to assure a bowl trip.

ILLINOIS (2-1)

Results So Far:
W, 42-34, Southern Illinois
W, 45-17, Cincinnati
L, 34-24, #19 Washington

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
7.5. They're a work in progress. The offense has looked pretty strong (40+ in 2/3 games and a respectable 24 against a good Washington team), but the defense has been pretty shaky (they got lit up by Southern Illinois and Washington took control of the game against them as well). They should be 3-1 after non-conference play, though, and they look improved from their pratfall-filled form a season ago. That's progress.

Games Remaining:
9/28: Miami (OH)
10/5: at Nebraska
10/12: BYE
10/19: #23 Wisconsin
10/26: Michigan State
11/2: at Penn State
11/9: at Indiana
11/16: #4 Ohio State
11/23: at Purdue
11/30: #17 Northwestern

Title Aspirations:
Uh... nope. Their three toughest league games are at home (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern), but they just don't have the talent (especially on defense) to contend in this division.

Bowl Prognosis:
Plausible. Playing both Indiana and Purdue certainly helps, even if both games are on the road. If they win both of those games (and avoid a crippling loss to Miami (OH) this week, of course), they'd just need to poach one of their remaining six league home games, which is conceivable. I could see them upsetting Michigan State or perhaps Northwestern (all bets are off when the oversized Monopoly piece is on the line!).

INDIANA (2-2)

Results So Far:
W, 73-35, Indiana State
L, 41-35, Navy
W, 42-10, Bowling Green
L, 45-28, Missouri

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
9. Indiana has a high-powered offense... and no defense. So, business as usual for the Hoosiers. Also, unlike Minnesota, Indiana did not exactly schedule for success (or at least a bowl game); Navy and Missouri are pretty tricky opponents for a team that badly needed to get four non-conference wins in order to have a really plausible shot at a bowl game.

Games Remaining:
9/28: BYE
10/5: Penn State
10/12: at Michigan State
10/19: at #18 Michigan
10/26: BYE
11/2: Minnesota
11/9: Illinois
11/16: at #23 WIsconsin
11/23: at #4 Ohio State
11/30: Purdue

Title Aspirations:
Nil.

Bowl Prognosis:
Indiana was a trendy pick to make a bowl game this year, thanks to their improvement last season and the momentum that Kevin Wilson had built on the recruiting trail and with his offense. Most of those bowl game predictions probably assumed that Indiana would do a bit better than 2-2 in non-conference play, though. A bowl trip now will require at least a 4-4 performance in Big Ten games. Doable? Perhaps. Their road games are nasty (Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State), but the home games are all fairly winnable (Penn State is the toughest, with Minnesota, Illinois, and Purdue the other home games). I wouldn't bet on Indiana to win all four of those games, given their defensive inadequacies, but there's at least a forseeable path to a bowl game for them.

PURDUE (1-3, 0-1)

Results So Far:
L, 42-7, at Cincinnati
W, 20-14, Indiana State
L, 31-24, #21 Notre Dame
L, 41-10, at #24 Wisconsin

They Are Who We Thought They Were Scale:
7. We thought they would be bad and... they're pretty bad. That wasn't exactly unexpected, given a new coach (Darrell Hazell) and the not-exactly-well-stocked cupboard that Danny Hope left him. They put up a good fight against Notre Dame, but that moral victory might end up being the highlight of their season. They were drilled by Cincinnati and Wisconsin and there are plenty of games left on their schedule with #BEATEMDOWN potential.

Games Remaining:
9/28: Northern Illinois
10/5: BYE
10/12: Nebraska
10/19: at Michigan State
10/26: BYE
11/2: #4 Ohio State
11/9: Iowa
11/16: at Penn State
11/23: Illinois
11/30: at Indiana

Title Aspirations:
Nope.

Bowl Prognosis:
lol no

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