Posted 09/14/2009 at 05:49 PM
Criticism of the Big Ten is nothing new in the national college football landscape and the conference narrowly avoided a tragically embarrassing opening weekend. Only one Big Ten team actually took a loss but the Big Ten did not do much to acquit itself from the intense scrutiny it has faced in the past few seasons after continually failing in big national games, particularly in BCS bowls. Last week’s results fail to inspire confidence for Big Ten backers heading into the big national test this week as Ohio State takes on USC.
The Buckeyes faced a tough opening test with Navy but certainly this was a game a team of Ohio State’s stature should have won with ease. Navy is a fine program that is a perennial bowl team but hardly a BCS contender nor a team that would often survive a major conference schedule with a winning record. Navy battled back and had a chance to tie the game late before the Buckeyes were bailed out with an interception. A game between San Jose State and Navy would likely be closely lined and after being down 3-0 after the first quarter USC rallied to win 56-3 on Saturday. There is no doubt that those results will create some value on OSU at home this week but it will also require courage to take them.
Iowa has gained some steam as a sleeper in the Big Ten with a stout defense and finishing last season winning six of the final seven games including the big upset of Penn State and a bowl game rout of a SEC team. FCS Northern Iowa won the Gateway Conference last season and finished #4 in the final season poll so there should have been reason to be very well prepared for the opening game, yet the Hawkeyes were in position to lose. The yardage was remarkably even in the game and miraculously Iowa blocked not one, but two field goal attempts in the closing seconds to preserve a narrow win.
The trendy team to make a big jump in the Big Ten this summer has been Illinois. In 2008 the Illini severely out-gained opponents as a whole but went just 5-7. Illinois has had little success in the series with neighboring Missouri but with the Tigers losing several key players this looked like the perfect opportunity. The opposite result ensued however as Illinois was clobbered 37-9. Illinois posted decent yardage in the match-up but Missouri had a brilliant air attack behind sophomore QB Gabbart and perhaps the Tigers were written off too soon.
Although Illinois was the only team to lose, Minnesota was also on the ropes against Syracuse, a program that has been among the worst nationally in recent years. The first few minutes looked like a Gopher blowout was in order but Syracuse caught a few breaks and made a few plays while Minnesota stalled and had to settle for field goal attempts. Ultimately kicks would win the Gophers the game but opening the new stadium with Air Force and California the next two weeks will be a serious challenge.
Not much is expected of Indiana but the Hoosiers were also nearly bitten in an FCS match-up against Eastern Kentucky on Thursday. Indiana failed to score in the second half and despite playing with a lead the entire game the Hoosiers managed only 73 rushing yards in the game narrowly holding on 19-13.
The one team that many pegged as the biggest upset risk came through as Michigan delivered a convincing win over one of the better MAC teams Western Michigan. Penn State and Wisconsin both also won with relative ease over MAC teams as well though both surrendered backdoor covers. Purdue, Northwestern, and Michigan State cruised to wins over FCS teams as well so it was not all bad news for the conference.
The Ohio State/USC game obviously looms large but Michigan/Notre Dame will also be a much bigger deal this season as two coaches besieged in controversy face off. Syracuse will get another crack at the Big Ten facing Penn State while the Big XII will also have another shot as Iowa State faces Iowa. Other tough games are in store as Purdue heads to Oregon and Wisconsin and Minnesota host tough smaller conference foes with Fresno State and Air Force visiting. Central Michigan and Western Michigan largely regarded as two of the best MAC teams will also have opportunities. It is likely that Illinois won’t be the only Big Ten team with a loss for very long. Good Luck!