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Big Ten features Magnificent Seven

With seven teams ranked in the Top 25, there's no question the Big Ten is off
to a fine start.

Ohio State and Michigan haven't been as dominant as expected. The Buckeyes
have shown they're vulnerable, and the Wolverines have looked downright shaky.
But Purdue and Wisconsin have delivered on their preseason promise, and Iowa,
Minnesota and Michigan State all have shown signs they'll continue to
overachieve.

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    There don't appear to be any national-championship contenders in the mix.
    That's especially true because the Magnficent Seven figure to slap each other
    around. With so many fierce head-to-head matchups left, it will be difficult for
    anyone to avoid at least a disappointment or two.

    There don't appear to be any Heisman candidates in the Big Ten mix, either.
    Running backs Chris Perry (Michigan) and Anthony Davis (Wisconsin) have not had
    stellar starts. And while the Big Ten is loaded with veteran quarterbacks,
    many of them also are having up-and-down seasons.

    But the seven ranked teams all are doing many things very well. This could be
    a very tough autumn for the bottom four -- Penn State, Northwestern, Illinois
    and Indiana.

    At this point, the league race looks so wide-open that any of the top seven
    could secure the league's traditional Rose Bowl trip. Remember, if there's a
    logjam at the top, the team that has had the longest Pasadena drought could
    emerge as the tie-breaker rules.

    The best wins so far are Iowa's 30-27 comeback over Michigan and Wisconsin's
    17-10 handling of Ohio State. But the Hawkeyes had all kinds of problems at
    Michigan State, and the Badgers were befuddled by UNLV of all teams.
    In other words, you can play games with each of the seven to make cases for
    and against any of them.

    That's why the games those teams are going to play against each other in the
    next six weeks are going to be so interesting.

    Biggest Surprise
    Michigan State. The Spartans, coming off a wrenching 2002
    campaign in which they lost their coach, their quarterback, their stud receiver
    and their respect, were supposed to take some tentative first steps back to
    competitiveness under new coach John L. Smith. Instead, they have put a bunch
    of things together. They're one blown lead against Louisiana Tech
    away from being unbeaten. And although their schedule gets tougher from here, they have
    a chance to keep their grip on being the Big Ten's biggest surprise.

    Biggest Disappointment
    Illinois. Nobody expected the Illini to be a major
    power, but Illinois has dropped so far down the totem pole that they look more
    like a rebuilding project than a team two years removed from an outright Big Ten
    title. Considering that the league's seven ranked teams all have the potential
    to keep rolling in the coming years, the Illini's collapse this year is an
    ominous sign for future seasons. Dishonorable mention to Penn State, which is
    headed for its third losing season in four years.

    Midseason MVP
    Jeff Smoker. Michigan State's senior quarterback has a
    gunslinger mentality that's perfectly suited to new coach John L. Smith's spread
    offense. No one means more to his team, and no one's playing better than Smoker,
    who has been bounced back from a substance-abuse problem that left his life in
    shambles last fall.

    Midseason Coach of the Year
    Kirk Ferentz. No disrespect to John L. Smith,
    who's got a strong case. But Ferentz gets the nod because he has retooled a team
    that had major personnel losses from last year's Big Ten championship season.
    Iowa's continued success is more remarkable than Michigan State's surprising
    success because the Hawkeyes are making a statement that they intend to be
    competitive year after year. Relax, Spartans fans. This controversy will play
    itself out by the time the real coach-of-the-year awards come out. By then,
    though, Joe Tiller, Glen Mason and Barry Alvarez might be in the mix.

    Bowl Bound
    The league will have seven bowl teams for the second straight
    season, and it would have had a shot at eight postseason teams if Northwestern
    hadn't botched a couple of nonconference opportunities. Michigan State,
    Wisconsin and Minnesota already are bowl-eligible, and Purdue, Michigan, Iowa and
    Ohio State need only one more win apiece to make postseason plans for one of the
    league's seven tie-in bowl trips.

    The bigger question is which schools to which bowls. At this point, only one
    conference loss separates the bowl-bound seven.

    Herb Gould covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Sun-Times.