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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.