Big Ten preseason picks not holding up so far

Indiana and Penn State are undefeated, and Michigan is not in the top 25. The Big Ten is offering quite a few surprises this season.

Updated: September 28, 2005, 5:57 PM ET
By Bruce Hooley | Special to ESPN.com

Maybe next year, the Big Ten will issue face paint, red noses and fright wigs to those who voted in this year's preseason football poll.

Might help everybody look a little less silly.

You never know for sure in the preseason how teams are going to be.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel
Remember early August when Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa were selected to headline the conference standings? Made plenty of sense then, what with every top 10 poll worth its weight in Ouija boards also placing that threesome among the nation's elite.

Sure, there were a few naysayers, like those contrarians who trumpeted Purdue as the sexy pick to steal the title because the Boilermakers wouldn't play Michigan or Ohio State and would get Iowa at home.

Trouble is, now it's late September, the league schedule is only one game old and the supposed bottom-feeders are threatening a hostile takeover of the Big Ten's BCS bid.

Wisconsin, Minnesota, Penn State and Michigan State are each 4-0 overall and 1-0 in the league. Michigan and Iowa not only aren't in first place, they are no longer in the top 25, as October greets both with 0-1 conference marks and 2-2 overall records. Purdue is reeling at 0-1 in league play, as well, and might be headed for a non-league loss of its own with Notre Dame entering Ross-Ade Stadium this weekend.

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Ohio State is still upright, looking league-championship worthy and perhaps like the favorite after a 31-6 drubbing of Iowa. But the Buckeyes' national championship hopes still need Ty and the "Extreme Makeover" gang to pull up in their motor home and make that 25-22 home loss to Texas -- OSU's first nonconference loss in Ohio Stadium in 15 years -- look presentable.

Wanna know how goofy things have gotten?

Indiana is 3-0 and sending e-mails to top 25 voters stumping for consideration in the polls, which, you know, wouldn't be all that shocking if Mike Davis weren't still two weeks shy of holding his first practice.

"You never know for sure in the preseason how teams are going to be," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "You can make your best guess based on the people that are returning, and that type of thing. But the thing about the Big Ten, we play a grueling out-of-conference schedule. And then, when you get into the league and you go into those opposing stadiums, it's hard to win. Our stadiums are incredible. It's like you're already down by a touchdown when you walk in the door."

That extra TD would have delivered both Michigan and Purdue a win in their respective conference-opening losses at Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The Wolverines might also need it this week at Michigan State, which is putting up PlayStation numbers with Drew Stanton throwing for 13 scores in four games and three running backs averaging more than 6 yards per carry.

Wisconsin, now clear of the Michigan road block on its schedule, suddenly looks capable of sending Barry Alvarez out in style thanks to tailback Brian Calhoun and a surprisingly stiff defense that was supposed to be neutered by the loss of its entire defensive front from last year.

Instead, the Badgers are gutting out wins with big stands when they need them and Calhoun -- who Alvarez frighteningly calls the most complete back he's coached -- leading the team in both rushing (156.5) and pass receptions (13).

Penn State looks reborn with quarterback Michael Robinson finding three freshmen receivers often enough to keep the Lions unbeaten entering a home game against Minnesota. Win that and an Oct. 8 night game against visiting Ohio State looms as possible confirmation that the Nittany Lions are indeed all the way back. Minnesota appears formidable now, with tailback Laurence Maroney riddling a Purdue defense that was ranked first nationally against the rush.

Still, the Gophers have teased us before, most notably last year when a 5-0 start spiraled into a 6-5 finish. And with Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa remaining on the schedule, such a swoon seems likely again.

Of course, Michigan could still have a voice in who finishes first, particularly if tailback Mike Hart comes back stong after missing most of the Notre Dame loss and the entire Wisconsin game with a hamstring injury. It would also help if quarterback Chad Henne was introduced to wide receiver Steve Breaston, who's rapidly approaching the point in his career where he either delivers on the fanfare or Lloyd Carr would be wise to settle on freshman Mario Manningham as the next big thing. Still, even if the Wolverines win out, they'll need Wisconsin to lose twice to get control of their own BCS destiny.

Ohio State must go through State College, Minneapolis and Ann Arbor before conference play concludes, but the toughest nut to crack might be Michigan State -- provided it gets past Michigan this week -- in the Horseshoe on Oct. 15.

That said, the Buckeyes take a back seat to no one on defense, and quarterback Troy Smith's improvement must be setting off alarms throughout the league. Hence the smart money pick is still OSU, with a prudent side bet set aside for a certain Cinderella man in Madison.

Alvarez, who'll bid farewell to the sideline after this season to become Wisconsin's athletic director full-time, isn't smiling just because Calhoun gives him a guy who can shorten the game like Brent Moss and Ron Dayne did during bygone Rose Bowl days.

The Badgers' head man has also probably stolen a peak at who's left on the schedule -- Purdue and Iowa at home, Penn State and Minnesota on the road, and neither Ohio State nor Michigan State anywhere to be found.

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM1460 in Columbus, Ohio.