Commentary

Buckeyes are Big Ten's lone title contender

Originally Published: October 3, 2007
By Bruce Hooley | Special to ESPN.com

After unbeaten Ohio State and one-loss Michigan were depantsed in BCS bowls last season, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was hoping for a better start to the 2007 season. Unfortunately, his conference couldn't make it out of the first week unscathed.

Michigan, ranked fifth in the preseason, became the first top-five team ever to lose to a Division I-AA opponent when Appalachian State upset the Wolverines in Week 1. Just to prove that was no fluke, Michigan got rolled the next week by visiting Oregon.

Rashard Mendenhall
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesIllinois' Rashard Mendenhall has put Illinois in the Big Ten race.

Michigan State bragged about its rebirth after starting 4-0. But the Spartans have since lost at Wisconsin and home against Northwestern, proving that things might not be so different under new coach John L. Dantonio. Sorry, make that, Mark Dantonio.

Wisconsin rose to No. 5 after Michigan's collapse, then fell to No. 9 with indifferent efforts against UNLV and its own would-be I-AA tormentor, The Citadel. The Badgers were so unimpressive, they were branded a 2½-point underdog at unranked Illinois. Deeply wounded by that slight, Wisconsin went out and defended its honor by losing.

Penn State rose to No. 10, only to lose at Michigan and then at Illinois.

If you're keeping track, that's two wins over ranked teams for the Illini, which have reached the midpoint at 5-1 to re-enter the Top 25 for the first time since 2001.

Now, if you listen really hard, you can hear the laughter all the way from SEC country.

Why?

Because down South, there could be no bigger indictment of the Big Ten than the fact that Ron Zook has built the second-best team in the league in just 2½ years.

Second-best, because once again, Ohio State has emerged as the clear class of the conference.

The Buckeyes lost early-entry NFL juniors Anthony Gonzalez, Ted Ginn Jr. and Antonio Pittman, plus Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and seven other starters off the team Florida embarrassed 41-14 in the BCS National Championship Game.

Yet here again is OSU, the only unbeaten Big Ten team at the midpoint of the season, with a remaining schedule tougher in appearance than actuality.

Having ascended to No. 3 in the polls, behind California and LSU, the Buckeyes are the lone Big Ten team not to display a glaring weakness through six games.

OSU's offense isn't as explosive as it was last season, but it's producing 34 points per game, which is fourth in the league. The defense is No. 1 in the conference in fewest points allowed (43) and is also No. 1 against both the run (46.5 yards per game) and pass (163.54). The Buckeyes are second in net punting (41.3 yards) and they've converted 10 of 12 field goal attempts.

You'll have to focus the microscope precisely to find the hole in that résumé.

But beyond OSU, the Big Ten has all the depth of a Hollywood marriage.

Someone has either filled the cleats of Michigan's defense with sand, or outfitted the Wolverines with lead shoulder pads.

Wisconsin has forgotten how to tackle, and the school's administration cut the legs out from under the Badgers' offense by barring backup tailback Lance Smith-Williams from traveling to all road games. Hey, Bret Bielema, thanks for going 12-1 your rookie year. Now, go win at Illinois, Penn State and Ohio State without your change-of-pace difference maker.

Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli is seemingly engaged in a clandestine battle with his tailbacks to see who can commit the most turnovers.

Iowa, which won 10 or more games in 2002, '03 and '04, can't score and has lost eight straight in the league, or an entire season's worth of games.

Jim Tressel
David Maxwell/Getty ImagesJim Tressel's recruiting classes have filled in the holes left by last year's departed stars.

Illinois quarterback Juice Williams has courage, charisma, elusiveness and the passing touch of a longshoreman, as evidenced by his 54.9 completion rate.

Purdue has put up big numbers against pedestrian opponents, but lapsed back into Purdon't against Ohio State. The Boilermakers still can't power rush well enough to feel confident with five teams among the top six in the league defensively still on the schedule.

Indiana's defense ranks in the bottom half of the conference with three teams ranked among the top half of the league in total offense yet to play.

Given that abundance of mediocrity, Delany's perpetual stonewalling of a national championship playoff is savvy.

Why would he ever bend to that when, the way things are now, an unbeaten Big Ten team need only land a haymaker in the title game to take home the crown? That's infinitely easier than advancing through a four-, eight- or 16-team bracket against leagues that -- imagine this -- have more than one team that's a consensus member of the top 15.

So when Delany portrays his league as a heavyweight, don't laugh.

After all, he's right.

Buster Douglas proved with one well-placed right cross that anyone can be a heavyweight champion.

And where was Douglas from again?

Oh, yeah. Columbus, Ohio.

Midseason Mayhem
Six weeks into the season, we've learned a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of college football's top teams. But major questions still loom. ESPN.com reviews the first half of the season.

ACC
Milian: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Big 12
Griffin: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Big East
Starkey: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Big Ten
Hooley: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

ND, non-BCS
Rittenberg: Midseason report

Pac-10
Miller: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

SEC
Higgins: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Biggest surprise

It's no shock Ohio State is 6-0, given a schedule that's heavy on dessert and light on meat. It's the Buckeyes' emergence as the Big Ten's lone unbeaten and favorite to win a second straight outright championship that wasn't expected. OSU's 27-point disparity between its offensive average (34 points per game) and defensive average (seven) is nine points better than any other team in the league. Despite losing three juniors to the NFL a year early, Ohio State lacks the glaring weakness that exists on every other contender hoping to bump coach Jim Tressel's program off the top of the standings.

Biggest disappointment

Michigan started the season No. 5 and hasn't made it back into the Top 25 since losing to Division I-AA Appalachian State. That's disappointing enough. What's really crushing is that even with tailback Mike Hart (who's been a warrior, and bears no responsibility for the Wolverines' downfall), quarterback Chad Henne, left tackle Jake Long and wide receiver Mario Manningham, Michigan is ninth in the league in scoring (25.3 PPG) Michigan knew it would have to outscore teams to cover the inadequacies of an inexperienced defense. So far, it hasn't proven capable of that.

Midseason MVP

Illinois coach Ron Zook told tailback Rashard Mendenhall the Illini could have a special season if he had a big year. No wonder the Illini are 5-1 after going a combined 4-19 the previous two seasons. Mendenhall has given Illinois a dependable every-down threat with breakaway ability. He's had four 100-yard games and ranks second in the league in rushing at 128.7 yards per game. His 10 touchdowns are tied for the Big Ten lead.

Midseason coach of the year

It's a virtual dead heat between Illinois' Ron Zook and Indiana's Bill Lynch. Zook has directed the Illini to their first back-to-back wins over ranked opponents in consecutive weeks since 1959, and has them in the Top 25 (No. 18) for the first time since 2001. One of Illinois' wins was a 27-14 victory at Indiana, so how is Lynch in the conversation? His Hoosiers are also 5-1, and bearing down on bowl eligibility for the first time since 1993. There would be no better story in college football if Indiana attained that goal in the aftermath of coach Terry Hoeppner's death this past summer. Hoeppner, when he took over in Bloomington three years ago, made it his mission to "Play 13." Lynch, for holding the program together and perhaps getting to the postseason, deserves plenty of credit.

Bowl bound

Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin.

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for more than two decades and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.

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