Big Ten football conference play has arrived, and the season is looking bright for the top teams.
As last season concluded, the Big Ten teams pulled in six bowl victories (including Ohio State with two), and out of these victories, four were against top-10 teams.
The 2014 season left with OSU, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Minnesota as the best of the conference. High praise followed, as did high hopes for this current season.
Now a few weeks in, we are seeing the potential for great success. Last weekend, MSU joined the Buckeyes atop the AP Top 25 poll, with OSU ranking No. 1 and the Spartans No. 2. To no one’s surprise, these two powerhouse programs are yet again pulling the weight of the Big Ten’s still slightly and unreasonably poor reputation — of course, we know last year’s OSU team already did the majority of the pulling.
Here is a look into a few teams that are all playing well right now and could put the Big Ten in the spotlight once again come bowl season.
Northwestern (4-0), whom many toss in a corner before every season, had a thrilling first-week upset versus Pac-12 frontrunner Stanford following strong play from freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson. Last Saturday, the Wildcats claimed their next victory over Duke in a well-played game and are now ranked the 16th-best team in America. I see Northwestern competing for a spot in the Big Ten title game and potentially reaching a “New Year’s Six” bowl.
Wisconsin (3-1), despite suffering a tough road loss against Alabama, is now ranked 19th in the country and has captured two consecutive wins with ease, riding the backs of a traditionally strong offensive line and running back core. The Badgers could very well dominate the West Division once again and return to another large bowl in the postseason.
Iowa (4-0) is off to a surprising start, as it defeated Pittsburgh and in-state rival Iowa State because of outstanding play from junior quarterback C.J. Beathard. I am not too sure what to think of the Hawkeyes, as inconsistency has plagued the program recently, but if this season reflects the strong start, bowl season is calling out in Iowa.
Of course, Michigan State (4-0), led by Heisman-hopeful quarterback Connor Cook and a very strong defense hailed an impressive home victory over the then-seventh-ranked Oregon Ducks. The Spartans should pose a real threat to Ohio State’s repeat chances in the Big Ten and national championship. I see MSU making a convincing argument to be included in the College Football Playoff.
Next, I have to include Michigan (3-1), who, at the moment, can only boast about new coach Jim Harbaugh’s “glorious arrival.” With a solid performance and shutout versus then-No. 22 BYU, I am beginning to see potential for the Wolverines to have a winning season and a bowl bid. The Wolverines are now ranked 22nd in the nation.
Last, but not least, OSU (4-0) is the defending undisputed national champions. Though there are certainly issues at the quarterback position and a struggling offensive line, the “Silver Bullets” defense has held strong in the first four games. Once again, I believe the offense will hit its stride as conference play arrives. With crucial matchups at home against Michigan State and Penn State, the Buckeyes can prove again why they are the top team. I see OSU in the playoff for a second straight year.
The Big Ten might not be the toughest conference in the nation, but its top teams are beginning to make a statement that says otherwise. Come late November and the beginning of January, be prepared to watch these Big Ten teams compete and show the nation that the conference isn’t so poor after all.