Hot Reads: How Good is the Big Ten?
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: How Good is the Big Ten?

October 16, 2017

I’ve looked at a lot of box scores over the years. Things often get a little interesting when you do that. Sometimes the big blowout looks like it should’ve been closer. Sometimes the narrow win looks like it should’ve been a blowout. And sometimes the box score looks mostly like it should given the score.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a box score that fit the actual score better than Ohio State’s 56-14 win over Nebraska. Every Buckeye drive (with a slightly subpar average starting field position) resulted in a scoring opportunity, Ohio State had a 64-percent success rate, etc., etc. No need to dredge it all back up, but just to note one last time: There was nothing fluky about it, not a point out of place, and that’s somewhat rare.

Here’s what happened elsewhere in the Big Ten. Yes, even in Rutgers-Illinois:

Michigan State 30 Minnesota 27: Minnesota’s a developing team – if we’re still allowed to use that term in Nebraska – and as such the Gophers are going to put up some uneven performances week to week. The conference nightcap was mostly good against a solid Michigan State squad. The Gophers' put up more than half their yards during a three-touchdown fourth quarter to claw back in this one and that made the numbers look almost dead even. Michigan State really controlled things for about 45 minutes, however, and this one probably shouldn’t have been so close at the end. Credit to the Spartans for doing enough to get the win on the road.

Northwestern 37 Maryland 21: I’m still upset that, given injuries at quarterback, we’re not going to get a true look at what Maryland could’ve been in 2017. Whatever might’ve been, the Terps’ defense still needs some work. A struggling Northwestern offense finally found some success, running back Justin Jackson (28 carries, 171 yards, 2 TDs) got loose and the Wildcats were a little unlucky in the turnover battle. The final margin here probably should’ve been bigger, but a 16-point win as a 3-point favorite on the road is still good enough. Northwestern is Northwestern. It isn't the second-best team in the West as preseason projections indicated it might be, but it's still a team that will challenge most opponents.

Michigan 27 Indiana 20: What’s the difference between the Wolverines and Hoosiers right now? Not a whole lot. This was another game with not much separation between the teams. Michigan’s inconsistent offense averaged 5.7 yards per play against a pretty good Indiana group, so that’s something, but the real differences here were the Wolverines' nearly 6-yard edge in average field position and plus-two turnover margin. Behind Ohio State and Penn State, the second tier in the East pretty clearly includes Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State at this point and the Hoosiers definitely belong. They face Michigan State this weekend.

Wisconsin 17 Purdue 9: If this score caught your attention it’s probably a little misleading. Purdue’s average drive started at its 40-yard line, almost 20 yards better than Wisconsin’s average. The Boilermakers also intercepted two of the three balls they got their hands on while the Badgers had 10 passes defended and only ended up with one interception. My main takeaway: Wisconsin moved the ball easily but was a little sloppy elsewhere and still came away with a win. Good teams occasionally have to do that. Not-good teams lose games that way.

Rutgers 35 Illinois 24: This was a match made in heaven. No, really. It might not have been fun to watch, but Rutgers-Illinois is close to Ohio State-Nebraska for box-score accuracy and totally unlike Buckeyes-Huskers in terms of evenness of the matchup. Field position was about even, success rate was as expected and turnovers were even, but the Scarlet Knights had a few more big plays and finished drives better than the Illini. Quick look at the schedule and I’m not sure either team here wins another game this season, so congrats Rutgers on getting one here.

The Big Ten is an interesting conference at the moment. We know which two teams are at the bottom. There are three teams that still have legitimate playoff aspirations, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. Every other team, however, exists somewhere in the middle. I mentioned that Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State seem to be the second tier in the East, and Maryland at full strength isn’t far off, but what’s it look like in the West? Good luck sorting between Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, Northwestern and Nebraska.

It’s a conference with three heavyweights, a hard-to-define middle and an unfinished basement you’d rather not visit. How things play out from here will obviously have a lot to do with this, but I’ll be very interested to see how this conference is perceived at the end of the season, a year removed from what was widely considered a Big Ten renaissance.

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