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Big 10 lacking luster but better games lie ahead

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(Eds: With AP Photos.)By DAVE CAMPBELLAP Sports Writer

At the halfway point of the season, the Big Ten hasn't produced many highlights.

OK, Michigan beat Notre Dame and Wisconsin's running game is, again, about as good as it gets. Oh, and Ohio State's perfect start and No. 4 ranking has given the conference a stake in the national championship chase.

But the Big Ten had only four teams win all four nonconference games. Indiana's convincing victory over Penn State has been the only upset, a mild one at that. Against Notre Dame and the five other major leagues, the Big Ten went 9-8. Six of those wins were over California (1-5), Iowa State (1-4), South Florida (2-4) and Syracuse (3-3), non-contenders in their respective conferences.

The second half ought to be better, however.

Rivalry games are on deck and the September fluff of FCS and mid-major opponents has passed. Here are five things to know about Big Ten football, reflecting on the first half and looking ahead to the rest of the season:

BEST GAME: Penn State's fourth-quarter comeback for a 43-40 victory in four overtimes last Saturday against Michigan, all the missed field goals aside, will be tough to top. Penn State's biggest win in two years with coach Bill O'Brien bumped Michigan out of the Top 25 following its first defeat.

Rivalry games on Nov. 2 (Michigan at Michigan State) and Nov. 30 (Ohio State at Michigan) will be closely watched, but here are three strong contenders for a second-half winner, all involving the same three teams: Northwestern at Nebraska on Nov. 2, Michigan State at Nebraska on Nov. 16, and Michigan State at Northwestern on Nov. 23.

The Legends Division race is tight, and the Spartans, Huskers and Wildcats will be trying to put themselves in position for better bowl games. Nebraska's offense and Michigan State's defense are an intriguing contrast. Northwestern needs to make up for humbling losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin with a win or two over teams in the Big Ten's top tier.

WORST WEEKEND: The conference looked weak on Sept. 14, when Michigan barely beat Akron, Minnesota struggled early against Western Illinois and Penn State lost at home to Central Florida. The Big Ten went 1-3 against the Pac-12, with Ohio State's win over California not enough to counteract Wisconsin's bizarre loss at Arizona State, a defeat for Illinois against Washington and a 20-point loss by Nebraska at home to UCLA.

This Saturday, with Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue on the road and heavyweights Ohio State, Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State hosting, the slate doesn't look strong, either.

BEST COACHING: Tim Beckman has made Illinois more competitive so far after a rough debut in 2012, and Gary Andersen has made sure Wisconsin hasn't missed a beat. Considering the wealth of talent Ohio State has, though, Urban Meyer has been an unquestioned success. He was asked Tuesday if he found himself watching Alabama or Oregon this fall and thinking ahead to a potential national title game.

''Human nature is, especially when you have time on a weekend, a bye week, to watch a lot of games, to see how you match up,'' Meyer said. ''And I kind of have these mechanisms in place just to stop thinking about it, refocus on getting first downs and stopping people because that's not really helping the cause at all.''

If Minnesota can become bowl eligible again with a daunting October and November schedule and coach Jerry Kill on leave to deal with epilepsy, his staff ought to warrant consideration for such an award.

WORST START: Given the expectations raised by Northwestern's 4-0 start and No. 16 ranking, losses by the Wildcats to Ohio State and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks have tainted their push for a stronger-than-usual season.

''We'll come back and play well. I promise you that,'' coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Purdue's schedule softens a bit in November, but by that point for the Boilermakers it won't matter.

BRIGHTEST STARS: Ameer Abdullah has made sure Nebraska's running game hasn't let up with quarterback Taylor Martinez injured. With due respect to Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, the Badgers might have the best players in the Big Ten in running back Melvin Gordon and linebacker Chris Borland.

There are seven weeks left for the next stars of the league to emerge.

Tagged: Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State, Ohio, Nebraska

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