Big Ten Insider: Early schedule reveals little

The consensus of the Big Ten coaches is that the conference is stronger and deeper.

Earlier this week, Michigan’s Rich Rodriguez, in his third year in the Big Ten after seven in the Big East, said, “This may be the best the Big Ten’s been in a long, long time, collectively. And that’s not just my opinion.”

It seems accurate to say the Big Ten is better, but how much do we really know about most of these teams, including the six ranked in the Top-25, following such a watered-down non-conference schedule?

More than two-thirds of the victories have come against the Mid-American Conference (11-2), Missouri Valley (4-0), Sun Belt (3-0), Colonial (2-0), Ohio Valley (2-0) and Big Sky (1-0).

The Big Ten is 5-4 against other BCS schools plus 2-1 against Notre Dame.

The Big Ten is also 1-3 when playing against a ranked opponent. The victory was Ohio State over then-No. 12 Miami (Fla.). The losses were Minnesota to No. 18 USC, Penn State to No. 1 Alabama and Iowa to No. 24 Arizona.

Wisconsin needed a blocked extra point to beat unranked Arizona State, 20-19, at home.

Michigan State needed a fake field goal in overtime at home against Notre Dame, whose stock is dropping rapidly.

Michigan has victories over Connecticut and Notre Dame, which sounded good at the time, but who knows what’s going to happen moving forward with that sieve of a defense?

The reality is that most of the Big Ten teams really haven’t been tested that much.

And when they have, the results have been just OK.

The conference might be very good in the end, but there is no tangible evidence to support that based on the first four weeks. They haven’t played and beaten enough quality opponents to deserve to be doing any bragging just yet.

We’re going to have to wait until the bowls to find out the truth.

For now, here’s how the Big Ten teams rank based on their first-month performance entering Saturday’s conference openers:

1. No. 2 Ohio State (4-0): Prohibitive preseason favorites to win their sixth straight conference title (two were co-championships), the Buckeyes have done nothing to suggest they didn’t deserve that respect.

They rank top-10 nationally in total offense, scoring offense, rushing defense, total defense and turnover margin.

Terrell Pryor is right in the Heisman Trophy race with 10 touchdown passes, three rushing and one receiving.

2. No. 11 Wisconsin (4-0):  The defense took a hit when linebacker Chris Borland suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

Freshman James White has quickly developed into a nice change-of-pace back to complement bruiser John Clay.

The Badgers coasted through the non-conference, caught a break against Arizona State, but how ready are they to play in a hostile environment like Spartan Stadium for the opener?

3. No. 17 Iowa (3-1): Except for the game-winning drive given up against Arizona, the defense has been dominant again — No. 1 in nation in total defense, No. 3 in rush defense and No. 5 in points allowed (12 per game).

The Hawkeyes found a way to win close games last year like that one in Arizona. Has the magic worn off?

The production and durability of running back Adam Robinson becomes more important now with the absence of Jewel Hampton (season-ending knee injury) and Brandon Wegher (left team for personal reasons).

4. No. 24 Michigan State (4-0):  No. 17 rushing offense and No. 10 rushing defense. Sounds impressive, but what do the stats mean against Western Michigan, Florida Atlantic and Northern Colorado?

The adversity of the last week with coach Mark Dantonio’s heart attack likely brought this team even closer together.

Don’t forget: No Ohio State on the schedule.

5. No. 19 Michigan (4-0): Purists who want to see lock-down defense and quality special teams will cringe, but these games are going to be incredibly exciting every week.

Thanks to Denard Robinson, the Wolverines rank No. 2 nationally in rushing offense and No. 2 in total offense.

First one to 50 wins?

Or at least leads at halftime.

6. No. 22 Penn State (3-1): Allowing only 12.8 points per game, eighth in the nation.

But the offense, with a true freshman at quarterback (Rob Bolden), is really struggling in the red zone.

The MVP so far has been kicker Collin Wagner, who has a very odd statistic — more field goals (10) than extra points (eight).

7. Northwestern (4-0): Dan Persa, in his first year as the starting quarterback, gets overshadowed by Pryor and Denard Robinson, but he’s completing 80.2 percent and is No. 3 in nation in pass efficiency.

8. Illinois (2-1): No balance on offense. Nice running game (No. 18) with Mikel Leshoure and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, but can’t pass it (No. 112). Defense looks much more respectable than last year.

9. Indiana (3-0): Allowed 177 yards rushing per game (No. 92) against Towson, Western Kentucky and Akron. Seriously?

10. Purdue (2-2):  Knee injuries to quarterback Robert Marve, receiver Keith Smith and running back Ralph Bolden have ruined the season. Too bad for standout defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who deserves better.

11. Minnesota (1-3): It could get really ugly for coach Tim Brewster. Fans have started chanting “Fire Brewster” at games.

Extra point

All college athletes should learn a lesson from Minnesota’s Troy Stoudermire.

Stoudermire was upset after being suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team” last week, so he announced on Facebook that he was no longer a Gopher and was going to transfer.

He later deleted the post, apologized to his coaches and teammates, and wrote again on Facebook, “I deeply regret letting my emotions get the best of me.”

Stoudermire is back at practice but has moved from receiver to defensive back. His status for Saturday’s game against Northwestern hasn’t been announced.

Sept. 29, 2010