We're winding down our midseason overview with a look at five storylines to watch in the second half of the Big Ten season:
The nation's best group of running backs. The Big Ten has taken its share of lumps this season, and often rightfully so, but no league can claim a better trio of running backs than Indiana junior Tevin Coleman, Wisconsin junior Melvin Gordon and Nebraska senior Ameer Abdullah. Gordon and Coleman may join Abdullah in the NFL draft next spring. Each is a sight to savor, and for different reasons, but they share an ability to handle a heavy load of carries. Even among a deep group of backs in the league that includes David Cobb of Minnesota, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State, the top three stand out, staying on pace to give the league its first threesome to average more than 140 rushing yards since 2000.
The Michigan mess. The first half of the season could not have gone much worse in Ann Arbor, featuring three September losses and the troubling ordeal that surrounded Shane Morris' head injury in a Sept. 27 loss to Minnesota. What will the second half bring? The Wolverines, after a bye week, play their final game of October with a bit of momentum gained from a 18-13 win against Penn State. But Michigan State awaits. Another loss would only turn up the heat on coach Brady Hoke, already facing intense scrutiny. Short of a miraculous turnaround, Hoke may not be able to save his job. Regardless, the final five games merit attention.
Ohio State's resurgence. The Buckeyes didn't go away, of course, but they slipped under the radar a bit in September after the two-touchdown loss to Virginia Tech. In the three games since, Urban Meyer's team has scored 168 points as freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett made major leaps. Ohio State, as it enters the second half, looks like a new kind of challenge altogether for its upcoming opponents. The biggest game, Nov. 8 at Michigan State, likely offers the Big Ten its only realistic shot land a team in the College Football Playoff. And while OSU didn't look worthy in early September, the selection committee may soon receive a new set of trends to ponder on Ohio State.
The West Division scramble. To enter Week 8, it's a jumbled mess, with Minnesota atop the heap. The Gophers look poised to stay in control into November, with upcoming games against Purdue and at Illinois. Things get dicey for Minnesota, though, next month with a finishing stretch against Iowa and Ohio State, followed by trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Northwestern, with one loss in the league, remains in a decent spot, as do the preseason division favorites, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska. As projected in August, the race may still come down to schedules. And the schedule, despite Minnesota's strong play and stumbles elsewhere, still favors the Badgers and Hawkeyes.
The path of Rutgers and Maryland. The Scarlet Knights, in particular, have made the transition to the Big Ten look easy this fall. For a group picked by many to finish last in the league, it's been a stunning start, fueled by a stingy defense and the strong play of quarterback Gary Nova. Rutgers is a failed defensive stand in the final minute from a perfect record. Maryland, too, has looked strong at times, particularly on offense. But the road is about to get much more difficult for the league's new members, starting on Saturday as the Scarlet Knights visit Ohio State and Maryland hosts Iowa. Rutgers' schedule is downright brutal over the next month, and it doesn't look much more inviting for the Terrapins. But they've already proved us wrong, so why not again?