In a sport where perception means everything, the Big Ten has maintained the image it had entering the season.
The league came through the 2009-10 bowls with the arrow pointing up, and little has changed through the first six games this fall. Most still view the Big Ten as a good conference; not quite elite, but having the ingredients to get there.
Ohio State entered the season as a bona fide national title contender, and the Buckeyes reach the season's midway point as the nation's No. 1 team. They have some flaws, namely an inconsistent run game aside from quarterback Terrelle Pryor, but they're certainly capable of getting to Glendale.
Most forecasted a three-team race for the Big Ten title, and they could still be right. The only difference is Michigan State has leapfrogged Wisconsin as a legitimate challenger to both Ohio State and Iowa. Although the Spartans have teased us before with quick starts, their unblemished first half feels genuine, as they've overcome plenty of adversity both in games and off the field with coach Mark Dantonio's health situation.
Somewhat overshadowed by Ohio State and Michigan State is an Iowa squad that still might control the Big Ten title race, as it hosts both the Spartans (Oct. 30) and Buckeyes (Nov. 20). Senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi and the Hawkeyes have looked very strong aside from a disastrous first half at Arizona.
The Big Ten's depth also is better than expected. Wisconsin can beat anyone on a good day, and both Michigan and Northwestern surged to 5-0 starts. Led by dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan's offense has been electric for much of the season, although the Wolverines need to bounce back from Saturday's beating at the hands of Michigan State.
Illinois has been a pleasant surprise, hanging tough with Ohio State and pounding Penn State in Happy Valley. And don't forget about a Purdue team that overcame a rash of key injuries to stun Northwestern on Saturday night. Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell leads a dynamic pass attack, although the Hoosiers' defensive woes aren't going away.
The league isn't without its disappointments. Minnesota continues its downward spiral under Tim Brewster, and Penn State is yearning for health on defense and an identity on offense. Joe Paterno likely will be waiting much longer than expected for his 400th victory.
All in all, a decent first half.
But the Big Ten understands, perhaps more than any other league, that judgment day comes in January.
Offensive MVP: Michigan QB Denard Robinson
You can knock Robinson’s three-interception game against Michigan State, but no Big Ten player has meant more to his team in the first half. Without Robinson’s heroics against Notre Dame and Indiana, Michigan likely loses those games. Pryor also has been essential for Ohio State’s offense, and other Big Ten quarterbacks like Stanzi, Kirk Cousins, Dan Persa, Chappell and Scott Tolzien merit mentions.
Defensive MVP: Michigan State LB Greg Jones and Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan
These two defenders have separated themselves from the pack. Jones’ value shows up on nearly every play, as he’s always around the ball. The All-American also has become a bigger factor in pass coverage this year while maintaining his effectiveness on blitzes. Kerrigan's statistics are staggering -- he leads the Big Ten with 13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles -- and without him, an average Purdue defense would be in real trouble.
Biggest surprise: Illinois
Some might expect Michigan State to be here, but those of us who study the league knew the Spartans had the ingredients to be very good this fall. Illinois, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise after last year’s 3-9 disaster. The Illini held their own against Ohio State and won their first game in Happy Valley in convincing fashion. Coach Ron Zook’s offseason staff overhaul is working.
Biggest disappointment: Penn State
Pretty much everyone except those voting in the preseason Coaches’ Poll expected Penn State to take a step back after losing a lot of talent and leadership from the 2009 team. But few forecasted the Lions to freefall to the bottom of the league. Penn State has no offensive identity after expecting big things from Evan Royster and the run game, and the recent swell of injuries on defense could really hurt in the second half of league play.
Best game: Notre Dame at Michigan State, Sept. 18
Both Michigan State and Michigan played memorable contests with Notre Dame, but the Spartans’ overtime thriller has a bit more staying power. The game went from defensive struggle to offensive explosion to the extra period, where Dantonio made the gutsiest call of the college season (sorry, Les Miles). The Spartans executed a fake field goal to perfection and scored the game-winning touchdown to ignite their current surge.
Best coach: Mark Dantonio/Don Treadwell
Dantonio made the Call of the Year, but Treadwell’s work during Dantonio’s health-related absence is even more impressive. The Spartans’ offensive coordinator steadily guided the ship for several weeks, making several bold play calls in the win against Wisconsin and producing an excellent game plan of offensive balance in the Michigan victory. If Treadwell keeps this up, he should have an opportunity to be a head coach somewhere in 2011.