With the Ohio State off this week, let’s take a look around the Big Ten to see who has exceeded expectations, who has disappointed and who could challenge the defending conference champions before all is said and done.
1. Four undefeated teams remain.
Three of them are not much of a surprise – Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State were all expected to be good – while Minnesota is looking to crash the party after not being among the preseason favorites in the West division.
The Golden Gophers opened the season by winning four straight one-possession games then trounced Illinois 40-17 last week.
At his weekly press conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck sounded much like the former Jim Tressel assistant he is when asked about rising expectations for his team.
“We wanted to have a better Tuesday than we had last week,” Fleck said. “This is a one-game championship season against Nebraska. All of our attention is going into Nebraska. That's the only thing we're focused on. Our players truly do that. Our four walls are the only thing that matters.
“What I'm excited about is our state, our community, the Twin City area, are all talking about Gopher football. That's what I love. I want them to keep talking about Gopher football. Talk all you want, say what you want, whatever, bring up conversations.
“Our players are talking about us, of what we have to do to get better. That's how we're going to handle that because right now we're 0-0. Everybody from the outside looks at what we are. We are 0-0. Our players want to be 1-0, that's it.”
2. Three of those teams have displayed impressive balance so far.
Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin are all in the top 11 nationally in scoring and the top five in points allowed.
The trio are also all in the national top 10 in run defense, pass efficiency and pass efficiency defense.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is headlined by its offense. The Golden Gophers, who are off to their best start since 2004 under former Buckeye/current Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason, are tied for 30th in scoring and just 69th in points allowed.
3. The four unbeaten teams have something else noteworthy in common.
All four have quarterbacks in the top 21 in the nation in passing efficiency, and all four are in their first full seasons as the starter.
Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, a sophomore from Ryle High School in northern Kentucky, is No. 4 in the nation while Ohio State’s Justin Fields is two spots behind him and Penn State’s Sean Clifford (a Cincinnati native) is No. 8.
Wisconsin’s Jack Coan, who like Morgan started a handful of games last season, is No. 21.
Clifford’s emergence has been important for a Nittany Lions team that lost three-year stalwart Trace McSorley to graduation.
“He's been groomed for this,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of Clifford. “I take a lot of pride that we've developed our quarterbacks in-house.
“I love his approach. He's been aggressive since, really, the day he stepped on campus from a football perspective, from a weight room perspective. Really, all of it, and from a leadership perspective. He's probably more vocal than what Trace was, but he is fiery and he's competitive, and he understands how to prepare.”
4. Five teams have one loss in the conference.
Michigan, Michigan State and Maryland in the East and Nebraska and Iowa in the West all absorbed early setbacks.
They can still play their way back into contention but have no more margin for error. That’s especially true of the Spartans and Terrapins, who lost to East foes Ohio State and Penn State, respectively, and thus could be at a tiebreaker disadvantage later on.
5. Six teams are in the top 25.
Ohio State (3, tie), Wisconsin (8), Penn State (10), Michigan (16) and Iowa (17) are all in the Associated Press top 25 this week while Minnesota joins them in the coaches’ poll at No. 25.
The Buckeyes and Badgers have both moved up since the start of the year while Penn State remains highly regarded after dominating four overmatched foes and outlasting schizophrenic in-state rival Pittsburgh.
The Wolverines and Hawkeyes, coming off an eyesore of a game the Wolverines won in Ann Arbor last Saturday, are ranked now mostly because they were in the preseason.
6. Ohio State is the clear No. 1 from an advanced stats perspective, but the Badgers and Nittany Lions are not far behind.
The Buckeyes are No. 2 nationally in SP+ (a metric now hosted by ESPN that measures play-by-play success and big-play ability) while Wisconsin is No. 6 and Penn State is No. 7.
Ohio State is among the elite of the elite on both sides of the ball (fifth and third, respectively, on offense and defense) while the Badgers are led by their defense and the Nittany Lions’ offense is ahead of its defense.
Wisconsin is 16th in offensive SP+ and fourth on defense while Penn State is 10th in offensive SP+ and 16th in defense.
Michigan (17), Michigan State (18), Iowa (21), Minnesota (26) and Indiana (28) are all in the overall SP+ top 30 while Nebraska is 39th despite being a trendy pick to win the West division.
7. Lots of fun matchups are left.
The Gophers are the least-tested of the undefeated teams, but they will have earned it if they make it to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis in December.
Fleck’s Gophers begin November with a visit from Penn State and end it with a home game against Wisconsin that could be for more than Paul Bunyan’s axe. In between, they travel to Iowa and Northwestern.
Half of Ohio State’s remaining regular season games are against ranked teams – Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan – while the Nittany Lions still have to play Iowa (this week), Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota along with the Buckeyes.
Wisconsin already thrashed Michigan and gets Michigan State at home this weekend. The Badgers are at Ohio State in two weeks, host Iowa and have that aforementioned trip to Minnesota. (Could Nov. 16 at Nebraska be a trap?)
Aside from rivalry games with Michigan State and Ohio State, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines have to play at Penn State host Notre Dame.
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