Urban Meyer watched the replay of Ohio State's pedestrian victory over UAB last Sunday morning, and it spoiled his appetite. So he added an item to his lunchtime menu.
"I wasn't about to eat lunch after what I saw," the Buckeyes coach said. "So I said, 'Put together [a tape of] two, three, four good drives for me.' ... I was very disappointed we didn't play better. But you watch four [good] drives, and you feel like, 'OK, we do get it.'"
Maybe that's the secret for Big Ten teams this fall: Edit out the bad stuff, put your fingers in your ears and think, "There's no place like the Rose Bowl, there's no place like the Rose Bowl." (Whoops. Sorry, Urban -- the Buckeyes aren't eligible for that, either.)
But as the 2012 Big Ten football season begins on Saturday, there is a lot of recalibration going on around the Midwest. Hard evidence has replaced crossed fingers as teams face up to their true identities. What they have seen in that mirror has been well-chronicled: They are 1-3 against the Pac-12 and 0-3 against Notre Dame. Oh, and three losses to MAC schools.
The gloom isn't conferencewide, though; as Gophers fans know, there are outposts of optimism fueled by better-than-expected starts and suddenly winnable conference games. So let's do a reassessment of the dirty dozen's preseason expectations:
Lovely parting gifts
No, they're not going to take part in the national championship discussion, and at the moment they don't look like they would put up much of a fight against USC, Oregon or Stanford in Pasadena. But there is still time to pull things together for Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State.
It's especially true in East Lansing, where the defense seems to be living up to its billing. "I've seen some good defenses in my career," said Meyer, an SEC alum, "and this is one of the best."
The expectation was that tailback Le'Veon Bell would take the pressure off new quarterback Andrew Maxwell, and Bell has produced. But the Spartans' offense is too one- dimensional. The Spartans can still be the class of the Big Ten, but Ohio State's visit Saturday will put that theory to the test.
Michigan, meanwhile, had its defense exposed by Alabama and its offense undressed by Notre Dame.
The Cornhuskers are as methodical as ever, reaching the end zone in 15 of their 20 red-zone possessions, but their offense has missed the explosiveness of tailback Rex Burkhead (sprained left knee), who returned to run for 119 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday against Idaho State and should be even stronger this week against Wisconsin. And the defense? Still smarting from those 653 yards that UCLA piled up.
As for Ohio State, forced to sit out this year's postseason, Meyer rated the performance against UAB as "terrible, terrible." But he emphasized how much a Leaders Division title would mean to the rebuilding Buckeyes. "I thought we'd be further ahead than we are," he said. "But I know we're Ohio State. I'm not giving up."
Maybe you didn't see Northwestern's nonconference sweep coming, but the Wildcats say they did. "We expected to be 4-0," quarterback Kain Colter said on Saturday. "We expect to win the conference."
That's a tall order, especially with the league's worst pass defense so far, but at least the Wildcats have a recent history of surprising the Big Ten.
The Gophers don't, though one coach suspected something was happening in Minneapolis. Minnesota's 4-0 start is "not a surprise to me," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. "I felt like, coming into the season, they may be the surprise of the conference. ... They're innovative, cutting-edge, and that's what you're seeing."
You're also seeing an opportunistic defense and a careful offense; the Gophers lead the league in turnover margin, long one of their biggest problems. Is that enough to contend? It might be enough to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Then there's Purdue, which does everything good but not great, ranking in the top five in nearly every statistical category. The Boilermakers are quietly in position to challenge for the Leaders' spot in the title game, especially if their QB juggling act keeps working. Their first three conference games are against Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State, so we'll know quickly whether they can pull it off.
What a mess
Penn State's fall from the elite was foreseeable but still painful. And it's going to get worse. Illinois' problems were on display last season; new coach Tim Beckman is still working to fix the culture. Indiana hoped to make small improvements but then lost quarterback Tre Robinson for the season (broken left leg) and reverted to its losing ways against Ball State.
But Iowa thought it had the makings of a dark horse, with a widely admired senior quarterback in James Vandenberg, and the potential for a swarming defense. The defense has been decent, but Vandenberg has only one touchdown pass, and the Hawkeyes have been relying on walk-on fullback Mark Weisman for offense. He's produced, but two nonconference losses at home have fans openly wondering whether coach Kirk Ferentz has been in Iowa City too long.
Then there's Wisconsin, the shocker of the season. The defense has created only one turnover in four games, while an offense featuring Montee Ball ranks 11th in rushing. A team that revels in nonconference blowouts has yet to win by more than 11 points. Offensive line coach Mike Markuson has been fired, quarterback Danny O'Brien has been demoted and the Heisman reservations have been cancelled.
"Nothing comes easy for this group," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said, "but now we get to start over."