Power conference boasts neither a surprise nor a sleeper at midway point.
Halfway through the season, the Big Ten hasn’t exactly been turned on its head.
Ohio State has a commanding lead in the Leaders Division after surviving tough tests against Wisconsin and Northwestern. The Legends Division is wide open, as many predicted it would be, with Michigan State, Nebraska, Michigan and Northwestern all legitimate contenders.
But the way these teams got here was somewhat unexpected. After all the preseason hype about Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Michigan’s Devin Gardner, none of those three quarterbacks is having a stellar season.
Miller missed nearly three full games because of a knee injury, Martinez has missed three games with a turf toe injury, and Gardner has 10 interceptions to go with his 11 touchdown passes.
Still, there have been plenty of other standout performances. Here are my midseason awards:
Offensive MVP: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon is averaging 9.7 yards per carry and has racked up at least 140 yards rushing in five of six games. A knee injury slowed him against Ohio State, but he came back to torch Northwestern last week with 22 carries for 172 yards.
Gordon hasn’t received much Heisman hype, mostly because the Badgers have James White (6.5 yards per carry) and Corey Clement (7.4) to share carries with him. Gordon averaged 13.6 carries through the first five games, but Wisconsin should keep giving him the ball until somebody stops him.
Defensive MVP: Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland stands 5 feet 11 but plays like an absolute giant. He made 16 tackles against Ohio State, including two where he stood up 242-pound Buckeyes bulldozer Carlos Hyde.
A case can be made for Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who scored three touchdowns the first two weeks and has 5½ tackles for loss.
Top freshman: Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is showing why recruiting analysts made such a big deal about him sticking with the school after the NCAA sanctions came down. He leads the Big Ten with 278.7 passing yards per game.
Last week, Hackenberg delivered a signature moment. Trailing Michigan by seven points with 50 seconds and no timeouts remaining, he led an 80-yard touchdown drive, which included passes of 14, 29 and 36 yards. He capped it with a 1-yard sneak, helping set up Penn State’s triumph in the fourth overtime.
Coach of the first half: Mark Dantonio has weathered the storm at Michigan State, reshaped the offense, kept one of the nation’s best defenses strong and made the Spartans contenders for the Legends Division title.
Ohio State is 6-0 and 18-0 in Urban Meyer’s two seasons — what more does he have to do? To whom much is given, much is expected. The Buckeyes were expected to run the table again this season. Meyer has done a good job, so far, not screwing this up.
Biggest surprise: Illinois went 2-10 in Tim Beckman’s first year, but now the Illini are 3-2 with an outside chance of making a bowl game. Nathan Scheelhaase threw four touchdown passes and eight interceptions last year, but now his knee is healthy, and he’s thrown 12 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
Biggest disappointment: Purdue knew this would be a rebuilding season under first-year coach Darrell Hazell, but the Boilermakers are 1-5, with the losses coming by an average of 28.2 points.
The Gophers had Purdue on their schedule every year from 2005 to 2012, going 4-4 in those games, and they’ll join the Boilermakers next year in the Big Ten West Division. This was the wrong year not to play Purdue.
Big Ten Short Takes
• Maryland (5-1) and Rutgers (4-2) continue to perform well in their final year before joining the Big Ten East. As Gerry DiNardo noted on Big Ten Network, it’s not just what they’ve done on the field, but also in recruiting.
According to the 247Sports composite recruiting rankings, Rutgers’ 2014 class ranks 22nd in the nation (third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Michigan) and Maryland’s class ranks 42nd in the nation (seventh in the Big Ten).
• With a bye this week, Nebraska could have quarterback Taylor Martinez back from his turf toe injury in time for the Oct. 26 game at Minnesota.
But the Cornhuskers suffered a blow when senior guard Spencer Long was lost to a knee injury. Long was first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-America last season.
• If a Big Ten team gets snubbed from next year’s College Football Playoff, it won’t be for lack of representation on the 13-member selection committee.
Each of the five power conferences got one representative, and for the Big Ten that’s officially Barry Alvarez, the former Wisconsin coach and current athletics director. Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska coach and AD, was an at-large choice.
Big Ten Power Poll
1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0): Losses by Michigan and Northwestern hurt Buckeyes strength of schedule over bye week.
2. Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1): Re-established itself as Big Ten’s second-strongest team with 35-6 rout of Northwestern.
3. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0): Everyone knew Spartans would be dangerous if they found an offense. It appears they have.
4. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0): An easy schedule has helped the dust settle for Bo Pelini. Next game is at Minnesota, Oct. 26.
5. Michigan (5-1, 1-1): Turnover troubles disappeared against the Gophers, then re-appeared against Penn State.
6. Northwestern (4-2, 0-2): The Wildcats are reeling but have enough talent to run the table in the Legends Division.
7. Penn State (4-2, 1-1): Impressive how Bill O’Brien’s team bounced back from Indiana loss with the Michigan win.
8. Iowa (4-2, 1-1): Coming off a bye week, the Hawkeyes head to Ohio State as 17-point underdogs.
9. Indiana (3-3, 1-1): Dangerous (see Penn State game) but still inconsistent (see Michigan State game).
10. Illinois (3-2, 0-1): The Illini can reach a bowl by beating Indiana and Purdue and upsetting one other team.
11. Gophers (4-2, 0-2): Marcus Jones ranks second in the Big Ten in kick-return average with 30.8 yards per return.
12. Purdue (1-5, 0-2): First-year head coach Darrell Hazell has been asked if this team is already in 2014 mode.
Joe Christensen • firstname.lastname@example.org
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