Tracy Claeys has a routine on Saturday nights during football season. Once his game is done and he’s back home, the Gophers coach unwinds by grabbing a pizza and watching college football as a fan.
He mostly watches other conferences, seldom the Big Ten. He gets his fill of Big Ten action when he scouts opponents.
Here’s a synopsis of his conference the first month of the season: Some really good, some really bad and plenty of uncertainty about the strength of teams in the middle, including Claeys’ own squad.
Surprise, surprise, the head of the class belongs to heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan. Wisconsin might be the biggest surprise in all of college football. The rest of the conference either remains in wait-and-see mode or is staring down a long season.
This weekend marks the first full slate of conference games involving all 14 teams. The season is still too young to make concrete declarations about any conference. But a few developments within the Big Ten have run counter to narratives espoused during fall camp.
Ohio State’s youth and inexperience after suffering heavy personnel losses was sold as a potential sign of trouble. Nope.
The Buckeyes look like the same ’ol Buckeyes. Fast, athletic, explosive and equipped to contend for a national championship.
Michigan’s defense was supposed to hold things steady while the quarterback situation resolved itself. News flash: That Harbaugh guy knows a little something about coaching offense. The Wolverines are averaging 52 points per game, which is fourth highest in the nation.
Wisconsin’s schedule looked downright unfair, a week-to-week grind destined to doom the Badgers. No sweat, so far. A 4-0 start has moved the Badgers to No. 8 in the AP poll this week.
Iowa lost at home to North Dakota State. The Gophers offense looks more trustworthy than their defense. And Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. has thrown only one interception in 106 pass attempts.
The Big Ten produced a few marquee wins in nonconference play that gave the league reason to gloat.
Ohio State ran circles around Oklahoma; Michigan State defeated Notre Dame (though that win looks less and less notable given the Irish’s sorry plight); Wisconsin stunned LSU to set in motion Les Miles’ firing; Nebraska knocked off Fancy Uniforms U (Oregon).
Those were all good wins in appearance.
Now, we’ll see how Big Ten teams stack up within the conference.
Nothing that has transpired has changed my preseason opinion that the East Division will be a two-team race between the Big Two, while the West is wide open.
The Buckeyes and Wolverines are ranked in the top five nationally in scoring offense, both averaging 50-plus points per game. They’re also among the best defensive teams.
Their annual grudge match in late November should have College Football Playoff implications.
The West Division is far more unsettled in terms of identifying a favorite. Throw a dart or pick a name out of hat.
The win over LSU and a rout of Michigan State on the road puts Wisconsin at the top of the pecking order again. But that schedule remains menacing: at Michigan on Saturday, followed by a home game against Ohio State, at Iowa, home against Nebraska.
If the Badgers can survive that stretch with only one or even two losses — which is not inconceivable with their stingy defense — they would deserve a tip of the cap.
The rest of the picture is anyone’s guess. Nebraska looks improved, but by how much? And do you trust Armstrong to continue to avoid making killer mistakes? The Cornhuskers also have back-to-back road games at Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Iowa once was the favorite as the defending West champion, but a loss to NDSU and a seven-point win over Rutgers gives pause in predicting a repeat.
The Gophers won’t find a more favorable scenario lined up for them. They don’t play Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State. Their schedule is filled with winnable games, both on paper and in optics.
The Gophers won’t be favored in all of them, but nothing about the division looks overly intimidating.
If they want to be taken seriously as a program on the rise, this is their opportunity to prove it.