Paths to 7-0 not always smooth for Ohio St., Michigan St.
The college football season just hit the halfway point, and we're moving into the meat of conference play in the Big Ten. The East Division is playing out just as expected, with Ohio State and Michigan State still unbeaten (the Spartans just barely). The West figured to be a bit more unpredictable, but not many prognosticators would have thought Iowa would be undefeated and on top of the division heading into late October.
Here's an overview of what's happened so far:
JUST GETTING IT DONE: Ohio State still hasn't settled on a quarterback and its wins aren't always pretty (see Northern Illinois and Indiana games), but the Buckeyes are 7-0 and appear to be rounding into form just in time for the big games in November. Michigan State is surviving with a defense that's not as stout as some of its recent units, and good fortune smiled on Sparty on that last play at Michigan. Wisconsin is a solid 5-2 - there's no shame in losing to Alabama and Iowa - and is winning, uncharacteristically, with Joel Stave throwing the ball.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Iowa is 7-0 for the first time since 2009 and the second time in Kirk Ferentz's 17 years as head coach. Fans' patience with Ferentz was wearing thin after a 2-5 finish to last season, capped by a demoralizing bowl loss to Tennessee. This was billed as a make-or-break year for Ferentz, so the resurgence is timely. Ferentz is the front-runner for Big Ten coach of the year.
BIGGEST BUST: Until what Jerry Kill called the worst run of injuries in his 32 years in coaching, Minnesota (4-3, 1-2) had hopes of winning the West. It's going to get worse before it gets better. A killer stretch of games awaits: Michigan at home and back-to-back road games against Ohio State and Iowa.
TRENDING UP: It's been a head-spinning turnaround at Michigan (5-2, 2-1), never mind the ending to that Michigan State game. The Wolverines are a physical force under Jim Harbaugh, and they'll likely go from no bowl in 2014 to playing on New Year's Day.
TRENDING DOWN: Northwestern (5-2, 1-2), which knocked off Stanford and beat a now-ranked Duke team on the road during a 5-0 start, has been outscored 78-10 in back-to-back losses to Michigan and Iowa.
HANGING IN THERE: Penn State (5-2, 2-1) has a good chance to win eight games in James Franklin's second season. That would be one more than a year ago. The offense hasn't been very good, but freshman RB Saquon Barkley is a rising star. Defensively, sack master Carl Nassib is a stud.
BEST LUCK: Illinois (4-2, 1-1) had back-to-back wins decided by a total of three points, with each coming in the last 10 seconds. The Illini benefited from Nebraska's botched clock management to get the ball back with under a minute left, then drove for a TD to win 14-13. The week before that, they beat Middle Tennessee 27-25 when the Blue Raiders missed a 43-yard field goal with 4 seconds left.
WORST LUCK: Nebraska (3-4, 1-2) by a mile. The Cornhuskers have lost four games by a total of 11 points, each coming on the opponent's final offensive play. It all started in the opener when BYU connected on a Hail Mary. Two weeks later, a bad interception in overtime spoiled an incredible second-half comeback against Miami. Then there was the Illinois debacle, followed by a home loss to Wisconsin decided on a field goal with 4 seconds left.
GET YOUR RESUMES READY: Purdue just isn't getting better under third-year coach Darrell Hazell, who's 5-26 overall and 1-18 in Big Ten games. It's hard to imagine Kyle Flood returning for a fifth year at Rutgers after multiple player arrests and his three-week suspension for emailing a professor about a player's grade. Maryland interim coach Mike Locksley has head coaching experience, but it wasn't good. He was 3-33 at New Mexico from 2009-11. The Terrapins' meat-grinder schedule doesn't let up until late November. Indiana's Kevin Wilson might need the Hoosiers (4-3, 0-3) to make a bowl to be retained.