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Carson: Step back from the Big Ten love

| Monday, September 28, 2015

For at least one more week, Ohio State and Michigan State are the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation, occupying the top slots in both the AP and Coaches polls.

That’s neat and all, and it makes the Big Ten, a conference we all laughed at a couple years ago, look pretty good.

But much in the same way we should’ve pumped the brakes on calling the Big Ten “dead” after the second week of the season last year, can we hold off on calling the conference “good” again after four this season?

With the exception of two games that won’t tell us much — Penn State and Rutgers both have Army left — the league’s nonconference slate is done and dusted and, quite frankly, there’s not much there that impresses.

Let’s look at the conference’s five still-unbeaten teams and work our way down from there.

Ohio State is good. Most fans would agree to that, despite how rusty the Buckeyes have looked in their four tune-up games — and let’s be honest, that’s all they really were.

Michigan State is also good. Even with what Utah did in its 62-20 dismantling of Oregon on Saturday night, the Spartans’ home win over the Ducks is still a solid one, but it’s the only one they carry into the Big Ten campaign; wins over Western Michigan, Air Force and Central Michigan tell us little more than nothing.

Northwestern, which now sits 16th in the AP top 25, could actually be solid, based on its opening-week home win over Stanford and Week 3 win at Duke, who took down Georgia Tech this past week. The Wildcats have found their success through their defense and have the luxury of avoiding both the Buckeyes and Spartans in crossover games — they could be the most likely team to find their way to Indianapolis to face Ohio State or Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game.

Past that? Yawn.

Unbeaten Indiana’s best win so far is probably Western Kentucky, while beating Pittsburgh is 4-0 Iowa’s highlight thus far.

Amongst the league’s 3-1 teams, the outlook gets a little grimmer: now-No. 22 Michigan, whose loss is to that aforementioned Utah squad, trounced BYU, which looks kind of good, and Minnesota and Wisconsin lost to a pair of top-15 squads — No. 4 TCU and No. 13 Alabama, respectively — but that’s all there is to offer. Remember, Illinois got drilled at North Carolina, and Penn State lost to Temple.

Both Maryland and Purdue lost at home to Bowling Green, and Rutgers is a dumpster fire of drama. Nebraska is irrelevant at best.

The point?

If we’re looking to a Northwestern team to be the savior of the conference’s west division, it might not say much that is good about the overall health of the conference. Saturday night saw the league’s best win [Oregon] fall flat off the face of the earth, leaving Northwestern’s triumph over the Cardinal the only one the Big Ten has over a top-25 opponent thus far.

Granted, it’s not as if other conferences have more outside of league play, but it’s a stark reminder the conference really hasn’t done that much to prove itself yet — and it won’t really have much opportunity to do so.

When the dust settles in December, there will probably a team from the Big Ten in the playoff; Statistically speaking, it’s a good bet, especially given everything that’s happened.

If the cards fall right, the loser of the Michigan State-Ohio State game could well find itself in the playoffs too, though that’s not a particularly likely situation.

But to start unnecessarily declaring the conference is “back” because of one singular win — the Spartans’ over Oregon, which now looks a lot less impressive — falls nothing short of being irresponsible.

Between now and December, games will be played. Upsets will occur, Indiana will lose at least one game, Rutgers will maybe have coaches and there’s no way Northwestern runs the table.

Though who knows?

Let’s just not make such silly statements this early.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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