After taking a tour through the Mountain West, Conference USA and FBS Independents this morning and MAC and Sun Belt on Tuesday, we’re taking a swim through the Big Ten and Pac-12 on Wednesday afternoon. We’ll wrap up the midseason update tour on Thursday with the ACC and the American, and then the SEC and Big 12.
Big Ten East
Michigan State (5-1, 2-0): The defense isn’t as good as the unit that led the nation last season at 4.04 yards per play allowed (down to 34th at 4.92), but the offense has improved from 81st (5.4) to 17th (6.56). In the end, the Spartans have doubled their per play differential, from 0.88 in ’13 to 1.64 this season. Michigan State is the Big Ten’s best team until proven otherwise. The most interesting question of Sparty’s first half so far? Would they have been better off blasting some Missouri Valley team 73-0 and keeping their undefeated record intact instead of going to Oregon and losing? We know what the polls think, but I tend to believe the College Football Playoff selection committee will boost the Spartans for swinging and missing.
Ohio State (4-1, 1-0): Remember when Braxton Miller got hurt, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech, and the Buckeyes were left for dead? Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is the nation’s third-rated passer – not among freshmen, but for all quarterbacks – and the Buckeyes have scored 66, 50, and 52 points since the Virginia Tech loss. Considering Michigan State is the only ranked team remaining and that Urban Meyer still hasn’t lost a Big Ten regular season game, pencil this team in for 10 wins and a New Year’s Day bowl at worst.
Rutgers (5-1, 1-1): Rutgers’ hot start has come on the strength of pulling out tight games, beating Washington State by three, Navy by seven, and Michigan by two (along with a three point loss to Penn State). The Scarlet Knights’ upcoming schedule includes consecutive road games with Ohio State and Nebraska, as well as Michigan State and Maryland, and a home game with Wisconsin. This is where we mention under Kyle Flood Rutgers has started 7-0 (and finished 9-4) and 4-1 (and finished 6-7).
Maryland (4-2, 1-1): Can you pass the ball? If so, you’re probably going to beat Maryland. The Terps are 4-0 against teams that can’t throw the ball (No. 127 pass efficiency South Florida, No. 112 Syracuse and No. 94 Indiana, plus FCS James Madison) and 0-2 against teams that can (No. 25 West Virginia, No. 3 Ohio State). Go ahead and predict the rest of Maryland’s schedule with future opponent’s pass efficiency rating: No. 69 Iowa, No. 110 Wisconsin (counterpoint: Melvin Gordon still exists), No. 92 Penn State, No. 15 Michigan State, No. 111 Michigan, and No. 4 Rutgers.
Michigan (3-4, 1-2): The fact that every website short of People.com is weighing in on the job status of both Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke gives you an appropriate first-half survey for Michigan. The Wolverines are off this week, and then visit Michigan State in hopes of avoiding their sixth loss to Sparty in seven years.
Penn State (4-2, 1-2): The Nittany Lions won their first four – pushing James Franklin’s personal win streak to nine – before dropping consecutive games to Northwestern and Michigan, scoring 19 points combined.
Indiana (3-3, 0-2): The Hooisers are already in the East’s basement, and they haven’t played Michigan State, Ohio State, Rutgers, Michigan or Penn State yet. Those happen to be their next five opponents.
Big Ten West
Minnesota (5-1, 2-0): Let’s ask the same question about the West division leader that we did for the East – should the Gophers have gone to Fort Worth? Minnesota isn’t running the table and wouldn’t be in the Playoff discussion regardless, but if Minnesota had stayed home and played Texas Lutheran instead of visiting Texas Christian they’d be 6-0, ranked somewhere around 20, and generating some buzz for the job Jerry Kill has done (9-16 over his first two seasons, 13-6 since). Instead, they’re “ranked” tied for 29th in the also receiving votes section of the latest AP poll.
Iowa (5-1, 2-0): While we’re at it, let’s ask the same thing about…. ah, nevermind. The Hawkeyes dropped a home game to Iowa State, beat Ball State by four, and drew Purdue and Indiana to open Big Ten play.
Northwestern (3-3, 2-1): We all had neither Wisconsin or Nebraska ranking in the top half of the West at the season’s midpoint, right? Northwestern ranks 107th nationally in scoring, and stands as one of the few teams that hasn’t scored 30 points this season. The Wildcats’ defense hasn’t allowed more than 17 points since Sept. 6, but a 100-yard kickoff return against Minnesota did them in last week.
Nebraska (5-1, 1-1): Nebraska ran off a 5-0 record by beating zero ranked teams, lost to No. 10 Michigan State, and now faces six straight games against unranked teams. Bo Pelini has obviously been living right.
Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1): The Badgers have perhaps the best running back in college football, but were undone against LSU and Northwestern by quarterback play that posted numbers of 20-of-53 passing for 188 yards with one touchdown and six interceptions. Melvin Gordon averages 188 yards every 23.7 carries, and he hasn’t thrown an interception once this season.
Purdue (3-4, 1-2): This team is still a ways away from competing, but Purdue has already topped the 30-point barrier four times this season. The Boilermakers did that once last fall.
Illinois (3-4, 0-3): The Illini are below .500 and winless against the Big Ten, but Tim Beckman says they’re only 81 points away from being undefeated. (Sorry, I had to.)
Oregon (5-1, 2-1): Hard to know which is the real Oregon these days, the one that boat-raced Michigan State 28-3 over the second half and built a 42-10 lead over UCLA, or the one that got pushed around by Washington State and Arizona. The answer? Likely somewhere in the middle. Will it be enough to beat Washington, Utah and Stanford?
Stanford (4-2, 2-1): It seems like every year, no matter who leaves, the Stanford offense gets worse while the defense gets better. And the numbers (almost) bear that out. From 2011 to now, the Cardinal has risen from 30th to 11th to 10th to first in scoring defense and from 28th to 20th to 16th to second in total defense, while dropping from seventh to 72nd, rising to 45th and then dropping to 89th in scoring offense, and repeating that pattern (eighth to 86th to 69th to 85th) in total offense. The combination has been enough to reach a BCS every time, and to win the Pac-12 in the last two seasons. Are the scales tipped too far this time around?
Oregon State (4-1, 1-1): Oregon State was 4-1 at this point last season and eventually rose to 6-1 before the top half of the Pac-12 showed up on the schedule, and the Beavers finished 6-6 before beating Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. The Beavers have four ranked teams left on the slate, plus resurgent Cal and Washington.
Washington (5-1, 1-1): How’s this for a Chris Petersen effect? Washington leads the country in turnover margin – a modest 15 takeaways versus an astounding one giveaway – and rank fourth in red zone offense. The Huskies started slow out of the gate, beating Hawaii and Eastern Washington by eight combined points, and have performed like a top 20 team since, blowing out Illinois and Cal (plus Georgia State) and going toe-to-toe with Stanford before time expired on their final drive.
California (4-2, 2-2): The Bears squeaked by Washington State (60-59) and Colorado (59-56 in double overtime), which means Sonny Dykes has quadrupled his win total from year one to year two, and put Cal in position to return to bowl action for the first time since 2011. Considering their next six opponents (UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, Stanford and BYU) are a combined 25-10, they were sorely needed wins.
Washington State (2-5, 1-3): More than fun late-night/early-morning fodder, Washington State’s 60-59 loss on a blown field goal to Cal had lasting consequences for Wazzu. It shut the door on any realistic, non “hope for a miracle” shot the Cougars had at a bowl game.
USC (4-2, 3-1): Let’s go straight to the source. How does Steve Sarkisian feel about the first half of USC’s season? “We’re a Hail Mary away from being a top five team in the country.” Well, okay then. (They’re also two good kickers away from being 2-4).
Arizona (5-1, 2-1): Did you see how Rich Rodriguez looked after his kicker missed that field goal against USC? He looked like David Putty after Kramer informed him he’d prepared the salad he was eating in the shower. Brutal as that loss was, chalk it up to karmic payback for the Hill Mary that beat Cal.
Arizona State (4-1, 2-1): Everyone’s talking about the SEC West, but Arizona State is in the midst of five dates with ranked teams in six games, plus a trip to Tucson to close the season. The Sun Devils get a chance to payback the 38-14 beatdown Stanford gave them at Sun Devil Stadium for the Pac-12 title last season.
Utah (4-1, 1-1): Everyone’s talking about Arizona State’s schedule (in the conversation I just started two sentences ago), but Utah also has five ranked teams in six weeks before closing with Colorado. How often do you think Kyle Whittingham will relive the events that saw Utah go from a 21-0 lead to a 28-27 loss to Washington State this offseason?
UCLA (4-2, 1-2): In two weeks UCLA has gone from a top 10 ranked national title contender to out of the rankings and a national disappointment. The Bruins are acting (and spending) like an elite college football program, and now they’ll get treated like one.
Colorado (2-4, 0-3): Poor Colorado. There’s a lot of evidence Mike MacIntyre has done good things with the Buffaloes, but with a Pac-12 South schedule plus Colorado State, their schedule does them absolutely no favors.