Non-conference play is all but completed. Purdue's game with Notre Dame on Saturday is the only signature date left on the non-league slate, and the rest of them are mostly uninspiring contests (Wisconsin-Cal Poly in November comes to mind) that are sprinkled intermittently through the conference schedule. So as we gear up for another Big Ten season starting on Saturday, where are we at with each program?
Ohio State: The Buckeyes are at a crossroads. After the wipeout in Los Angeles and mostly disappointing wins against lower-level teams, Jim Tressel has made a quarterback change. Highly touted freshman Terrelle Pryor is now in charge. It remains to be seen whether the prospect of a fourth straight conference championship will motivate this program now, having scaled so close to the national heights in recent years. If so, all they need to do is survive at Wisconsin in two weeks and from there just defend their homefield in key games. The Pryor decision was a risky move from a coach not known for such gambles. We'll see how this one turns out, but with Chris Wells on the way back, I would have stayed with Boeckman.
Wisconsin: Got a big win at Fresno State and looks to meet the expectations of being a BCS bowl contender, and perhaps more. The big drawback is that Alan Evridge has still not thrown well at times when he has to. Whether he can do so or not will be known quickly. The Badgers go to Michigan on Saturday, then come home to face Ohio State & Penn State. It's as a big a three-week run as any Big Ten team could possibly have.
Penn State: Lion fans have to keep optimism in check, because the four non-league games weren't that compelling, but there's no question this is the most explosive PSU offense in some time. The only two Paterno offenses that could put up points like this one came in 1994 & 2005. Penn State went a combined 24-1 in those years and won both its league titles. Now they have to do it when competition starts for real, but this is a team with a good feel to it right now.
Michigan: What can be said that hasn't be said already? They've got problems that aren't going away soon. What we need to find out about is their sense of UM pride. Are they going to want to defend their house ferociously, even if they fall from the conference race? Will the defense play up to its potential (no excuses on a new system here)? Michigan needs five more wins to get to a bowl, and from what we've seen thus far, finding those five isn't going to be easy.
Michigan State: One of the more intriguing teams on the mid-level. Brian Hoyer has to take some pressure off Javon Ringer if they are going to beat anybody really good, but betwen Ringer & the discipline of Mark Dantonio that really seems to have taken root here, East Lansing is definitely a place for contenders to avoid. Ohio State & Wisconsin both come here. And if OSU, UW & PSU fill two BCS slots plus the Capital One Bowl, that leaves the Outback bid open. I still don't see this Spartan team as New Year's caliber, but the same can be said of everyone else in the race. And they look like the most viable possibility to step up.
Illinois: At the start of the season, I saw them taking a step back and having to fight to seven wins, with 8-4 being a highwater mark. No reason to change my mind now, but given the problems they had with UL-Lafayette, seven might be the new highwater mark.
Purdue: I thought a New Year's Day game was in the works at the start of the year, and it still could be. But the Boilers haven't impressed early on, with their narrow escape over Central Michigan being the latest example. But if they beat Notre Dame, they're still in good position to send Joe Tiller to a bowl in his final season, and if nothing else they're stronger then Indiana and can reclaim the Old Oaken Bucket.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes are just not getting the kind of production they need from the offense in general and Jake Christiansen in particular. A loss at Pitt puts them in an uphill battle for a bowl bid. The defense and Ferentz will keep them in that hunt, but sooner or later they are going to need to produce points.
Northwestern: It was fun tracking this team in non-conference, as hard-fought wins over Duke & Ohio keyed a 4-0 record that gives them a chance at a bowl. They need more out of Tyrrell Sutton. He's had a good year, but he's a player with the potential to be great, and NU needs him to be that if they are going to find three more wins on their remaining docket.
Indiana: The loss to Ball State signaled pretty clearly that its time to rebuild after the emotion-laden bowl season of 2007 in honor of Terry Hoeppner. Kellen Lewis is easily the most exciting quarterback in the league though, so the Hoosiers will still be worth watching.
Minnesota: At 4-0, they've beaten Bowling Green and are a potential dark horse right now. Adam Weber's starting to play better under center. And they get Northwestern at home. That November 1 date is one to circle, as both teams need it if they are going to get bowl-eligible. But I remain skeptical of the Gophers' abilty to beat other Big Ten teams.