Big Ten looks to put ugly first half behind it
Shortly after Northwestern survived an ugly performance to beat Minnesota on Saturday and improve to 6-1, two officials sat down in the postgame press conference wearing yellow Fiesta Bowl jackets.
With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason and the Big Ten not having a team currently ranked in the BCS standings, the representatives from one of the premier bowls in the country were asked what interest they had in the Wildcats and Golden Gophers.
"We also have the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl," one of them said.
That sounds about right.
The college football season has turned the corner to the second half, and no one is more pleased to put the first half behind than those in the maligned Big Ten.
For a conference that was already being characterized as inferior to the likes of the SEC and Big 12, 2012 couldn't have started much worse for the Big Ten. Ohio State and Penn State — two of the conference's marquee programs — had no shot for postseason play from the get-go because of NCAA sanctions.
Then one of its biggest hopefuls to restore pride to the conference — Michigan — was routed by Alabama in the season opener. The embarrassments kept coming: Iowa losing at home to Iowa State and Central Michigan; Wisconsin had close shaves at home against Northern Iowa and Utah State; and Michigan State was thumped by Notre Dame.
The second half of the season allows the Big Ten to find its collective footing and try to build some momentum toward the bowls, and there are some signs it's happening. Iowa and Michigan are 2-0 in the conference, Northwestern just keeps finding ways to win and Wisconsin appears to have righted itself and gotten back to its power-running ways.
"Early in the year you're just kind of getting into position," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "The No. 1 goal for everybody is to win their conference. You're starting to hit that stretch. Just about everyone has six games left. You want to be starting to hit your peak. That's the challenge."
The Badgers appeared lost over the first three weeks, unable to get Montee Ball and the ground game going, sweating out close home wins over lesser opponents and losing 10-7 at Oregon State. Coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the first game, and the big guys up front have responded in impressive fashion.
Last week, Ball racked up 247 yards in a win over Purdue. Now, with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, the Badgers are in position to represent the Leaders Division.
"We made some fairly significant changes that at the time when we made those choices we knew our guys would have to battle through and endure," Bielema said. "And our players have been able to do that."
If any team could use a fresh start it's Purdue. The Boilermakers started the season with high expectations but they've been hammered in back-to-back weeks against Michigan and Wisconsin, raising questions about coach Danny Hope's job security.
If anything has gone right for the conference this season, it has happened in Columbus, Ohio and State College, Pa. Penn State has somehow weathered the incredible nightmare of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal and Joe Paterno's subsequent death, winning four of the first six games, including their first two in the conference.
Coach Bill O'Brien has the defense playing like the stingy Nittany Lions' units of old, giving weary fans a reason for optimism going forward.
"If you just watch the tape you see coach O'Brien's impact," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's a tremendous coach."
Urban Meyer isn't so bad himself, and his first season at Ohio State is off to a roaring start. The Buckeyes are 7-0 and ranked seventh, joining 23rd-ranked Michigan as the only Big Ten teams in The Associated Press Top 25.
Quarterback Braxton Miller has emerged as one of the best players in the nation and Meyer is already showing dividends on the recruiting trail.
"He understands the offense and manages the offense much better this year," Hope said of Miller. "He's a fantastic athlete and a great competitor and there's nothing he can't do."
Of course, much of the improvement several of these teams have shown could be coming because they're playing other mediocre teams in the conference.
Then again, better days could be on the horizon. Even after what many would consider a subpar Big Ten season last year, the Wolverines still came away with a win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
And no matter how well things go for Iowa in the second half, Ferentz won't allow his Hawkeyes to forget the struggles of the first month.
"We went through a very, very tough loss and we deserved it. The team we lost to played better," Ferentz said of Central Michigan. "That's not that far in our rearview mirror and that's a good reminder what kind of a team we are. We really have to do everything perfect and that's darn near impossible."