The Big Ten is becoming one of the more top-heavy conferences in college football. While most of the big programs are off to terrific starts to the season, some of the bottom feeders might as well pack it in at the halfway mark, as 2019 hasn't been too kind to them.
With the season almost 50% through, let's take stock of the conference and separate the contenders from the disappointments.
Firing head coach Chris Ash did little to alleviate the ceaseless spiral of darkness and depression that Rutgers football has become. One of their few bright spots, running back Raheem Blackshear, will redshirt the rest of this year, while quarterback McLane Carter is likely out for a while thanks to injury. The Scarlet Knights, now on QB No. 3 of the season in freshman Johnny Langan, are a glorified scrimmage for almost every other team in college football. Dire straits is too kind a term for this program.
Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats came into the season with extremely high hopes thanks to 5-star transfer Hunter Johnson. It appears that Johnson has been benched for Aidan Smith after throwing just one touchdown and four interceptions. The Wildcats lack the usual toughness mandated by Fitzgerald's squads, as opposing offenses have had no difficulty cutting up Paddy Fisher's defense. Things are going to get worse for the Wildcats as conference play heats up.
Jeff Brohm and the Boilermakers came into this season with so much momentum, but have fallen flat after an injury to starting quarterback Elijah Sindelar. Jack Plummer has proven to be a notch below Sindelar as a passer, while superstar receiver Rondale Moore has been banged up this whole year. Purdue's below-average defense has been getting beat up without the offense to help cushion the blows, and they are fading into the background of the Big Ten West.
The Brandon Peters hype train was alive and well to start this season, but his play has taken a serious downturn ever since Illinois started Big Ten play, as he was awful in losses to Minnesota and Nebraska. Peters suffered an injury last week, putting his availability in doubt for the clash with Michigan. We are in year four of the Lovie Smith era in Champaign, and all the Fighting Illini have to show for it is an 11-30 record and a 4-25 mark in the conference. We're just counting down the days until Smith gets canned at this point.
Tom Allen and the Hoosiers have been the picture of average football over the last few years, but Indiana might finally have a game-changing player in freshman quarterback Michael Penix. Even with Penix making plays with his arm and his legs, the Hoosiers will still be in for some rough games against the very best of the Big Ten, as their defense is looking surprisingly disjointed for a team coached by a former DC in Allen. Indiana will be near .500 again this year, but they might be a team to watch next season.
The air was completely let out of the balloon when Maryland's offense that put up 63 on Syracuse couldn't even muster a point in a 59-0 humbling at the hands of Penn State. Getting their confidence back up by beating up on Rutgers was necessary for Mike Locksley and the Terrapins, but Josh Jackson will need to prove that their early season offensive outburst was not just a flash in the pan. A good way to get started towards that objective is to try and put together something that at least resembles a competent defense.
The media was clearly yearning for the Cornhuskers to return to the days of Tom Osborne, as Adrian Martinez and Nebraska were hyped up as the Big Ten West champions, but were promptly exposed as pretenders by Ryan Day and Ohio State. Having said that, Frost clearly has this team playing at a much higher level than last year, and they'll certainly be in some sort of bowl game. If Frost can resist the temptation to go full Air Raid and strive for balance on offense, the Cornhuskers could easily come in second in the West.
7. Michigan State
Brian Lewerke and the Spartans offense looked a lot better than most expected they would against Ohio State, but that isn't saying much, as Michigan State is one of the most predictable teams on offense in football. Their defense, led by a future NFL stud in Kenny Willekes, is as legit as they come, as they were the first team to make the Buckeyes sweat a little. Sparty still has to play Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State this year, so they could be in for quite the rough go in the coming weeks that sends them spiraling down the Big Ten standings.
The Hawkeyes defense, led by a future NFL star in AJ Epenesa, came to play against Shea Patterson and Michigan. If only the same could be said of the offense. Nate Stanley's three interceptions exposed how limited Iowa's offense is on any given night, as the lethargic pace and lack of downfield passing is going to be a problem for the Hawkeyes' chances to climb in the Big Ten standings. They play Penn State this week, and can put their rough day against Michigan in the past with a strong performance this time out.
PJ Fleck, who had an undefeated Western Michigan team hanging with Wisconsin once upon a time, has worked his magic in Minnesota, and the Golden Gophers are off to a 5-0 start and have earned a Top 25 ranking. Tanner Morgan has the passing attack flying high, and he is throwing to two future pro players in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. Wisconsin still rules the roost out West, and the Gophers will need to go through them to assert their presence as a legit contender, but this is an incredibly encouraging start to Year 3 for Fleck.
Michigan is by no means out of the woods after they were able to beat Iowa 10-3 in the confines of the Big House last weekend. The Shea Patterson-led offense is still very ineffective, and there may be no more criticized offensive coordinator in college football than Josh Gattis. However, Don Brown's defense is back to what it was, as the pass rush ate up Nate Stanley and one of the most talented offensive lines in the country in Iowa. The Wolverines will look to stay hot against a wounded Illinois team before back-to-back games against Penn State and Notre Dame.
3. Penn State
Replacing a campus legend in Trace McSorley is never easy, but Sean Clifford has managed to do that, and then some. Without McSorley or running back Miles Sanders, Clifford, star wide receiver KJ Hamler, and James Franklin have the Nittany Lions in the Top 10, with a 59-0 win in primetime over Maryland announcing their arrival as a legit contender. Penn State has a chance to really rocket up the rankings in the coming weeks, as they will face off against Iowa and Michigan in consecutive games.
Jonathan Taylor and the Badgers are now overwhelming favorites to win the Big Ten West, and anyone that even watched a quarter of Wisconsin football can see that this team is on a different level as compared to the rest of that division. Not only is Taylor rolling and quarterback Jack Coan playing extremely efficient football, but that defense might be the best collective unit in the country. They play Ohio State later in the year in what should end up being a preview of the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.
1. Ohio State
Ohio State is just massacring their opponents right now, as Justin Fields and the Buckeyes are making a legit case to be ranked No. 1 overall. While Fields and JK Dobbins are lighting up the scoreboard, Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, and the defense are grinding opposing offenses into dust. Matchups against Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin loom large, but Ryan Day's group have given every indication that they will rise to the challenge, as they are as good as you'll find across all of college football.