Big Ten Football: Conference Play Midterm Grades and Rose Bowl Chances

David Fitzgerald IICorrespondent INovember 5, 2013

Big Ten Football: Conference Play Midterm Grades and Rose Bowl Chances

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    All Big Ten teams have now played half of their conference games, with some teams already having played five B1G games. When we last graded the performances of the conference contenders back in September, it was difficult to discern the relative strength of these teams after less than one week of conference play.

    Now there is more than enough data to grade these teams accurately and handicap the chances each has to win a chance to go to Pasadena.

    The following grades are based on team statistics, records and the all-important "eye test" that always fails the Badgers come time for computer rankings. The chances to win the Big Ten title are based on my own rough predictions, assisted by Vegas lines, of how the remaining games will play out.

    With the contenders and pretenders officially separated from one another, let's take a look at how your favorite team grades heading into the final four weeks of the regular season.

Michigan State: 5-0, 8-1

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: A-


    Chance of Division Title: 73%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 32%

    Remaining Schedule—BYE, at Nebraska, at Northwestern, Minnesota

    Although it took half a season to get rolling, the Michigan State offense finally looks competent with Connor Cook now taking most of the snaps. Cook has thrown for 13 touchdowns to only three interceptions, which allows the defense to avoid bad field position situations.

    Speaking of that defense, it just keeps getting better for Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi. The stingy Spartans rank in the top five nationally by giving up only 210 yards per game and 11.6 points per game against ranks third nationally.

    Over the course of a game, the Spartans coil up like a snake and suffocate all hope from the opposing offense, just like in Saturday's dominant win over Michigan.

    Despite having a nasty road trip to Lincoln left, it is difficult to see MSU losing more than one game down the stretch (while Nebraska likely drops another along the way).

    Once in Indianapolis, Michigan State would have nearly a 40-45 percent chance to knock off the Buckeyes or Badgers, by far the best chance of any Legends Division team.

    With this defense, all things are possible, including a rare Rose Bowl for the program. Win the next one in Lincoln, and the Spartans can spend three weeks preparing for the Buckeye offense.

Nebraska: 3-1, 6-2

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    Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: C


    Chance of Division Title: 23%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 8%

    Remaining Schedule—at Michigan, Michigan State, at Penn State, Iowa

    Nebraska magically ends up at 10-4 or 9-4 every year under the Bo Pelini regime, and the Cornhuskers look headed for that fate once again. Even if the Cornhuskers manage to sweep the tough back half of the conference slate, the Ohio State offense would likely crush the vulnerable Nebraska defense like Wisconsin did a season ago.

    On offense, Nebraska continues to rely heavily on Ameer Abdullah, who has run for more than 1,100 yards on the season.

    With Taylor Martinez out of the lineup, the offense just does not have the same kick that it had over the past three years.

    The statistics look good with 468 yards per game compared to giving up only 399 per game, but this is misleading thanks to the weak schedule played to date. The only FBS teams with winning records that have played the Cornhuskers have outgained Nebraska by more than 100 yards and outrushed the Huskers by more than 70 yards. That is not good enough, hence the C grade.

    In other words, the defense is not letting the offense keep up with teams that have a pulse.

    All teams left on the schedule also have proven to be capable, which means Nebraska is just as likely to go 1-3 down the stretch as 3-1. The only thing keeping the division title number up is getting MSU at home.

Minnesota: 3-2, 7-2

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    Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: B


    Chance of Division Title: 3%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 0.7%

    Remaining Schedule—Penn State, BYE, Wisconsin, at Michigan State

    Who would've guessed that Jerry Kill would spend most of the season not coaching on the sidelines, and yet Minnesota would still be in conference title contention into mid-November? Not any of the conference writers and pundits, apparently, as the general consensus back in August was that Minnesota and Iowa would fall well short in the Legends Division race.

    Yet here the Golden Gophers sit, having won three conference games in a row to lock up another winning record. Minnesota has actually followed the Michigan State formula of success (also used by Jerry Kill at Northern Illinois) of running hard and playing tough defense.

    The Gophers rank 20th nationally with 221 rushing yards per game, and a no-name player from the beginning of the season, David Cobb, has become the team leader offensively. Part-time quarterback Mitch Leidner has also shown some toughness running the ball as well. Philip Nelson has limited his mistakes as a sophomore, throwing only four interceptions so far in the season.

    The defense ranks in the top half of the conference by giving up only 384 yards per game, but that is 20 yards more than the Gophers offense is producing. That means Minnesota should be trending much more towards 6-6 than 9-3 or 10-2.

    Minnesota's toughest games are ahead, and it will take a lot of help (a Nebraska win over MSU and a Nebraska loss to someone else) to cash in that 3 percent chance to be in Indianapolis as a division champion. Still, labeling a likely eight- or nine-win season anything other than a success would be folly in Minneapolis.

Michigan: 2-2, 6-2

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: C-


    Chance of Division Title: 1%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 0.3%

    Remaining Schedule—Nebraska, at Northwestern, at Iowa, Ohio State

    Whether Michigan "is back" or not under Brady Hoke is irrelevant to the here and now.

    For the 2013 season, Michigan has been nothing short of disappointing and a failure. With three years of his recruits in the system and question marks in many of the other Legends Division contenders, this was finally supposed to be the year the Wolverines made the Big Ten Championship.

    Instead, Michigan needs a miraculous set of circumstances to even get to Indianapolis. Michigan State must lose two of the final three games and Michigan must win a tiebreaker with three teams in order to get to Indianapolis. That will require wins over Nebraska and Ohio State, a tall task for a team with defensive problems (360 yards allowed per game).

    Hoke prides himself on building solid offensive lines, but the young players on Michigan's offensive front have a long way to go to be a dominant unit.

    When the vocal and talented leader Taylor Lewan loses his head multiple times in games, it is not a good sign. As a result, the Wolverines have struggled to rush for about 155 yards per game.

    Devin Gardner also does not have enough time to make the reads, and that shows in his mistakes in bigger games.

    Michigan has proven it can outscore some teams but being a more talented version of Indiana is not acceptable. If Michigan does not shape up soon, the home winning streak under Hoke will be gone, as will the New Year's Day bowl streak.

Iowa: 2-3, 5-4

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    Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

    Grade: B-


    Chance of Division Title: 0%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 0%

    Remaining Schedule—at Purdue, BYE, Michigan, at Nebraska

    Iowa has exceeded expectations and is a much better team than the 4-8 disaster that lost the final six games in 2012.

    With a road game at struggling Purdue this weekend, the Hawkeyes should get the all-important sixth win and bowl eligibility. Then the season will end with a chance to finish wrecking the dreams of teams currently above them in the standings.

    Iowa has a great defense, holding opponents to 19 points per game (17th nationally) and 325 yards per game. Although both games ended in double-digit losses, Iowa held Wisconsin and Ohio State in check for most of those games. The Hawkeyes also made Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch look ineffective for a second straight season.

    The problem is the offense, where Greg Davis is still figuring out what to do with the talent he has. Sometimes the game plans, such as the use of three tight end sets against Ohio State, have been genius. Sometimes, the play calling is ridiculously predictable and easy to stop, especially in the running game.

    Jake Rudock has clearly won the starting quarterback job, but passing for 205 yards per game needs to improve to take the pressure off the running game. Still, the running backs are mostly healthy, and Iowa will be headed to the postseason, barring an unexpected collapse. That's positive for a program desperately needing such momentum.

Northwestern: 0-5, 4-5

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    He's Dead, Jim.
    He's Dead, Jim.Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: F


    Chance of Division Title: 0%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 0%

    Remaining Schedule—BYE, Michigan, Michigan State, at Illinois

    Remember when Northwestern was 4-0, hosting College GameDay and everyone was talking about how the closing stretch of home games against the Michigan schools would be massive? Well it turns out that those games mean nothing but pride now, as the wheels have fallen completely off in crushing losses at Iowa and Nebraska to go to 0-5 in Big Ten play.

    Sure, the Wildcats have been highly competitive in four of those five conference games, but results are all that count. Northwestern has been outgained 399-418 in yards this season, on average. With Kain Colter and Venric Mark not healthy for most of the season, the high-octane offense from 2012 has disappeared.

    That makes a difference when the margin for error is as narrow as it usually is for Northwestern. Last year, the Wildcats came a few minutes and a few points away from a conference title, but there were plenty of narrow victories as well. This year, those narrow wins have become all losses.

    The situation may be unfair with all the injuries, but the bottom line is that this is a team expected to contend for a conference title. Instead, two losses to the Michigan schools will leave Northwestern home for the holidays. That's quite a fall, following up on the first bowl victory in decades last year.

Ohio State: 5-0, 9-0

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: A


    Chance of Division Title: 95%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 58%

    Remaining Schedule—BYE, at Illinois, Indiana, at Michigan

    Ohio State survived the toughest stretch of the schedule against Wisconsin and Northwestern (although in retrospect, the Wildcats were at full strength for only that game) and now is absolutely blowing apart lesser competition. Expect nothing different against Illinois, which has not won a conference game since 2011, and Indiana, which has no defense.

    The trip to Ann Arbor could be tricky, and a game against possibly the best defense in the country in Indianapolis will be tough as well, but the Buckeyes will be favored. What Urban Meyer did last year was a miracle, but this year the muscle of the program is on display. The Buckeyes lead the conference with 531 yards of offense a game, and the defense is solid, giving up only 312 yards per game.

    The running game has thrived with Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, but the team has rushed for over 300 yards per game thanks to other contributors as well. Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson give this team explosiveness, while the set of receivers keep defenses honest against the run. Power and speed mixed with changing tempos...it's an Urban Meyer offense, all right.

    There's nothing more that could be asked of the Buckeyes, other than maybe lucking into a better schedule. But that's out of their control now, as are the fates of Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Baylor. If history is any guide, Ohio State takes care of business, and it will be featured in the second game in Pasadena in January, not the Rose Bowl.

    Even a Rose Bowl makes for a great season though.

Wisconsin: 4-1, 6-2

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    Heartland Trophy, ahoy!
    Heartland Trophy, ahoy!Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

    Grade: A-


    Chance of Division Title: 5%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 3%

    Remaining Schedule—BYU, Indiana, at Minnesota, Penn State

    Although Michigan State will be the team opposite Ohio State in the Big Ten championship, Wisconsin likely deserves to get another chance at the Buckeyes. Just like OSU, Wisconsin is ranked in the top three in total offense and total defense in the conference, evidencing the dominant play to date. Add to that the better results in wins over Northwestern and Iowa (compared to the same games for the Buckeyes), and Wisconsin could make an argument for best team in the conference.

    However, the Badgers will not get to prove that unless Ohio State falls flat in an unexpected way.

    Expect the great numbers (outgaining opponents 495 to 286 in yardage) to continue against a relatively soft closing stretch. Wisconsin is powered by the running game of Melvin Gordon and James White, both of whom have been in starring roles in recent weeks. Joel Stave may be a "game manager," but all he does is make plays when needed to win games.

    That sounds a lot like AJ McCarron. Which is not a bad place to be, all things considered. Had Wisconsin won at Arizona State, the national rankings may be better and a BCS bowl would be possible. However, there is no guarantee Wisconsin gets there even at 11-1. If Wisconsin drops to the Capital One Bowl, the SEC opponent better watch out because this team is nearly as good as Ohio State.

    Yes, the three-time defending conference champion has played better than expected, earning a top grade.

Penn State: 2-2, 5-3

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    Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: C+


    Chance of Division Title: 0%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 0%

    Remaining Schedule—at Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska, at Wisconsin

    Penn State could technically tie for a division title, but that requires a win in Madison (not likely) and two Ohio State losses. As a result, the Nittany Lions will not finish as high as last year's second-place finish in the Leaders Division. The lack of depth is showing as Penn State struggles against the likes of Illinois and Indiana.

    Christian Hackenberg and Allen Robinson are great talents, but it will take a full offseason before they are ready to really burn the Big Ten. Averaging 436 yards per game is a good start, but the road will get tougher against Minnesota and Wisconsin on the road. Perhaps this season was destined to be lost with four tough road conference games and a freshman quarterback.

    Nobody wants to hear it, but the rebuilding begins now in Happy Valley. The good news is that the star talent is there. The depth, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, needs to be improved and maintained for this to become a contender in the East Division in years to come.

    A 6-6 finish seems possible at this point, but Penn State could also rally to 8-4 again. Either way, the team earns a passing grade thanks to taking care of business despite some bad circumstances. Anything higher than a C would not be a realistic look at a middling team in the conference though.

Indiana: 1-3, 3-5

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    Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: D+


    Chance of Division Title: 0%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 0%

    Remaining Schedule—Illinois, at Wisconsin, at Ohio State, Purdue

    When the Hoosiers failed to protect the home field with a rally that fell 10 yards short against Minnesota, the road to a bowl game became incredibly tough for Indiana. Winning a road game at Madison or Columbus is now required to reach six wins, and Indiana only has itself to blame. Losses to teams like Navy are simply inexcusable.

    The Hoosiers are fun to watch if you like offense, averaging 512 yards per game on offense and 507 yards surrendered per game on defense. This defensive statistic is 50 yards worse than any other team, including the rebuilding Illinois defense. So much for Kevin Wilson figuring out a way to motivate his defense to reach new levels.

    Of course, having an offense that competes statistically with Ohio State is a bright side. Regardless of which of the three quarterbacks is leading the Hoosiers, the passing game is potent with 333 passing yards per game (10th nationally). That will at least keep things interesting against most opponents but not great opponents like OSU and Wisconsin.

    Not going to a bowl game again and having a 8-24 record with no improvement on defense is not a good sign for the longevity of Kevin Wilson. While a move likely would not be made immediately, the seat will get warm with these continued disappointing seasons. Indiana manages a D+ basically thanks to the good offense and by comparison to the dumpster fires on the next two pages.

Illinois: 0-4, 3-5

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    17 Losses in a Row!
    17 Losses in a Row!Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: D


    Chance of Division Title: 0%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 0%

    Remaining Schedule—at Indiana, Ohio State, at Purdue, Northwestern

    Illinois lost a huge chance at the first Big Ten win for Tim Beckman this past week, but the Illini cannot let that ruin the rest of the season. Thanks to the strong start in non-conference play, there remains a chance for a bowl game (more of a chance than Indiana has, anyway). Nobody expects the OSU game to be a win, but the other three games are against the other three worst teams in the Big Ten.

    Still, it would be quite a turnaround for a team with so many consecutive conference losses to win three out of four to end the regular season. Instead, it seems far more likely that Illinois will be staying home for bowl season once again. The next four weeks should be a swan song for quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has led this program through the darkest times of a coaching change.

    Illinois is giving up 462 yards per game, which is a stat that a team like Indiana has to be salivating over. Expect some serious fireworks and points in Bloomington, and count on a four-hour game (or longer). Beckman needs to finally win a couple of games to show real improvement, or else the questions will start to come on how long this tenure will last.

    Until those wins occur, a grade no higher than a D is all Illinois can get. This team simply needs to play much better, especially on defense.

Purdue: 0-4, 1-7

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    Thought about a train wreck photo, but I'll be nice.
    Thought about a train wreck photo, but I'll be nice.Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Grade: E

    Chance of Division Title: 0%
    Chance of Rose Bowl: 0%

    Remaining Schedule—Iowa, at Penn State, Illinois, at Indiana

    You can't spell "Boiler Up" without the letter E, which is a failing grade at some Big Ten universities, which like to avoid the negative feelings associated with the letter F. Sounds like a smart kid thing, and there are plenty of those at Purdue. Unfortunately, smart kids are getting an education in football as the Boilermakers and NU Wildcats are collectively being pounded in conference play.

    While Northwestern is fully deserving of the F, Purdue gets something more dignified on its face because Danny Hope left this cupboard barren. Let's hope the 56-0 shellacking by OSU is the low point (it does tie the largest margin of defeat in school history), although at least the battle of the bands was entertaining on Saturday in West Lafayette.

    It does not get much better looking at the statistics. Purdue has scored 17 points in four conference games. Let that sink in.

    17 POINTS IN FOUR CONFERENCE GAMES!

    Even with weaker defenses in Illinois and Indiana to close the season, there's little hope for an offense averaging a mere 258 yards per game to look forward to. Darrell Hazell is playing a lot of younger players, and that should continue to build for the future. Purdue will be in the basement for a couple of years here, so program building is the goal.

    Still, the results on the field this year are a true embarrassment. This is not a Big Ten football team; this is FCS team caliber. Thus, Purdue fails, but in a nice "E" engineering school fail sort of way.