Yeah, it's early. Very early.
But there's no escaping this simple fact: The Big Ten looks downright awful at the moment. And to be completely honest, I don't see things improving anytime soon.
On what has to considered one of the worst Saturdays on record for Jim Delany's once-powerful conference, the Big Ten saw Penn State lose to ACC also-ran Virginia, Wisconsin lose to Pac-12 also-ran Oregon State, Nebraska lose to another Pac-12 also-ran in UCLA, Iowa lose to Big 12 also-ran Iowa State and Michigan, they of the preseason Top 10 ranking, struggle mightily to secure a narrow win over a so-so Air Force team.
Yes, college football: This is the Big Ten--a collection of overrated teams, severely lacking both in offensive playmakers, defensive stoppers and, in the case of Penn State, any measure of competency in special teams.
Again, it's early, and perhaps we will see improvement from this lot in the weeks to come. But I must say, I have my doubts than we'll see any Big Ten ranked anywhere near the Top 15 by season's end.
Ohio State has looked strong so far under Urban Meyer, but of course, there's that little issue of those NCAA sanctions--sanctions that will keep the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten title game and, by extension, the big national picture. About the only legit contender left, then, is Michigan State, which has strung together a series of strong seasons under coach Mark Dantonio. But having seen the Spartans struggle to overcome a depleted Boise State team, at home, back in Week 1, I don't exactly foresee a grand season in East Lansing, either.
So what's this all mean? Well, I'm not sure we can say just yet.
The reality is, this is a league that currently has two of its top three programs--Ohio State and Penn State--tied up in NCAA purgatory. For any league, even the SEC, such a situation would be problematic. So it certainly cannot be said that the Big Ten is firing on all cylinders at the moment.
But even taking the NCAA turmoil in account, you'd have to figure that a conference as proud as the Big Ten would be better than what we saw on Saturday. But the league, as a collective, was undeniably awful.
And yeah, the nation knows it.
♦ Let's stay in the Big Ten for a moment. As mentioned above, Wisconsin was among the Big Ten teams that, well, stunk beyond all belief this past weekend. And apparently, Badgers fans aren't the only ones unhappy about it. In one of the stranger (and potentially, more desperate) moves we've seen out of the Big Ten in some time, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema on Monday fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson. The move, though yet to be confirmed by Wisconsin, was reported by both the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal. Markuson had come to Wisconsin just a few months back, replacing the departed Bob Bostad. A longtime veteran of the college game, he had previously served as an assistant at such programs as Arkansas, Boise State and Ole Miss. Now, while it is certainly true that the Wisconsin offense has been dreadful so far this season--they entered the fourth quarter against Oregon State with less than 100 total yards on the day--this seems a real overreaction on the part of Bielema. Could Markuson really be solely to blame? Or are there wider issues up there in Madison?
♦ Staying in the Big Ten once again, because, well, the league's implosion is quite simply fascinating. While the Badgers' loss was probably the biggest of the day for the Big Ten, it certainly wasn't the most devastating. That honor has to go to Penn State, who thoroughly outplayed Virginia only to come up one point short when all was said and done. The Nittany Lions moved the ball, played solid on defense and forced four turnovers. But it all went to waste, and for two reasons: 1. Their lack of a legitimate tailback due to the Silas Redd transfer and an injury suffered by Bill Belton; 2. Their lack of a legitimate kicker. Sam Ficken was thrust into the placekicking role after the transfer of Anthony Fera, and I think it's safe to say that Ficken just might not be ready for primetime. Ficken missed a staggering four field goals on the day, including a chip-shot 20-yarder and a 43-yarder that would have won the game as time expired. He also had an extra point blocked. That proved to be the difference. It was a crushing loss for the Nits and had to be especially painful for Ficken, but the reality is, coach Bill O'Brien has nowhere else to turn--at this point, Ficken just might be his best option. Which means the Nits face a very, very long road ahead.
♦ Of course, I could finish the column without making mention of the biggest story of the weekend in college football: The stunning collapse of the Arkansas Razorbacks. The supposed SEC contenders saw their season derailed on Saturday night by Louisiana-Monroe, and it wasn't just that ULM won that was amazing, it was how they won. The Warhawks dominated the Hogs up front, punishing quarterback Tyler Wilson so severely that he had to leave the game, and gashed the Hog defense for 550 yards, including 412 through the air. It was an alarmingly poor performance from a team that was supposed to provide a legit challenge to Alabaman and LSU in the SEC West. But given what we saw on Saturday night, that seems highly unlikely. That was a team is disarray, and you really have to wonder if John L. Smith is actually capable of fixing it.