Bottom is up, top is down. That seems to be the general story in the Big Ten as conference play opens this weekend. While doormats Minnesota and Northwestern have exceeded expectations for the 2008 season and middle-of-the-pack Penn State has blossomed into a legitimate contender, traditional kingpins Ohio State and Michigan have fallen from grace to varying degrees. It's early yet, but the conference looks more balanced than it has in several years, and at any rate, we haven't seen a recurrence of the embarrassing out-of-conference losses that characterized the 2007 season. Unlikely doomsday scenarios aside, there probably won't be a Big Ten representative in the BCS title game in Miami- but the conference as a whole is almost unquestionably stronger than last year.
With September almost gone, a look at the stock of each Big Ten team is in order.
Stock is up
Why their stock is up: The Gophers already have four times as many wins as they did all last year. Sophomore quarterback Adam Weber has upped his completion percentage from 57.5 to 71.8 and has thrown just one interception so far, after serving up nineteen in '07. After ranking dead last in the FBS in total defense last year, the Gophers are all the way up to a rootin' tootin' 65th in that category, and they're fourth in the nation in turnover margin after finishing 115th in '07. They also trounced Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic, a pretty big deal considering both of those schools defeated Minnesota last season.
Why their stock is up: The Artists Formerly Known as the Mild-Cats are 4-0 for the first time since 1962, when Ara Parseghian was coaching in Evanston. After providing Duke with its only victory last season, they bounced back to top the Blue Devils in Durham three weeks ago. Akron Hoban's Tyrell Sutton has returned to form after an injury-plagued 2007. Like Minnesota, the Wildcats have shored things up defensively; they're 33rd in the FBS in total defense, up from 77th last season.
Why their stock is up: The ballyhooed Spread HD has lived up to the hype: Penn State is third in the nation in scoring offense and sixth in total offense after finishing 45th and 55th in those respective categories last season. The Nittany Lions have already scored fifty points in a game twice, as many times as they'd done so in the previous three seasons combined. The addition-by-subtraction of Anthony Morelli from the quarterback spot certainly hasn't hurt either.
Why their stock is up: Sparty's 23-7 thumping of Notre Dame last week snapped a three-game home losing streak to the Irish dating back to the 2000 season. Javon Ringer is leading the nation in scoring and is second in rushing yards to Donald Brown of Connecticut. Now if only MSU could start consistently winning the close ones- they're 2-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less since Mark Dantonio became the head coach- they'd be in really good shape.
Why their stock is up: The Badgers own the Big Ten's best out-of-conference road victory (over Fresno State), and in beating the Bulldogs posted their first road win over a ranked opponent since 2004. Their 51 points scored against Marshall is the most for the program since they ran up 52 on Indiana two years ago. Plus, Ohio State, Penn State, and Illinois all have to go to Camp Randall this season. Their passing game sucks (87th in the nation), but then again, when doesn't it?
Stock is holding
Why their stock is holding: The Boilers are 2-1, but one of their wins was over a horrible FCS team in Northern Colorado, and they melted down like hot Velveeta against Oregon and needed a last-minute rally to beat Central Michigan, who they play seemingly every three weeks. Curtis Painter hasn't exactly set the world on fire thus far. They should be 3-0 with a win over a ranked Pac-10 team; then again, they should also be 1-2 with a home loss to a MAC team. It's tough to get a read on these guys, although this Saturday's trip to South Bend should clarify things somewhat.
Why their stock is holding: The Hawkeyes beat Iowa State, something they've had a tough time doing recently, and they didn't allow a touchdown through their first three games, against admittedly substandard opposition. Shonn Green is well on his way to becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher for Iowa since 2005. But they blew a game to Pitt that they dominated statistically, and off-the-field problems continue to plague the program.
Why their stock is holding: The Illini's start in 2008 looks eerily similar to their start in '07- a high-scoring loss to Missouri which they made look respectable after falling way behind, followed by a pair of wins over inferior teams, one being an in-state FCS school. Despite plenty of talent, the Illini rank just 75th in the nation in total defense, and their tackling in particular has been atrocious. They also had to struggle to put away Louisiana-Lafayette at home two weeks ago.
Stock is down
Why their stock is down: The Hoosiers' two wins are over Murray State and Western Kentucky, and they were hammered last week by Ball State, their first loss to an out-of-conference in-state opponent since 1991. Kellen Lewis is leading the team in rushing but has not thrown the ball as well as he did last season. Losing by three touchdowns to a MAC school does not bode well for the remainder of the schedule.
Why their stock is down: The Buckeyes have looked horrible against USC and ordinary against everyone else. The National Championship aspirations have flat-lined after another embarrassing loss to an out-of-conference powerhouse. They are 92nd in the nation in total offense, behind such juggernauts as Utah State, Middle Tennessee and Tulane. And there's a lot of talk about them not even winning the Big Ten, a conference that was practically conceded to them before the season began. The elevation of Terrell Pryor to the starting quarterback spot and the return to health of Beanie Wells might yet save the season, but it's been so-far, not-so-good in Columbus at the quarter pole.
Why their stock is down: The Wolverines are the only Big Ten team with a losing record, and the only one that has been outscored on the season. They are 106th nationally in total offense with an attack that is almost totally bereft of playmakers. They've looked mediocre to awful in every game so far, and Wisconsin and Illinois are coming to Ann Arbor in the next two weeks. Other than that, everything is just hunky-dory for Rich Rodriguez and Co.
So by this unofficial tally, five Big Ten teams have improved over their performance a year ago, three are holding steady, and three have declined. Stratification is down; parity is up. The conference race is shaping up to be far more interesting than anticipated, and while that isn't necessarily good for the team we're partial to around here, it's good for the Big Ten as a whole.