After four weeks of beating up on teams they were supposed to beat, members of the Big Ten Conference get to start pounding on each other Saturday, with many questions hanging in the air.
Can Ohio State make it six straight years of grabbing a piece or all of the conference championship? Can Iowa throw the Buckeyes off the track in their head-to-head matchup in November? Does Wisconsin get in the mix? Does Penn State have a legitimate shot at a title or are the Nittany Lions more of a spoiler than a contender?
Six teams begin Big Ten play with an unbeaten record, but Iowa, surprisingly, is not one of them. The Hawkeyes had an uncharacteristic game in their loss to now-No. 14 Arizona, with the Wildcats blocking a punt, returning an interception for a touchdown, and ripping off a 100-yard kickoff return.
Still, the Hawkeyes are there with Ohio State and Wisconsin as the class of the Big Ten. Michigan has a shot to join that trio if quarterback Denard Robinson can stay in one piece; he has accounted for 159 plays (79 rushes, 80 passes) in four games and suffered a knee injury last week. He is expected to play Saturday at Indiana.
In addition to the Buckeyes, Badgers, and Wolverines, the other top-25 unbeaten is Michigan State, which has gotten some fine running from Edwin Baker and freshman Le'Veon Bell in the early going. On Saturday the Spartans welcome back head coach Mark Dantonio. He will sit upstairs in the coaches' box two weeks after having a mild heart attack following an overtime win on a touchdown off a fake field goal over Notre Dame.
Robinson has been the early MVP of the league, but Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor is a mere chain link behind. The junior enjoyed a phenomenal day last Saturday with four touchdown passes, a scoring run, and a TD catch. He is 13th in the nation in total offense.
Robinson and Pryor aren't the only quarterbacks who have played well. Indiana's Ben Chappell threw for 342 yards last week and has sparked a Hoosier aerial game that ranks 11th in the nation. Northwestern's Dan Persa, a Bethlehem Liberty graduate, has completed 80.2 percent of his passes.
It will be interesting to see how Big Ten teams do against more formidable opposition. Only Ohio State upheld the honor of the conference against a ranked team, knocking off No. 12 Miami (Fla.), 36-24, on Sept. 11.
Penn State and Iowa went on the road and lost to Alabama and Arizona, respectively. Minnesota dropped a home game to Southern California.
As for the Nittany Lions, they could immediately fall behind in the title chase Saturday at Iowa. With inexperience at quarterback and a new piece moving in to a still-evolving offensive line, their margin of error isn't great.
Not only do they have their two toughest games (Iowa, Ohio State) on the road, but they also have tough, back-to-back home contests against Michigan and Northwestern. A three-loss Big Ten season is definitely possible unless they can play spoiler when they visit the Buckeyes on Nov. 13.
Getting back to the Big Three, Iowa gets Wisconsin (Oct. 23) and Ohio State (Nov. 20) at home, while the Badgers host the Buckeyes on Oct. 16. It'll be anyone's race, but the guess here is that the Hawkeyes prevail.
The Big Ten regular season opens this weekend, including Penn State's visit to Iowa Saturday night. Here's a quick glance at how the conference has fared this season:
Record vs. ranked teams: 1-3. Only win: Ohio State beat Miami (Fla.).
Record vs. nonconference opponents: 34-8 (two games still to be played).
Record vs. Mid-American Conference teams: 11-2. Purdue lost to Toledo and Minnesota fell to Northern Illinois.
Record vs. FCS (Division I-AA) teams: 9-1. Minnesota lost to South Dakota.
Record vs. Notre Dame: 2-1. W's for Michigan and Michigan State, an L for Purdue.
Teams ranked in preseason top 25: Four. Ohio State (2), Iowa (9), Wisconsin (12), Penn State (19). No other teams received votes.
Teams currently ranked in top 25: Six (a seventh team, Northwestern, received votes). They are:
No. 2 Ohio State (4-0), No. 11 Wisconsin (4-0), No. 17 Iowa (3-1), No. 19 Michigan (4-0), No. 22 Penn State (3-1),No. 24 Michigan State (4-0).
Best schedule: Iowa plays each of the other five ranked teams, but four of those games are at home.
Honorable mention: Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue don't have to play two of the six ranked teams.
Nonconference MVP: Denard Robinson, Michigan.
Stellar quarterbacks: Robinson is one of seven Big Ten quarterbacks ranked in the top 20 nationally in passing efficiency: Northwestern's Dan Persa (third), Iowa's Ricky Stanzi (fifth), Indiana's Ben Chappell (sixth), Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien (eighth), Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor (13th), Michigan State's Kirk Cousins (17th), and Robinson (18th).
Biggest surprise: Michigan State freshman running back Le'Veon Bell has seven TDs.
Let's not get crazy: Like this season, Michigan went 4-0 in its 2009 nonconference schedule. But then the Wolverines went on to finish 1-7 in the league.
Watch out for: Minnesota. After losing at home to both an FCS team and a MAC team, the Golden Gophers could either pack it in or come out fighting. - Joe JulianoEndText