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Week 5 in the Big 2, Little 9

Well, I think this past week made things fairly obvious that the Big Ten, much like in the 70’s and early 80’s is a two-team race. We’re just going into the third week of conference play, the second full week, and only three teams remain unbeaten in conference play: Michigan, Ohio State, and Purdue. While Ohio State and Michigan both are likely to roll unbeaten through the remaining five games of their respective conference schedules before facing each other, Purdue likely will not. Even though the Boilermakers have the fortuitous luck of not playing the powerhouses, our defense simply will blow at least one game against Iowa, Penn State, and Wisconsin, thereby knocking us out of the race.

It’s time to officially say that the Big Ten has stepped back a bit in terms of competition outside of the big two. Iowa clearly was not up to the task, as either the Buckeyes are really, really or good, or maybe the Hawkeyes aren’t as good as everyone think. This writer will be the first to admit he was wrong in thinking Drew Tate was the class quarterback of the Big Ten. I didn’t see much of Saturday night’s game, but Tate seemed to come unglued when the game mattered most. Iowa’s defense didn’t do much of a job in slowing down the Buckeye offense, and it appears that Iowa has regressed to the mean in the Big ten as opposed to rising to the top.
That’s not to say that it’s not exciting football, however. The race for third place should be among the best in the country as Purdue, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa will all be fighting for that New Year’s Day spot. Thanks to the likelihood both Michigan and Ohio State will be going to the BCS, there will be two New Year’s Day spots available for those four teams. The next four week should go a long way in determining who gets those two spots, as Purdue faces each of the other three, while Wisconsin still has games against Iowa and Penn State.

To editorialize a bit before I go on to do my weekly Big Ten rankings, I found it interesting this week that projected the first blood feud of my marriage with the Boilers facing the Miami Hurricanes in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Florida. I knew that with the new bowl contracts this season that it was a possibility as it is a guaranteed ACC/Big Ten match up, and I even thought Purdue had a shot at getting there by virtue of a projected middle of the pack conference finish. I certainly did not expect Miami to fall to fifth in the ACC and end up there, and certainly not in the first year possibly. While I am relishing the potential for my Boilers to grab a "name" bowl win if they should face the Canes, I don’t know if our marriage can survive the month-long buildup to such a game.

You see, we are both die-hard fans of our respective alma maters. My wife attended Miami from 1998-2002, during which time the Canes won a national title, got robbed of playing for a second, and she was still living down there in 2002 when they played for (and were robbed) of another. To say she has a confidence and swagger when it comes to college football is like calling the Pacific Ocean a little damp. Through her I have become a Hurricane fan and have adopted them as my second team. While my Boilers don’t boast nearly the college football history that the Canes do, she has been loving enough to tolerate my obsession and join me with season tickets, making them her co-number 2 team with Oregon (I have no idea what to expect with the Purdue-Oregon home and home in 2008-09). She even got me a musical stuffed Purdue Pete for Christmas that holds the same stature as her musical stuffed Sebastian D. Ibis on Saturdays for us. We both are passionate about our teams, and are passionate for each other’s

As long as they don’t play each other, that is.

In her other sport, college baseball, Miami would rule Purdue anyway. In my main sport, basketball, Purdue won the last meeting in the 1999 NCAA tournament, but she doesn’t care about college basketball. A Canes-Boilers college football game would be a sports apocalypse for us. They haven’t played since the early 80’s since we were in pre-school, so we have nothing to compare it to. Normally, I would give the edge to Miami, but as bad as the Canes have been this year, even she has said Purdue would have a more than decent chance to win. Miami looked downright awful in somehow beating Houston, and will probably get pummeled in games reaming against Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech.

The reason I say all this is because I think it is something we as Purdue fans should root for. Having seen both extensively this year, Purdue would have the advantage because Miami is one of the few teams that would make our defense look good, and I know our offense can score against them. It’s the type of win that would really resonate even though Miami is very much on a down note.

That and it would be nice to just have one thing to say in the face of five national championships.
In the mean time, let’s look at the overall Big Ten bowl picture. It’s time to remove Michigan State from serious consideration of even making a bowl after losing to Illinois. Meanwhile, the Illini, yes the lowly Illini, now have a chance to make a bowl game with just one more upset. They will likely be favored in games remaining against IU and Ohio, and they have winnable game against Northwestern, meaning more upset gets them to the magic six.

The Big Ten pecking order:
It’s their championship to lose, national or otherwise:

1. Ohio State (I’m not picking against them again)
2. Michigan (I was wrong in saying they didn’t have the Michigan attitude)
Sure bowl teams:
3. Wisconsin (looked better against the Wolverines than Iowa against OSU)
4. Iowa (It should also be noted, Wisconsin did it on the road, Iowa was at home)
Likely bowl bound, but who knows where:
5. Purdue (more on this in a minute)
6. Penn State (Temple, Illinois, Mich. St. left, Purdue is a toss-up, needs 3)
Still alive, but they need take care of business:
7. Minnesota (IU, N. Dakota St., are wins, Mich. State and Penn State are toss-ups)
Revived, but still not a good chance:
8. Illinois (Welcome back to the land of the living, unless you lose to IU)
Michigan State (Simply blew a gimme, 2 left with Purdue, Minn, and PSU up in the air. They need three of these five to finish the year)
"Bring out your dead!"
Northwestern (Playing some good D, but the offense left town last year)
11. Indiana (Simply not playing anything well at all, except Badger 3rd stringers)

I think in that group, Purdue is the most interesting because with its offense, they can truly go either way. If the boilers can simply limit the dropped passes and finish drives, a problem that it really only showed itself badly against Notre Dame, the offense can overcome that defense. While the Irish are gloating over an easy win and garbage yards, they can’t really be discounted as garbage yards when dropped passes and dumb penalties led to three scoring drives that ventured into ND territory that yielded no points. Put in a missed field goal and a fumble, and replace those with five made field goals (assuming they are attempted instead of going for it) and it’s a 1-point Purdue win. I’m not going to be delirious and say we’re running the table. I am going to say we have a shot in every single game left, with the hardest being Saturday at Iowa, and the season closer at Hawaii.

The defense is bad yes, but it is improving. It’s never statistically going to look good unless we pitch about three straight shutouts and limit teams to 150 yards or less in them. That’s just the law of numbers working against us. We don’t truly face another fantastic passing game until that Hawaii game, so with constant improvement there is hope for five or six more wins. It’s not like the rest of our schedule is exactly going nuts against the world. Indiana and Northwestern need to be certain wins, Illinois should be a certain win, but they showed heart in winning at MSU. You get a split at home against Wisconsin and Penn State and suddenly you have 8 wins and three more games that are winnable. Just one game at a time. This week against Iowa will tell a lot, as a win would have to put Purdue in the driver’s seat for third place.

Meanwhile, it’s time for my top 25 nationally, with last week’s rankings in parenthetics:
1. (2) Ohio State (and it’s not even close so far)
2. (1) Auburn (Theirs to lose in a tough SEC)
3. (3) Michigan
4. (4) LSU (Prove-it game this week vs. Florida)
5. (6) Florida
6. (5) USC
7. (7) Louisville (I want to see that W. Virginia-Louisville game)
8. (8) West Virginia (should have bought Louisville season tix just to go to Miami-Louisville and sell W. Va.-Louisville)
9. (12) Texas (Very quietly staying around)
10. (14) Oregon (another team with a late season showdown)
11. (13) Notre Dame (The offense is better, the defense is much, much worse)
12. (11) Georgia
13. (16) Tennessee
14. (18) California (Oh what might have been if not for week 1)
15. (19) Clemson
16. (15) Oklahoma
17. (23) Georgia Tech (same comment as Cal)
18. (21) Boise State
19. (24) Missouri (playing VERY well right now, but not against anyone)
20. (22) Florida State
21. (NR) Rutgers (why not?)
22. (20) Nebraska
23. (10) Iowa (yeah, Ohio state is good, but still have some pride at home)
24. (9) Virginia Tech (and I barely put them here)
25. (NR) Wake Forest (you stay unbeaten this long, you get ranked by me)
Dropped out: (17) TCU, (25) Purdue
Close consideration: Wisconsin, Purdue, TCU, Texas Tech, Boston College

My final note of the week is gone in favor of branching out to lobby for Notre Dame fans to cheer for Purdue. Yes, I recognize that I hate you and most of you guys hate us, but look at it this way. Does it not help your resume to get back in the title chase if we do as well as possible? With a fairly weak schedule, an 11-2 or even 12-1 season is possible if the offense is really smoking well. Even at 9-4 it makes you guys look better, because Stanford, Navy, Air Force, and North Carolina won’t be loads of help. Schedule strength is crucial and each win Purdue gets makes Notre Dame look better for beating them. So congratulations on your win, and if you truly want to succeed this year, cheer for us to do the same.