Five Things We May Know About The Big Ten
Michigan and Michigan State are good? Ohio State is mortal? Northwestern is butt? I'm writing entirely in questions?
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Depending on the Big Ten team, we’re somewhere between two and four games into the 2021 season. All but three teams (Michigan, Rutgers, and Purdue) have played at least one conference game, however, so we’re beginning to hit the meat of the schedule.
How much have we learned? It’s hard to decipher. I wrote after Week One that it may be a long time before we really know much about Michigan.
We have a good sense of what Michigan can do to below-average or worse teams: flatten them. What will they do against good competition? First we have to figure out when they’ll even play against good competition.
So drawing any conclusions before the end of September is silly, right? Yes. Of course it is.
Let’s do it anyway.
Michigan Is Good
I’m not the one saying it! Or, at least, I’m not the only one saying it. While Washington didn’t turn out to be the marquee non-conference foe Michigan hoped to have on their resumé, the fashion in which they’ve won their three games can still provide information.
As we’ve seen from the likes of Clemson and Ohio State, it’s difficult to string together great performances against even semi-competent competition. The Wolverines have done that versus a decent MAC team with a good MAC offense (WMU), a talented-but-undercoached Washington squad that still rates as a top-20 team by the advanced numbers, and yeah okay NIU is pretty dang bad but still.
This has turned Michigan into analytics darlings. ESPN’s Bill Connelly:
On Saturday, we got the clearest impression yet that Harbaugh's 2021 Wolverines have regained their edge. That they blew out an outmanned Northern Illinois team wasn't in itself very telling; the lack of mercy they showed, however -- even while emptying the bench -- might have been. …
Michigan is 3-0 and has rocketed up to sixth in SP+. From a numbers perspective, the Wolverines have been unassailable.
Split Zone Duo’s Alex Kirshner, appearing in FiveThirtyEight, wrote the case for believing in Michigan based on both the advanced stats (namely opponent-adjusted Expected Points Added) and the way they’ve handled their business:
The Wolverines have been unable to approach their 2016 level over the last four years. But this year, Michigan leads all of FBS in adjusted offensive EPA and is tracking, at this early date, to produce the most efficient offense by EPA of Harbaugh’s career. Adjusted EPA flattens out the results some, since it accounts for the competition level faced, which means the computers aren’t calling fraud on Michigan’s excellent start.
Kirshner’s article is well worth your time, so long as you’re not afraid of some guarded optimism. We don’t know if Michigan is good enough to beat Ohio State or win the conference this year. But they are good. Embrace it.
Michigan State Is Also Good
Ah, that’s inconvenient. Mel Tucker is getting the program back off the ground with an infusion of transfer talent after Mark Dantonio left a barren roster.
Kenneth Walker III, formerly of Wake Forest, leads the country with 164.3 rushing yards per game. (Third: Blake Corum, 135.6.) WR Jayden Reed, last year’s hyped transfer from Western Michigan, is third among Big Ten players in receiving yardage on only 12 receptions. Sophomore Payton Thorne, who beat out Temple transfer Anthony Russo for the starting job, leads B1G quarterbacks in passer rating.
The offense still isn’t exactly moving the ball at will. That wasn’t MSU’s thing under Dantonio, however, and Tucker’s program has taken on a similar identity, ranking 65th in SP+ on offense and 19th on defense. The Spartan defense snuffed out Miami’s rushing offense last weekend while the offense capitalized on four turnovers in a 38-17 win.
The Spartans have some unanswered questions, particularly on the offensive line and in the secondary. This team’s ceiling isn’t as high as those of Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. They may very well ruin one of those teams’ seasons, though.
The Hat Game Will Be Played To Avoid Last Place
There’s a chasm between the East and West divisions this season that could grow wider if Iowa and Wisconsin prove fraudulent. Here are the two divisions sorted by current SP+ ranks:
In the East, Maryland’s emergence — for the moment — as a borderline top-25 team has offset Indiana looking terrible the first time they entered a season with real expectations. Rutgers is 3-0 and looks competent.
In the other division, the numbers are increasingly skeptical of Wisconsin (understandably) and also throwing some side-eye at Iowa’s turnover-fueled start and listless passing attack. The middle of the West pack is exceedingly mediocre.
Then there are Northwestern and Illinois, which rank 85th and 93rd, respectively. That’s beyond normal Big Ten bad; that’s nearing Tim Brewster’s Minnesota and Kyle Flood’s Rutgers territory. Bret Bielema’s Illini are at least in an understandable Year Zero situation.
Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats, on the other hand, are in Year [checks notes] 16 of getting this whole scoring points deal figured out. Northwestern ranks 122nd in offense according to SP+; they’ve tried three QBs and the only effective one almost immediately got hurt. Few defenses would be stingy enough to overcome this offense and this year’s defense doesn’t look to be that good. If they can’t get better QB play, they’re in huge trouble.
Ohio State Is More Vulnerable Than They’ve Been Since The Luke Fickell Interim Season
We dedicated most of a bonus podcast on this subject last week and I’m happy to say it’s maintained its general relevancy.
Since that episode, recorded after Oregon ran all over Ohio State in a way that Michigan’s top-ranked rushing attack may very well be able to replicate, the Buckeyes have:
handed over the defense’s playcalling to Matt Barnes, whose primary duties since being a defensive analyst at Michigan in 2015 have been as a special teams coordinator;
won at home over SP+ #81 Tulsa only after the upset-minded visitors had a first-and-ten in Ohio State territory down 27-20 early in the fourth quarter;
announced QB CJ Stroud will not start against Akron this weekend and only be available in an “emergency capacity” due to a lingering shoulder injury.
While the offense has been excellent outside of a couple bad interceptions from Stroud, the defense has looked shockingly average. The front seven isn’t playing up to its talent and the secondary was looking shaky before losing steady free safety Josh Proctor for the season; Proctor’s replacements are notably less effective (and touted).
I can keep going on OSU’s vulnerabilities, but Kyle McCord or Jack Miller — whichever one replaces Stroud this weekend — will probably throw for 500 yards. That’s how it’s gone for the last couple decades.
Some day, though, it’ll stop working that way.
Quarterback Play Is Likely To Decide The Title
This isn’t unusual. What is unusual is the unproven nature of the conference’s quarterbacks, particularly among the contenders.
The best QB in the Big Ten so far, Taulia Tagovailoa, is on a Maryland team not expected to compete for a title. Preseason darling Indiana and presumed top QB Michael Penix Jr., meanwhile, are off to nightmarish starts.
Let’s try to file the contenders into some categories:
TOUTED YOUNG QB, ABILITY TBD: Ohio State (Stroud/McCord/Miller) and Michigan (McNamara)
TOUTED YOUNG QB WHO’S PROBABLY BAD: Wisconsin (Graham Mertz)
AVERAGE IOWA QB GETTING DEFENSE’S CREDIT: Iowa (Spencer Petras)
SURVIVOR OF UNINSPIRING OFFSEASON COMPETITION, LEAN ON EARLY STATS WITH EXTREME CAUTION: Michigan State (Payton Thorne)
PLAYING WELL BUT PAST IS HAUNTING: Penn State (Sean Clifford)
Good luck making much sense of the numbers in order to project how the year plays out. Maybe Clifford has matured; maybe he’ll start throwing god-awful picks again. Maybe Stroud gets it together; maybe OSU can’t ever settle on a starter. Maybe McNamara is a high-efficiency killer; maybe he’s overwhelmed when Michigan is forced to abandon the run. Maybe Mertz and Petras aren’t good.
Maybe nobody’s good and it’s total chaos! I suspect we’ll see some wild swings as this mostly green group of QBs navigate conference play.