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September 19, 2007

Olin's Notebook: Big Ten blues

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. Click his name to send him a question for his weekly mailbag.
Previous notebooks
Sept. 12: Texas takes steps
Sept. 5: Breakthrough day for Choice
Aug. 29: Media guide awards

Thank goodness Bo and Woody aren't around to see this.

Back in the '70s, when Michigan under Bo Schembechler and Ohio State under Woody Hayes were dominant, wise-guy critics sometimes would disparage the Big Ten as the "Big Two."

What was criticism then might be considered optimism now. Wise-guy critics now ask if there are two big-time teams in the Big Ten.

The conference has taken more hits this year than a Notre Dame quarterback. One national college football columnist, Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times, recently ranked the Big Ten sixth among the six BCS conferences.

That's what happens when Michigan loses to Division I-AA Appalachian State and gets blown out by Oregon; when Wisconsin has to rally to beat UNLV and is tied with I-AA Citadel at halftime; when Ohio State leads Akron just 3-2 at intermission; when previously winless Iowa State defeats Iowa; when Duke ends its 22-game losing streak against Northwestern in Evanston.

"I don't think you can put your head in the sand and say, 'Oh, no, the Big Ten is blah, blah, blah,' " said Charles Davis, an analyst for the Big Ten Network who was on the Fox network broadcast team for last season's BCS Championship Game. "Michigan is a preseason top-five team and then loses at home to Appalachian State. Then you think that pride will kick in, but Oregon comes in and just waxes them. And then Akron is only down 3-2 at halftime to Ohio State.

"I don't want to appear to be putting those teams down, but you know where the criticism stems from. It would be disingenuous to say there is nothing to criticize. But I caution everyone to let this season play out before you say this and that about the Big Ten."

Davis, who was a defensive back at Tennessee in the 1980s, might have a point. Upon further review, some of the hits the Big Ten has taken may be out of bounds.

After all, Big Ten teams are 7-4 against opponents from other BCS conferences or Notre Dame. Big Ten teams may not have many style points, but they have gotten enough points to win.

The Big Ten has six undefeated teams, which is more than any other conference in Division I-A except the Big 12, which also has six.

"Those two leagues are being cited as being the weakest," Davis said. "Right now, what I'm hearing in my grapevine is that the SEC is the SEC. The Pac-10 is getting a lot of mention as the best league in the country now. The Big East? No one is talking about their demise. Now everyone is saying South Florida gives them four good teams, although Louisville looks like a question mark.

"Now I read that Oklahoma might be the best team in the Big 12, but could get hurt (in the BCS standings) because of their league. What?"

The Big Ten champion could eventually be penalized by the perception of the league. But the Big Ten has more teams currently ranked among the top 10 No. 8, Ohio State, No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 10 Penn State than any other conference.

"If all three of those teams go on and have strong seasons, then it will be a good season for the Big Ten," Davis said.

But he said the Big Ten doesn't necessarily have to rely on just that trio. Davis said he thinks Michigan still can rebound to have a strong year. He called Indiana and Illinois "intriguing." He said unbeaten Purdue, which has scored at least 45 points in victories over Toledo, Eastern Illinois and Central Michigan, may be better than given credit.

"The thing about Purdue is people will say, 'Well, they haven't played anyone,' and I get that," Davis said. "There are a bunch of teams across the country that also haven't so-called 'played anybody,' but haven't been an impressive as Purdue. If you're supposed to jump on a team by 30 and then jump on them and win by 30, you've done what you're supposed to do. The problem is when you're supposed to win by 30 and struggle to win by eight."

That's what has happened too frequently in the Big Ten this year. Ultimately, though, all that really matters is whether you win.

Bo and Woody could've told you that.

Trivia question

Name the past three SEC players to finish as runners-up in the Heisman Trophy voting. (Answer at the end of the column.)

Ryan ready?

Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan has been an afterthought in the Heisman Trophy discussion, but he may be primed to make a big move over the next four weeks.

Ryan has thrown for 985 yards, with two 400-yard games. While six quarterbacks nationally already have thrown for more than 1,000 yards, Ryan has played three Atlantic Coast Conference opponents. He figures to have a chance to really boost his stats against the next four opponents Army, Massachusetts, Bowling Green and Notre Dame all of whom appear defensively challenged.


Reader Chris Ader of Bethesda, Md., came through to point out an error in last week's trivia question, which asked what Division I-A college football stadiums were named solely for an individual former player.

The list had Iowa's Nile Kinnick Stadium, Iowa State's Jack Trice Stadium and Cincinnati's James Nippert Stadium.

Ader pointed out that Maryland's Byrd Stadium was named after Harry "Curly" Byrd, who served as coach, athletic director and president of the university, and also was a former player.

Quick hitters

  • Southern Miss lost two fumbles and an interception a week ago against East Carolina, but another mistake resulted in the Golden Eagles' game-winning touchdown. Jeremy Young scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak with 32 seconds left, but he was supposed to take a knee to use more time and set up a field-goal attempt. Coach Jeff Bower didn't want to give East Carolina a chance for a big play on the kickoff return.

  • Northwestern has outscored its opponents in the second half of all three of its games. The Wildcats, who have scored 43 points in the second half while allowing only seven, outscored Duke 7-0 in the second half last week. Unfortunately, Duke led 20-7 at halftime.

  • UCF junior tailback Kevin Smith may be the best player that most of the country doesn't know. Smith, who is averaging a national-best 183 yards per game, rushed for 149 yards in last week's 35-32 loss to Texas. That total was the most yardage gained against the Longhorns since Oklahoma State's Mike Hamilton rushed for 194 yards in 2005.

  • Purdue starting tailback Jaycen Taylor broke an arm in last week's victory over Central Michigan and will miss the rest of the season.

  • Rutgers backup tailback Kordell Young suffered a season-ending knee injury in last week's rout of I-AA Norfolk State.

  • Michigan coach Lloyd Carr has dismissed cornerback Johnny Sears from the team. Carr did not reveal the reason for the dismissal of Sears, who started in the season-opener.

  • USC safety Taylor Mays has opted to play Saturday against Washington State. Mays is Jewish and this weekend is Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. It extends from Friday at sundown through Saturday night; the game kicks off at 5 p.m. Pacific.

  • A top priority for Kansas State as Big 12 plays nears is reducing penalties. The Wildcats have been penalized 41 times for 399 yards in three games, and last week equaled a dubious school record with 162 penalty yards against I-AA Missouri State.

  • Colorado's defense figures to get a boost this week with tackle Chris Perri returning from a three-game suspension. Perri was suspended for two off-field incidents. Linebacker Michael Spilli also is returning from suspension.

  • Georgia Tech's Tashard Choice hasn't fumbled in a year. He has rushed for 1,584 yards and carried 294 times since he lost a fumble on Sept. 21 last year against Virginia. This week's opponent? The Cavaliers.

  • Nebraska guard Andy Christensen suffered a left knee injury in last week's loss to USC and will miss the rest of the season.

  • The pass rush or lack of one is a concern for Florida. The Gators have five sacks, but four came against Western Kentucky in the season-opener. The only other one was posted by linebacker Brandon Spikes against Troy.

  • LSU quarterback Matt Flynn still is recovering from a high ankle sprain, but said he expects to start Saturday against South Carolina. Flynn sat out last week's 44-0 victory over Middle Tennessee State and was replaced by Ryan Perrilloux, who threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns.

    Trivia answer

    Arkansas running back Darren McFadden (2006), Florida quarterback Rex Grossman (2001) and Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning (1997).

    Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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