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Underachieving: What's Wrong With Big Ten Football?

It is difficult to imagine how the first two weeks of the college football season could have gone much worse for the Big Ten Conference. Let's survey the carnage thus far and snatch up our Michigan State-Purdue Big Ten title tickets before they all sell out!

Sept. 8, 2012; Corvallis, OR, USA; Oregon State Beavers linebacker D.J.Welch (4) defends against Wisconsin Badgers running back Montee Ball during the second half at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-US PRESSWIRE
Sept. 8, 2012; Corvallis, OR, USA; Oregon State Beavers linebacker D.J.Welch (4) defends against Wisconsin Badgers running back Montee Ball during the second half at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-US PRESSWIRE

Oregon State 10, Wisconsin 7. Iowa State 9, Iowa 6. Wisconsin 26, Northern Iowa 21. Indiana 24, Indiana State 17. Minnesota 30, UNLV 27. Arizona State 45, Illinois 14. Iowa 18, Northern Illinois 17. Ohio 24, Penn State 14. Michigan 31, Air Force 25. UCLA 36, Nebraska 30.

Let's put it this way: when your highest-ranked team gets its doors blown off in Week 1 (Alabama 41, Michigan 14), and it isn't one of your conference's 10 most discouraging performances of the season, something has gone awry. The Big Ten's 2012 campaign has been mostly disastrous thus far, bad enough to distract us from the fact that parts of the Pac-12 have also looked iffy; only two teams have looked truly strong enough to be ranked (Michigan State and Ohio State, with Nebraska potentially coming close and Northwestern and Purdue deserving at least a little bit of attention), and we are quite possibly staring a Michigan State vs. Purdue Big Ten title game in the face. Yikes.

Let's go team by team to see who has shown glimpses of hope and who has been an outright dud through two weeks. Below, you'll see the spread, F/+ projection and result for each Big Ten contest. (The "Avg. Diff." column compares the result to the average of the spread and F/+ projection.)


Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 Western Michigan Illinois -10 Illinois by 10.5 Illinois by 17 +6.7
2 at Arizona State Arizona State -3.5 Arizona State by 3.2 Arizona State by 31 -27.6

Shutdown Fullback recaps Week 2, in all its face-slapping glory.

A perfectly decent Week 1 performance against a solid Western Michigan team was done in by an injury and a trip west. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was hurt last week against Arizona State, and while the Illini ran the ball quite well against the Sun Devils, they could neither throw nor stop ASU from throwing. We'll cut them a little bit of slack because of the injury, but not 27.6 points' worth of slack.

Next: A recovery weekend against Charleston Southern.


Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 Indiana State N/A N/A Indiana by 7 N/A
2 at Massachusetts Indiana -14 Indiana by 14.5 Indiana by 39 +24.7

One doesn't want to glean too much from a win over UMass, but the Hoosiers looked lively in their first 30-point road win since 2001 (63-32 over Wisconsin). Remember: this is a team that lost at North Texas last season. Coach Kevin Wilson is looking for growth wherever he can find it, and Saturday's performance was a nice one. It almost made up for the near-disaster versus Indiana State the week before.

Next: A visit from Ball State, but without quarterback Tre Roberson. For a long time.


Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 vs. Northern Illinois Iowa -10 Iowa by 12.3 Iowa by 1 -10.2
2 Iowa State Iowa -5 Iowa by 17.8 Iowa State by 3 -14.4

Goodness. In two weeks, versus teams that ranked 78th and 55th, respectively, in Def. F/+ last year, Iowa has scored 24 points. Quarterback James Vandenberg is completing 55 percent of his passes for an average of 3.8 yards per pass attempt. He was sacked six times by Northern Illinois and picked off twice by Iowa State. And now Iowa has lost to Steele Jantz and Iowa State for two straight years. It probably is not wise to make too many conclusions in permanent ink after just two weeks, but let's just say that the hire of Greg Davis as offensive coordinator has so far worked out about as poorly as I feared it might.

Next: Northern Iowa comes to Iowa City. You know, the same Northern Iowa that almost beat the conference's other biggest underachiever.


Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 vs. Alabama Alabama -14 Alabama by 18.6 Alabama by 27 -10.7
2 Air Force Michigan -21.5 Michigan by 17.7 Michigan by 6 -13.6

Michigan's struggles have not been quite on the same level as those of Iowa or Wisconsin, but they have finished at least a touchdown worse than the projections in both games. Both can be written off to a degree if you are the optimistic type -- Michigan simply ran into a buzzsaw versus Alabama, and it is very difficult to prepare for Air Force's unique offense -- but it is pretty clear that, thus far, the skeptics have been more right about the Wolverines than those racing to proclaim Michigan was "BACK!"

Next: The Wolverines welcome UMass to town. This should be an easy win, though panicked UM fans might be flashing back to Michigan's narrow, five-point win over the Minutemen in 2010 right about now.

Michigan State

Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 Boise State Michigan St. -7 Michigan St. by 4.8 Michigan St. by 4 -1.9
2 at Central Michigan Michigan St. -21 Michigan St. by 16.0 Michigan St. by 34 +15.5

The team has allowed 20 points in two weeks, and the offense actually began to look sharp against Central Michigan: quarterback Andrew Maxwell completed 20 of 31 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns against the Chippewas, who are, admittedly, not good at all. Still, the Spartans are just about the only higher-ranked conference team that has overachieved to date.

Next: Notre Dame comes to town for an enormous non-conference matchup.


Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 at UNLV Minnesota -8.5 Minnesota by 12.7 Minnesota by 3 -7.6
2 New Hampshire N/A N/A Minnesota by 37 N/A

The Gophers benefit from a pretty low bar, but they looked sharp against a quality FCS opponent on Saturday. I hinted that I felt the offense was more explosive than it looked in Week 1, and in gaining 6.2 yards per play versus New Hampshire, Minnesota backed me up at least a bit. Marqueis Gray looked good enough on the ground (14 non-sack carries for 125 yards) to ignore the fact that he was sacked three times in 11 pass attempts. Again, there' s a low bar here. But they cleared it in Week 2.

Next: Western Michigan visits for what could be a shootout.


Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 Southern Miss Nebraska -20.5 Nebraska by 12.4 Nebraska by 29 +12.5
2 at UCLA Nebraska -5.5 Nebraska by 13.7 UCLA by 6 -15.6

Well, the offense certainly isn't a problem. A week after throwing for 354 yards and five touchdowns versus Southern Miss, quarterback Taylor Martinez rushed for 130 (non-sack) yards and threw for 179 (minus 18 sack yards) in a Week 2 loss at UCLA. The defense, however, is once again a question mark. UCLA gained 653 yards (6.9 per play) on Saturday, and while the Bruins' offense really might be one of the most improved units in the country in 2012, 6.9 yards per play is a lot. The Huskers' defense was quite a bit worse than anybody really could have imagined last year; the jury is still out for 2012, but last week was not encouraging.

Next: Arkansas State comes to Lincoln to test the Huskers' defense.


Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 at Syracuse Northwestern -1.5 Syracuse by 0.4 Northwestern by 1 +0.4
2 Vanderbilt Vanderbilt -3.5 Vanderbilt by 5.2 Northwestern by 10 +14.4

Of the Big Ten teams to have played two FBS opponents in 2012, Northwestern is the only one to overachieve both weeks. The Wildcats built a big lead, blew it, and won anyway versus Syracuse; then they exploded for 17 fourth-quarter points in a surprising double-digit win over Vanderbilt in Week 2. On a per-play basis, the offense has been somewhere between average and below average each week, but double overachievement is double overachievement.

Next: Boston College visits Evanston. The Eagles have been more successful than anybody expected on offense, but while Northwestern's defense might not be that great, it is probably the best B.C. will have faced so far.

Ohio State

Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 Miami (Ohio) Ohio State -24.5 Ohio State by 30.1 Ohio State by 46 +18.7
2 Central Florida Ohio State -18 Ohio State by 17.8 Ohio State by 15 -2.9

While the Buckeyes technically won last week's game by less than projected, it was only so much less. Braxton Miller looked mostly great again -- 18-for-24 passing (though, granted, the passes didn't really go anywhere) and another 147 pre-sack rushing yards (good lord, are his open-field moves fantastic) -- and the Buckeyes won comfortably, even if they needed a little help from UCF: in five trips inside Ohio State's 40, UCF scored only three times, throwing an interception on one trip and running out of time on another.

Next: Cal's Golden Bears, anything but road warriors recently, come to Columbus.

Penn State

Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 Ohio Penn State -6.5 Penn State by 17.0 Ohio by 10 -21.8
2 at Virginia Virginia -10.5 Penn State by 0.6 Virginia by 1 +4.0

Ouch. In Week 1, Penn State did themselves in with turnovers (or were done in by unlucky bounces; your call) in a loss to Ohio. In Week 2, the Nittany Lions were denied a road upset when kicker Sam Ficken missed five of six kicks, including one extra point attempt. If there is a silver lining here, though, it's that they did in fact overachieve a bit in the trip to Charlottesville.

Next: Penn State hosts Navy. The Navy teams from a couple of years ago could have thrown a serious scare into PSU this year, but the 2012 version of Ken Niumatalolo's Midshipmen probably won't.


Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 Eastern Kentucky N/A N/A Purdue by 42 N/A
2 at Notre Dame Notre Dame -14 Notre Dame by 24.8 Notre Dame by 3 +16.4

If there had been a projection for the Eastern Kentucky game, Purdue probably would have outshot it. The Boilermakers haven't looked half-bad, though obviously the rather cruel injury to quarterback Robert Marve hurts. Regardless, what I discussed in Purdue's 2012 preview holds true: if Purdue can continue to play rather competent ball, they could absolutely contend for the Big Ten title bid from the depleted Leaders Division. Purdue fans were talking themselves into that before we knew how bad Wisconsin would look.

Next: Eastern Michigan visits. They are not good.


Week Opponent Spread F/+ Proj. Result Avg.
1 Northern Iowa N/A N/A Wisconsin by 5 N/A
2 at Oregon State Wisconsin -6.5 Wisconsin by 11.5 Oregon State by 3 -12.0

Needless to say, if there had been a projection for Wisconsin-Northern Iowa, it would have been much, much higher than "Wisconsin by 5." If not for Iowa, the Badgers would quite easily take the "Biggest Underachiever" crown, though they might still be a few lengths ahead in the race anyway. Goodness, what a tumble this has been so far. Montee Ball is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and has scored one touchdown this year. That is absurd.

Next: A happy, hungry Utah State team visits. This is probably a Badger win, but let's just say that now is exactly the time a feisty underdog wants to visit Madison.

It's only Week 3. With 12 home games this week, the conference could avoid any further embarrassment (though Utah State might have other ideas), and things could stabilize a bit. Michigan State could make a run toward the top of the BCS standings (if the Spartans get by Notre Dame, anyway). Wisconsin could rebound. Michigan could surge. Plenty of things could still go right. But it is difficult to see how the first two weeks of the season could have gone much worse.

While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel:

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