Unless in-season coaching firings, Iowa punt-a-thons and lopsided nationally televised games are your thing, the 2022 Big Ten season has been mostly a big bore.
Oh, there is life in Illinois, which is 6-1 under Bret Bielema. That’s cool. Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim is a hell of a player. So is Maryland’s Roman Hemby and Purdue’s Charlie Jones and Wisconsin’s John Torchio and plenty of others.
Still, the entire conference season is shaping up to be the Big Two, Little Ten; everyone is rolling over for the twin steamrollers of Ohio State and Michigan like Woody and Bo are still running things.
The best teams are in Columbus and Ann Arbor. The best players are in Columbus and Ann Arbor.
The best games are … nowhere, at least not until the guys from Ann Arbor visit Columbus on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That game, especially if both teams are 11-0 and thus unbeaten for the first time since 2006, will be epic.
But can we get at least a little something along the way?
The challenge to deliver a modicum of excitement, of drama, of unpredictability falls on Penn State and Michigan State this Saturday.
The Nittany Lions host Ohio State. The Spartans visit Michigan.
It was a day that, via a delicious double-header, once looked like the biggest weekend of the year in the conference.
Instead, Penn State (15.5 points) and Michigan State (22.5) are both heavy underdogs trying to get a spark out of their seasons.
There is reason for cautious optimism. Maybe not for an upset, but at least a competitive game, at least something that is in doubt in the fourth quarter.
The Nittany Lions are, after all, 6-1, ranked 13th in the country and playing at home. Fox’s obsession with the noon television window means for the first time in a long time the biggest home game on Penn State’s schedule won’t be a white out – that was last week, at night, against Minnesota. That doesn’t mean Beaver Stadium won’t be packed and partying.
And while Michigan State is just 3-4 and in the middle of a dismal season, Mel Tucker is 2-0 against Jim Harbaugh and this is a series with a long history of upsets and absurdities. There can always be trouble with the snap.
It would at least be… something.
Ohio State has won its four league games by an average of 35.6 points and has not trailed after the middle of the first quarter. Michigan won by an average of 16.2 points and fell behind in the second half just once (briefly) en route to a 41-17 beat down by Penn State.
Not even the non-conference games did much. The Buckeyes beat Notre Dame in a hyped opening night, but that victory has faded as the Irish have stumbled. Michigan backed out of a game against UCLA that could have been fun and fattened up on Colorado State, Hawaii and Connecticut to the cumulative score of 166-17.
The fans of those specific teams have every reason to enjoy the curb-stompings and understandably may have no interest in some heart-palpitating fourth quarter. They’ll gladly win this weekend by 50.
General fans of the league could use a little pop though.
Fox’s Big Noon Saturday is the featured game of every week. The five involving league opponents have been decided by an average of 25 points. The only out-of-conference matchup involving a Big Ten team at that time slot saw Nebraska lose to Oklahoma, 49-14.
Only nine of the 30 league games have been decided by a touchdown or less — and that includes “thrillers” such as Illinois’ 9-6 victory over Iowa that featured a combined 14 punts.
The Big Ten West is a bizarre world where the possibility of a seven-way tie remains. Northwestern, currently on a six-game losing streak, would somehow win the tiebreaker.
Both Nebraska and Wisconsin have already fired their coaches. The Iowa offense has become a national punchline and Kirk Ferentz is getting chippy when anyone asks about nepotism. The non-Buckeye/Wolverine East isn’t much better.
Penn State has a non-conference win over an SEC team (at Auburn) and some nice running backs, but it was not competitive against Michigan. The most fight the Lions showed was during a halftime tunnel kerfuffle that was so pathetic someone from Penn State was throwing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the Wolverines.
There is Illinois, though. The revival has been impressive. And after this weekend, it is the Illini that offer perhaps the only reason to point to a game the rest of the way. Bielema’s team visits Michigan and could conceivably be 9-1 at the time.
Hey, it’s something.
Otherwise, the rest of Michigan’s schedule (pre-Ohio State) is at Rutgers and Nebraska at home. The Buckeyes have just Northwestern and Maryland on the road and Indiana at home.
Thanksgiving weekend is shaping up to be something historic, the classic end-of-year showdown between the two teams that have separated themselves from the pack.
Yet there is still time to reign that in, or at least throw a scare in them, starting with Penn State and Michigan State showing they are more than just roadkill en route to The Game.