I've often noted that college football is a sport of waiting. Waiting for signing day, waiting for spring practice, waiting for fall camp...season openings, conference play, marquis opponents, rivalry games, favorable third-party losses, bowl assignments, bowl match-ups, the national championship game... Ours is a game defined by benchmark. In many ways the lives of fans are defined by these kinds of periodic, despotic, interludes.
When you're a Big 10 fan; however, one thing that's never in want is the opportunity to second guess the competitiveness of the conference. Mediocre seems to have become a great Midwestern analog -- its gentle spirit waiting in the wings of the Edward Jones Dome, and along the clandestine redwoods of Strawberry Canyon.
Like Juice Williams the Big 10 Conference still needs a little sideline work.
This Saturday was no exception. With the eyes of a skeptical (perhaps even scornful) nation on Michigan State and No. 20 Illinois both teams were handedly defeated by BCS compatriots California and No. 7 Missouri. Traditional conference power Michigan fell also -- to the Mountain West, in a second-consecutive season opening loss at the hands of a non-BCS foe. And while a combined 19 point margin of loss for all three might not sound earth-shattering, none led outside the first quarter of play -- resulting in a frantic series of unavailing comebacks.
The only conference that has cause to feel worse is the ACC, who saw its uncontested favorite No. 9 Clemson fall face first at the hands of a middle of the pack (in the SEC) No. 24 Alabama, and runner up No. 17 Virginia Tech beaten at its own game by East Carolina.
Does the Big 10 have a silver lining?
Don't ask anyone outside the Midwest, but Northwestern came back from a first quarter deficit to silence Syracuse -- putting up 484 total yards of offense in a race-to-the-bottom contest with the Big East's Orange. No. 13 Wisconsin took care of business on the heels of P.J. Hill, who ran for over two-hundred yards for only the second time in his career.
The No. 22 Nittany Lions flooded past Coastal Carolina, racking up 594 yards of offense, and a 373rd career victory for Joe Paterno, (tying Bobby Bowden's record). And the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes looked fluent in 43-0 shutout of Youngstown State (highlighted by true freshman turned gazelle Terelle Pryor who skated to 52 yards -- including an 18 yard touchdown dance -- and lowpointed by a potentially damning foot plant a la Wells).
Wins for Iowa, Indiana, and Minnesota help add to the assets column of the balance. In case you're keeping track, that's 7 and 3 for the Big 10 in out of conference plesantries (Purdue, interestingly enjoyed a by-week). Comparatively, the Big East went 4-4, the ACC 7-5, the Big 12 10-2, the SEC 10-2, and the Pac 10 6-1.
So we beat the ACC and the Big East. Great. That's like beating your little sister at driveway basketball.
But should we really fault Michigan State and Illinois for dropping the conference banner?
I'm not convinced we should. The Fighting Illini overcame a 31-10 halftime deficit to make things interesting against a Missouri Tigers squad that (second-half defense notwithstanding) is the real deal. Michigan State squandered an ability to move the football at will with a series of missed opportunities 3,000 miles from home. (Before you jump all over this one, ask a Tennessee fan how much fun it is to open a season on the West Coast). Neither established pace or presence, but both proved they're not pretenders.
And that perhaps, is the symptom of a developing Big 10 -- a league that's all voice with no middle.