Simple concept, folks. We take a look at the standings, take a quick survey of how the teams are trending and their remaining schedules, and take a stab at predicting our title game participants in December. Since this is the first week of this series, we'll take a quick look at how the nonconference went as well. Play the feud:
Clear Contenders: Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan
OSU has ridden the top spot in both polls all season on the strength of being a defending national champion with a largely intact title team. And yet...something feels off. Although plenty of their scores have ended up lopsided, OSU has really struggled to put away some inferior teams. The QB play, which was considered to be an unparalleled embarrassment of riches in the offseason, has been inconsistent at best. It's certainly possible that OSU is merely looking forward to the prize fights at the end of the season, but playing with fire this way when you get everyone's best shot may be inadvisable.
Looking forward, OSU should be heavily favored in every game remaining other than the Michigan schools; with MSU playing in Columbus and a trip to Ann Arbor the following week, it's understandable if OSU is having some trouble giving their full attention and respect to the Indianas and Marylands of the world.
This week: PSU
MSU has similarly underperformed relative to expectations, though some of the same psychological problems may be affecting them as well; a team aiming for nothing less than a playoff berth might have a hard time getting up for Central Michigan. What felt at the time like a seismic win over Oregon has lost some of its currency as the Ducks have floundered since that game. Moreover, MSU has one enormous problems the Buckeyes don't: injuries. The Spartans have now lost 4 players for the season, including 3 starters, and sustained injuries of unclear severity to at least 5 more players. Some of those injured players should be back for this week's tilt with hated Michigan, but they'll need to get back up to speed quickly.
On the schedule, MSU's toughest remaining games are all on the road: this week at Michigan, and later trips to Nebraska (yes, it's still a tough place to play) and OSU. Michigan's meteoric improvement this year has added some spice to this week's game.
This week: @Michigan
Michigan, by contrast, has dramatically outperformed expectations in Year 1 of the Harbaugh Era. Evidently, the recruiting services weren't wrong about Hoke's players after all. A season-opening loss to Utah looks entirely excusable given what the Utes have done since then, though beating BYU doesn't have the weight we might have thought before the season started. The Wolverines have steamrolled through conference play so far, and a defense which has been very good in recent years is now looking nationally elite.
After this week's battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, the Wolverines enter a very manageable 3-game stretch before wrapping with a trip to Happy Valley and then hosting Ohio State; should they pull off the win this week, the schedule sets up more favorably than does MSU's or OSU's.
This week: MSU
Still Hanging Around: Penn State
Their early-season blundering on offense has relegated them to the back burner (as did the loss to Temple), but a quick glance at the win-loss column does show a team with just one loss on the season. The defense has once again been salty, particularly up front, and the offense has periodically shown signs of figuring things out. This team probably isn't up to the level of the top three right now, but there's enough talent on the roster to make things interesting in any single game. In particular, the defense is capable of dragging any offense down into a low-scoring scrum which even this offense can emerge victorious from.
We'll know after this week's trip to the Horseshoe whether this Penn State team will be a factor in this year's conference race. If they somehow trip up the Buckeyes, it will be the winner of the UM-MSU game that vaults into dominant position, but the Nits themselves would have to factor in moving forward if they can get a game in hand with OSU. The end of the schedule does feature 2 tough road trips sandwiched around hosting Michigan.
This week: @OSU
So You're Saying There's A Chance (Of A Bowl, Not Of Contending): Indiana, Rutgers
Indiana is still in good position to make a bowl after a nice 4-0 noncon start- though they may want to get their act together quickly. As happened last year, an injury to Nate Sudfeld has totally derailed the Hoosier offense, and losing transfer sensation Jordan Howard hasn't helped. Sitting at 4-2 overall after dropping games to OSU and PSU, the Hoosiers are once again a nonfactor in the conference race, but with games against Rutgers, Maryland, and Purdue in hand, they can still dive for the 6-win pylon and return to the postseason at long last.
This week's home game with Rutgers isn't necessarily a must-win for that bowl dream to stay alive, but the margin of error would become pretty slim if the Hoosiers can't hold serve this week, as they then play 3 straight opponents currently ranked in the top 20. Moreover, after this week, the more winnable games- Maryland and Purdue- are both on the road. Get it done this week, Hoosiers.
This week: Rutgers
Speaking of Rutgers, the return of Leonte Carroo might have been what this team has been missing. A, shall we say tumultuous offseason and two painfully close losses already (plus a stomping at the hands of Penn State) has placed Rutgers' postseason hopes on life support. A secondary decimated by dismissals and a coaching staff in an obvious state of instability could well be offset by an offense that now has the final, big-play element it's been missing.
As with Indiana, it's early to say that any game is a must-win for bowl eligibility. The Knights could always spring an upset later, after all. But after the trip to Bloomington, Rutgers' schedule goes OSU, @Wisc, @Mich- three games in which Rutgers will be heavy underdogs. Lose to Indiana, and one of those games does become a must-win, along with Nebraska, Army, and Maryland at the end of the season.
This week: @IU
'Is It Basketball Season Yet' Is Indiana's Thing, Get Your Own: Maryland
Maryland...uh...mom always said if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all, but I'm 27 years old and if I want to eat Count Chocula for dinner, well dammit that's what I'm going to do so stop bossing me around ok Mom?! Anyway. After a senior-laden team rode to a better-than-expected debut, there was some cause for optimism in College Park. An offense which has looked confused at best has dispensed interceptions at a record-breaking pace, the defensive scheme switch has yielded boatloads of yards and points for opponents, the team was boatraced by Bowling Green and West Virginia before conference play even started...oh, and they just fired head coach Randy Edsall. It was a move that had to be made, but with USC and South Carolina already entering the coach search pool, even the timing of this meltdown will be disadvantageous to Maryland.
Maryland currently has a bye week to stew in its own juices and try to sort things out under interim HC Mike Locksley. Their bowl chances? Well, after said bye, their schedule goes: PSU, @Iowa, Wisc, @MSU. They then wrap the season with Indiana and Rutgers, but they need a split over that 4-game meatgrinder to even have a bowl game in play when Indiana comes to town. Just...close your eyes and look forward to basketball.