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Which Big Ten "Sleeper" is a Legit Threat To Win The Conference?

At the end of the 2014 college football season and into the 2015 season, figuring out the Big Ten was pretty simple. There was Ohio State, Michigan State and then there was everybody else. But now, OSU and MSU, while both undefeated, have also looked uninspired. Meanwhile, there have been a ton of "sleepers" that look capable of making noise in the conference, let alone beating one of the conference favorites.

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Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten hasn't had an official preseason poll since 2011; however, the Big Ten beat writers have put together an unofficial poll. The winners of this year's poll were no surprise: OSU was a unanimous No. 1. Michigan State came in as a unanimous No. 2 in the East, and thus, the unofficial unofficial unanimous No. 2 in the conference. Wisconsin was the overwhelming favorite in the West, with Nebraska picking up a few votes and Minnesota coming in as a darkhorse.

Nowhere to be seen was Michigan, which was picked fourth in the East; Iowa, which was picked fourth in the West; Northwestern, which was fifth in the West; Illinois, which was sixth in the West; or Indiana, which was picked dead last in the East.

Yet, five weeks into the college football season and one week into conference play, Iowa and Northwestern are both 5-0 and look as capable of winning the division, let alone the conference, as anyone. Michigan is 4-1, but its only loss is to an emergent Utah, and the Wolverines have looked better with each week. Illinois' coach was fired the week before the season started, yet at 4-1 with a win over Nebraska, the team looks more cohesive than it has in a while. Lastly, Indiana is 4-1 and threw a genuine scare into Ohio State this weekend.

As for OSU, MSU, and to a lesser degree, Wisconsin and Nebraska? Has any one of them looked impressive, let alone unbeatable? The reality is, while both OSU and MSU still deserve credit for being better teams than Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois and Indiana, in a head-to-head matchup, neither of them looks like overwhelming favorites either.

With all of this in mind, there are still two months to go before the conference championship game, and with some real games under their belts, the Big Ten fanbase is left to ask which of these "sleepers" is the real deal? Which has a shot of winning their divisions, winning the conference, and maybe even showing up in the College Football Playoffs?


Current Record: 4-1 (1-0 in conference)

Many wrote the Fightin' Harbaughs off after a first-week loss to Utah. As it turns out, the Utes are an impressive team, currently ranked, with a 4-0 record, fresh off a 62-20 walloping of Oregon. This is, incidentally, the same Oregon over which Michigan State owns a win on which much of MSU's current fanfare lies.

Since that loss to Utah, Michigan has won four straight, including two non-conference wins over Power-5 programs, as well as a pawning of formerly-ranked BYU. The Wolverines most recent win was over a hapless Maryland program, but regardless of the opponent, Michigan has looked better with each week. It has a staunch defense—currently ranked second in the country—and a solid running game. Its passing game is not going to overwhelm anybody, but quarterback Jake Rudock is effective if he's got a running game to lean on, which he does.

Going into the season, anything over eight wins would have been considered a success, but right now, eight wins seems like the basement. For Michigan, the measure of success, of credibility, of being truly "back," is always measured by how it does against OSU, and, at this point, is there an unbiased college football fan who would feel comfortable picking OSU over Michigan?


Current Record: 5-0 (1-0 in conference)

Kirk Ferentz was done, he was old, he was through, he couldn't bring the Hawkeyes back after five years of mediocrity, and then came the "new" Kirk Ferentz. His Hawkeyes beat FCS Illinois State, but, y' know, FCS. They beat Iowa State, but, y'know, ISU is a horrible team. They beat Pitt, but the Panthers have had 17-million different coaches over the past 10 years. They steamrolled North Texas, but, y'know...North Texas. However, this past weekend, the Hawkeyes went into Madison and beat ranked Wisconsin. Yes, it was an ugly game, but it was also a solid win over a solid opponent.

Unlike Michigan, Iowa has issues, and the whole seems to be greater than the sum of its parts. At times the tackles looked lost against UW's aggressive 3-4, the receivers couldn't get any separation, and even "new" Kirk Ferentz still can't manage a game clock. But football is the ultimate team game, and the sum of the parts, in this case, is moving together.

Then there is the schedule: UW, aside from Northwestern, is probably the toughest match on the docket. There is no Ohio State, there is no Michigan State, there is no Michigan, there's not even a Penn State. There is, however, three yet-to-be-named "sleepers" in this article, which makes the remainder of the schedule deceptively tough.

Still, is there a single game on the schedule that Iowa can't win? Frankly, if quarterback is the most important position in football, is there a single quarterback in the Big Ten West that is playing at a higher level than Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard? And is it shocking in a conference that is admittedly offensively subpar, Iowa has the No. 3 scoring offense?


Current Record: 5-0 (1-0 in conference)

From Randy Walker's untimely passing in 2006, Pat Fitzgerald had his Wildcats on an upward course. Then, in 2013, the bottom fell out. Northwestern went bowl-less two seasons in a row despite having as much talent on the roster as a braniac school like Northwestern ever had. Wildcats fans were left asking if native son Fitz had been riding on Walker's momentum; if, when relying on his own recruits, coaches and schemes, he was unable to bring home a winner.

This year, Fitz and his Wildcats have silenced all doubters. Regardless of reputation and rankings—relevant, adjusted or otherwise—Northwestern may have the most impressive resume of any 2015 Big Ten team. It has beaten two solid out-of-conference, Power-5 foes, including a 16-6 road win over a ranked Stanford team. This week, it opened conference play against Minnesota, a team that began the season as the sleeper in the conference, and NU owned them, shutting them out 27-0. After five weeks of play, Northwestern has the No. 1 scoring defense in the country.

It does have a freshman quarterback who is prone to making mistakes, and a tough schedule that includes roadies at Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska; and a home game against Iowa. Despite that, Northwestern has to be considered the favorite to win the West.


Current Record: 4-1 (0-1 in conference)

Indiana was one score away from toppling the hanging-by-a-thread No. 1 team in the country this weekend. It didn't win, and scaring OSU is not what it would have seemed at the beginning of the season. Still, Indiana went 4-0 for the first time since Bush senior was President, and the Hoosiers seem all but a lock to get to a bowl.

IU is still a one-dimensional team: all offense, lousy defense. They will not win the division, and they will go to an unprestigious bowl. But beating Purdue, Maryland and Rutgers seem like certainties; and squeezing at least one or two more wins out of the schedule—Penn State? Iowa?—is within the realm of possibility. For those counting, that is a potential 9-win season for the Hoosiers. The last—and one of only two—times that happened? LBJ was in office.


Current Record: 4-1 (1-0 in conference)

I recently called Illinois the Screech of the Big Ten West. Who in the hell hires a putz like Tim Beckman on the heels of firing a putz like Ron Zook? Heading into 2015, with an interim coach leading them, Illinois seemed like the tire fire of the Big Ten. Rutgers has kindly taken over that role, but Illinois is quietly compiling a solid season.

Okay, it still has a questionable defense, but along with the aforementioned Beathard, Illini quarterback Wes Lundt is the best passer in the West. And the Illini now their first win over Nebraska since "Silent" Calvin Coolidge was in office, though in some fairness, the two programs have only met seven times since the Roaring 20s.

Like Indiana, Illinois is not going to win its division, but it has a good chance of going bowling, which seemed an impossibility only five weeks ago.

In closing, Indiana will not win the division or the conference, but it will go bowling for the first time since 2007. Illinois also won't win the division or conference, but it looks much better than it has at any point over the past 12 months, and that is with an interim coach. Meanwhile, the October 17 meeting between Iowa and Northwestern is looking more and more like the unofficial Big Ten West Division Championship. And Michigan, when it's all said and done, might play one of the toughest schedules in the country—currently, Sagarin ranks it eighth—and can still realistically come out with 10 wins.

Then again, maybe all of this is as much a comment on the general unimpressiveness of the league's best as it is a comment on the credibility of the "sleepers." Nevertheless, this much is certain: right now, it seems just as likely that Michigan, Iowa or Northwestern will win the Big Ten as it does Ohio State or Michigan State. And it seems more likely that Indiana and Illinois will get into a bowl than Nebraska.