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Bump, Set, Spike: B1G Volleyball Towers Over The Rest

In the nation's premier volleyball conference, who will win the Big Ten?

It was a bad day to be a Badger.
It was a bad day to be a Badger.

Perhaps you're tired of watching football. The malaise has set in, #NewKirk has proven himself to be very much #OldKirk, the halcyon days of playoff contention seem but a faint memory as this year's season has crushed all optimism like a penny on a railroad track, PSU is #BACK and we're all suffering for it. Whatever your complaint, Big Ten volleyball has got the cure, because never has one conference so dominated a sport. (That's right, SEC football fans. Deal with it.) The women on these teams are tough as nails and eye-poppingly skilled, and as a Big Ten fan, you're spoiled, because every weekend is full of great matches.

So stop obsessing over Harbaugh's new frames, and familiarize yourself with what the real superstars of the conference are up to. Hint: it involves a lot of kicking ass and being awesome.

Nebraska (#1 nationally, 18-1 overall, 9-1 conference)

The defending National Champions (Awwwww yeah! Still exciting.) lost very little to graduation last year, and appear to be doing their utmost to win all of the marbles for the second straight year. This past weekend was a feast for Husker volleyball fans, as both Wisconsin and Minnesota journeyed to Lincoln, and both went home with losses. Nebraska handled the #4 Badgers with relative ease, dispatching them in straight sets on Friday, but the Gophers proved less acquiescent. The Huskers and Gophers battled back and forth for five sets, with the Huskers winning the first and fourth before blasting the Gophers 15-8 in the fifth. Husker HC John Cook, in his 17th year at the helm of the Huskers, called the match "a classic, final four-type atmosphere, a final four-type match," and with the way both teams are playing, we may well see the same matchup in the real Final Four come December.

Next up: Illinois comes to town on Friday night, and you can catch this one on BTN at 6 pm (central). NU takes on NW on Saturday and will be broadcast within Nebraska on NET, but unfortunately, with a 7 pm start time, is directly opposite the football team. If that game goes how most trips to Madison tend to for the Huskers, you may be thankful for this alternative programming information. :)

Minnesota (#3, 15-4, 7-3)

Minnesota has risen in the college volleyball rankings courtesy of a devastating and paradoxical offensive philosophy that combines incredible speed with few errors. It's a recipe that few teams can successfully defend against, and as a result, their four losses on the season have all been to ranked squads. The Gophers are led by Hugh McCutcheon, former coach of the U.S. National Team, who has steadily improved Minnesota during his tenure, taking them to the Final Four last season.

Next up: After surviving an unexpected five-set scare at Iowa last weekend, the Gophers face Rutgers on Friday night, which should serve as little more than a warm-up for their big match against Penn State on Saturday. That match is on TV and should be a lot of fun--check it out on Saturday at 6:30 (central) on BTN.

Wisconsin (#4, 16-3, 8-2)

Despite going down in straight sets to both Minnesota and Nebraska, Wisconsin has been doing pretty much everything else perfectly this season. Their third-year head coach, Kelly Sheffield, has brought the Badgers into the upper echelons of not only the Big Ten, but the entire country, making the Sweet Sixteen or better every year of his tenure. The Badgers hope to continue that streak, and Penn State's visit this weekend give Wisconsin a chance to show that they have what it takes to slay volleyball giants.

Next up: Penn State in Madison, viewable on BTN at 8 pm (central). Also, Wisconsin's website informs me that this is "Pom Pom Giveaway" day, so that is neat. Sunday afternoon finds the Badgers transitioning from playing a giant to playing a sleeping giant, as they take on Rutgers.

Penn State (#10, 17-4, 9-1)

If you know only one thing about college volleyball, it's probably that Penn State is legendarily good at it. While debate rages this week as to whether or not their football team is "#Back," the women of the volleyball team laugh politely at the idea of even having to come "#Back," since they've been part of the sport's undisputed royalty for as long as anyone can remember. 2016 started strangely, as PSU dropped three straight matches for possibly the first time ever, a fact responsible for their relatively low ranking. But since conference play has started, they've shown themselves to be the same ol' Penn State, dropping only one conference match in a hard-fought five setter at Michigan. Is Penn State #Back to their old ways? This weekend's tough tour through the upper Midwest will tell us a lot about whether the team has overcome their early struggles.

Next up: At Wisconsin on Friday at 8pm (central), and at Minnesota at 6:30pm (central). Both matches are televised on BTN, so if you like quality volleyball, make a date for both of these bad boys.

Michigan (#13, 18-4, 7-3)

Michigan, as you just read, scored a major coup in outlasting Penn State in five last week. Their only conference losses this season have been to Nebraska, Penn State, and Wisconsin, which, if you're going to lose, is not a particularly shameful collection of defeats. Michigan, if a step off of the conference elite, is still a very good team capable of beating anybody in the conference. The Wolverines have a manageable couple of weeks to start off November, before ending the month with a very rough slate of MSU (twice), Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Oh, and only one of those matches is at home. Ouch. But if Michigan handles the softer part of the schedule as they should and then nabs a couple out of that final stretch, they should still be sitting fairly pretty come tournament time.

Next up: Friday finds the Wolverines at Purdue, who is normally a perfectly pesky team, for their only meeting of the season. Saturday, Michigan travels to take on Indiana.

MSU (#15, 17-5, 6-4)

MSU football fans, it's been a rough year for you. Really, really, really rough. If it's becoming too much for you to bear, why not check out your volleyball team, who is playing some solid ball? The Spartan volleyball team is a tough out for whoever faces them, and has split a pair of five setters with top teams this season (a loss to Nebraska and a victory over Minnesota). So far, the Spartans haven't been able to make the leap to the top of the conference, but are a part of the stable of great teams that make playing in the Big Ten a grind weekend after weekend. I'm serious--barring a miracle on the football field tomorrow, those guys are just going to make you cry. Watch the women win, and be happy.

Next up: Lucky MSU gets to spend Halloween weekend sojourning through the Hoosier State. Friday night, the Spartans take on Indiana in Bloomington, and Saturday, they attempt to stop the Purdue train. Those Boilermakers can be tricky.

OSU (#19, 14-9, 4-7)

You know what? It was just kind of a bad week to be a Buckeye. OSU fell victim to the upset of the week not only in football, but in volleyball as well, when Maryland overpowered Ohio State in five sets in a mid-week matchup. Unlike the football team, the volleyball team gets a chance for immediate vengeance, as Maryland returns the visit by coming to Columbus on Friday. Ohio State has long been one of the peskiest teams in the Big Ten--routinely handing top teams a rare loss (and boasting particular and unusual success in Lincoln) and a standby in the NCAA tournament. However, the Buckeyes have dropped five of their last seven matches, and though most were to top teams, how OSU responds to this rough patch is critical--losing to Maryland is not an encouraging sign.

Next up: A rematch with Maryland is on Friday, before the Buckeyes get the rest of the weekend off. They'll be on BTN next Wednesday to take on Wisconsin at 7 pm (central).

Illinois (#24t, 14-7, 7-3)

Illinois boasts one of the better atmospheres in college volleyball, courtesy, in large part, to a very involved student section. Currently clinging to the Top 25, the Illini have turned a wretched non-conference start (they lost in five sets to Missouri State, which is...not optimal) into a solid conference record. Proving they have resilience, Illinois has also benefitted from a relatively soft conference schedule so far. Though the road gets harder, the Illini have the benefit of facing heavyweights Minnesota and Penn State only once this season.

Next up: Illinois journeys to the far west of the B1G this weekend, landing in Lincoln on Friday night for a 6 pm (central) showdown televised on BTN, and then moving on to Iowa City for a Saturday evening match.

Purdue (#27, 13-8, 3-7)

Purdue isn't technically ranked, but they're darn close, so I threw them a number anyway. The Boilermakers are a strange bird--that overall record isn't too shabby, but that conference one? That's uglier than Purdue Pete's vacant stare. I hesitate to say that Purdue is better than their record, because losses to Iowa and Indiana aren't encouraging...but they probably are better than that conference record indicates. While this is not the best Purdue team we've seen, they're still tricky enough (and determined enough--they've been in six five-set matches, and while I don't know this for certain, I think that has to be the most in the conference, or darn close to it) to cause problems for just about anyone who sleeps on them.

Next up: Denizens of the Mitten State journey south, and Purdue takes on Michigan on Friday night, and MSU on Saturday night.

Iowa (15-7, 5-5)

It is extremely tough to achieve upward mobility in the Big Ten, because, well, just look at all of those poll numbers above Iowa. However, the Hawkeyes have made the greatest strides of the bottom teams toward respectability. They also provided the surprise of the year (so far) by taking Minnesota to five sets in Iowa City last Friday. Although the Hawkeyes couldn't close the deal, hanging with Minnesota is a big accomplishment and should provide a building block for the team going forward. Right now, they're 5-5 in conference play, and while most of their victories are against teams ranked below them on this list, they did emerge victorious from a five-set battle with Purdue. Making a huge move within the conference is probably not in the cards this season, but as Minnesota found, Iowa has improved to the point that they could ruin a ranked team's weekend if they don't take the Hawkeyes seriously.

Next up: Iowa gets a home weekend with Northwestern on Friday night, and Illinois on Saturday. Iowa swept Northwestern during their last match, and the Wildcats represent a great opportunity for Iowa to snag another conference win.

Indiana (14-9, 3-7)

Like fellow Hoosier state squad Purdue, Indiana has found markedly different fortunes in out-of-conference play and in B1G play, although Indiana's OOC results included uninspiring losses to Florida Gulf Coast and Arkansas State. It's been a tough go in the Big Ten for the Hoosiers this year, as it is most years. Indiana has only managed to beat Northwestern (twice) and Rutgers, and, more worryingly, has been swept in every other conference match. Rutgers and Maryland offer a glimmer of hope in late November, but otherwise, it looks like it's going to be a long month for Hoosier volleyball fans.

Next up: MSU on Friday night, and Michigan on Saturday.

Maryland (10-13, 2-9)

Although non-rev sports are an area in which Maryland often shines, volleyball, so far, has not been one of them. However, the Terps scored a major upset and mid-week shocker on Wednesday night, taking down #19 Ohio State in a five-set stunner. This is the second consecutive conference win for Maryland, following a win over Rutgers, and definitely a positive trend for a squad that started conference play with nine straight losses. Maryland also upset a ranked Buckeye team last season, ensuring that College Park is one of the Buckeyes' least favorite places to play in the conference. The Terps are a very young team, with only five upperclassmen on the entire roster and Coach Steve Aird in just his second year at the helm--wins may be few this season, but taking down a few conference powers is a great thing to build on.

Next up: Thanks to the weirdness of B1G scheduling, the Terps face OSU again tonight, this time in Columbus. Wednesday, Nov. 2, they travel to West Lafayette.

Northwestern (8-14, 1-9)

As you may know, my esteemed fellow "writer" MNWildcat has a saying regarding Northwestern basketball: "It's not the year. It's never the year." It turns out, that this is a saying that crosses the boundaries of sports at Northwestern, because for the volleyball team, that summation is depressingly accurate as well. As that lead-in might suggest, Northwestern is not very good at volleyball. How not good? Warning: this isn't easy to read. In conference play, the Cats have won just four sets--and three of those were in their lone conference victory (not good, Purdue...not good.) That means, in nine matches, the Wildcats have grabbed only one set off of their opponents. Here's the good news for Northwestern: they only play Nebraska and Wisconsin once apiece. And they close the season with Rutgers, a beacon of hope bobbing there like a green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us... or something. Whatever. If you're a Northwestern fan, you might want to bring a book to most of the matches, is what I'm saying.

Next up: To Iowa City for some Friday night fun, and then to Lincoln on Saturday.

Rutgers (4-19, 0-10)

Given Rutgers' well-publicized struggles in football and men's basketball, perhaps you thought that a non-rev sport might give the Scarlet Knights a chance to excel. You'd be wrong. Unfortunately for the school's fans, Rutgers takes a resounding last place in volleyball as well. The volleyball team is currently in the throes of an 18-game losing streak, with the season's only wins coming in non-conference play against a "Rider University," Hartford, Bryant University, and Iona College. The high point of conference play has been a lone victorious set, taken against Indiana a week and a half ago. In what promises to be a truly miserable travel stretch for Rutgers this weekend, the team faces both Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the results will likely be perfectly Halloween-worthy. Rutgers' best remaining chances for victory are in November when Indiana and Northwestern visit Piscataway, and the Scarlet Knights travel to Maryland.

Next up: Friday, at Minnesota and Sunday, at Wisconsin. Oof. #PrayforRutgers

We will check back in with the Big Ten ladies prior to the NCAA tournament, where we should get the opportunity to watch an awful lot of these teams fight their way through. We'll also focus more on each team's key players, and lots of other fun stuff!