- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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After a historic offseason of transition, the Big Ten endured a historic first half of ineptitude.
The league entered the fall under unique circumstances, as two of its premier programs (Ohio State and Penn State) couldn't compete in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. But with a surging Michigan State program, a Michigan team coming off of a Sugar Bowl championship, a Wisconsin team that had made consecutive Rose Bowl appearances and a veteran-laden Nebraska squad, the Big Ten had ample reasons for optimism. Those soon vanished.
Things got off to a rocky start at JerryWorld, as Michigan was stomped 41-14 by defending national champ Alabama. It only got worse in Week 2, the Big Ten's worst regular-season Saturday in recent memory. Big Ten teams went 6-6, including three losses at Pac-12 venues, including two by ranked teams (Wisconsin and Nebraska) against unranked foes (Oregon State and UCLA). The Big Ten went 6-9 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences plus Notre Dame, with three wins coming from one team (Northwestern). Although Ohio State hasn't lost a game under new coach Urban Meyer, the Big Ten removed itself from the national title talk earlier than anyone expected.
The league endured several weeks without a top-10 team. Last week, the Big Ten failed to have a team ranked in the coaches' poll for the first time (the coaches aren't ranking Ohio State and Penn State). The Big Ten also was shut out of the initial BCS standings.
It hasn't been all gloom and doom, though. The Buckeyes are 7-0 and quarterback Braxton Miller is a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate. Penn State has rebounded from an 0-2 start to rattle off four consecutive wins, as new coach Bill O'Brien has transformed the offense and particularly senior quarterback Matt McGloin. Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa also have bounced back from shaky performances in the nonleague portion, while a young Northwestern team sits at 6-1. Minnesota started 4-0, eclipsing its wins total from the past two years, while Indiana has competed well in each game. Surprise stars have emerged, such as Iowa running back Mark Weisman, Northwestern running back Venric Mark, Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson and Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan.
Perhaps the Big Ten will be a second-half league, complete with a better-than-expected showing in the bowls. Michigan is eyeing its first outright league title since 2003 and has the defense to win it. Wisconsin has stabilized nicely after a rocky three weeks that saw a shocking drop in offensive production and the firing of assistant Mike Markuson after just two games.
But there's no masking the disappointment of the first seven weeks. Michigan State already has lost three games at Spartan Stadium, where it was perfect in both 2010 and 2011, and faces significant issues at offensive line, receiver and quarterback. Purdue entered its defining stretch of the season with Big Ten play but flopped in consecutive weeks on its home field. An Illinois program that has won back-to-back bowl games is in complete disarray under new coach Tim Beckman, getting outscored 163-45 in the past four games.
Many longtime league observers say they've never seen the Big Ten so weak. The good news: It only can get better.
Offensive MVP: Ohio State's Miller. Although many pegged him to be a natural fit in Meyer's spread offense, he exceeded all expectations in the first half of the season. Miller ranks third in the Big Ten and seventh nationally in rushing average (130.3 ypg); ranks 34th nationally in passer rating (145.3); and has accounted for 20 touchdowns (11 passing, nine rushing). Miller has had four runs of 55 or more yards and five 100-yard rushing performances in the first seven games. Ohio State certainly wouldn't be undefeated without Miller, who is very much on the Heisman Trophy radar.
Defensive MVP: Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti. The most vocal Nittany Lion in the wake of the NCAA sanctions is making the most of his final season in Happy Valley. Mauti has been a beast, winning two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards and a national defensive player of the week honor for his efforts against Illinois. The numbers are impressive -- 57 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovered, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 2 pass deflections -- but they don't fully show the impact Mauti has had on a surging Penn State team. The senior is showing how good he can be when finally healthy.
Newcomer of the year: Iowa RB Mark Weisman. Few had heard of the walk-on fullback who had transferred from Air Force before the season, but he's now a cult hero in Iowa City. He also has rescued the Hawkeyes at a position that has seen stunning attrition in recent years. Injuries forced Weisman into the fold in Week 3, and he has been nothing short of spectacular, recording four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances and totals of 623 yards and eight rushing touchdowns in that span. He showcased his power against Northern Iowa, Central Michigan and Minnesota and turned in his grittiest effort in Saturday's come-from-behind win at Michigan State. It's hard to imagine where Iowa's offense would be without Weisman.
Biggest surprise: Penn State. After the midsummer roster reduction and an 0-2 start, Penn State was largely written off. But the Lions have rebounded with four consecutive wins and remain one of just four teams still unbeaten in league play. An offense that returned almost no proven players has held its own, ranking in the middle of the league, while Mauti and others have energized a defense that has surrendered just 16 points per game. A young Northwestern team merits a mention at 6-1, and Iowa's strong start to Big Ten play has been a bit surprising after its September struggles.
Biggest disappointment: Michigan State. There are two other possibilities here -- Purdue and Illinois -- but no team has performed worse, relative to expectations, than the Spartans. After back-to-back 11-win seasons and a Legends Division title in 2011, Michigan State entered the season pegged by some, including both of us, to win the league and reach its first Rose Bowl since 1987. But the personnel losses on offense -- not just at quarterback and receiver, but also the offensive line -- have been extremely hard to overcome. Michigan State already has dropped three home games and now enters a difficult stretch -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern.
Best game: Nebraska 30, Wisconsin 27. After being blown out in its Big Ten debut last year in Madison, Nebraska faced a similar fate after Wisconsin stormed out to a 27-10 lead early in the third quarter at Memorial Stadium. But Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez, who had thrown three interceptions against Wisconsin the year before, led a furious comeback in the final 25 minutes. Nebraska scored the game's final 20 points to tie for the second-largest comeback in team history. Martinez racked up 181 pass yards, 107 rush yards and three touchdowns (2 passing, one rushing) in the win.
Best coach: Penn State's O'Brien. The first-year boss has kept his team focused despite the rocky offseason and the 0-2 start. He has modernized the offense and helped McGloin transform his game. He has worked around depth issues and identified new standouts such as Robinson. This season easily could have gotten away after all Penn State had been through, but O'Brien has things stabilized as the Lions chase the Leaders Division title. Ohio State's Meyer and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald also merit mentions.