The Big Ten conference title race is heating up just three weeks into the season, with several contenders emerging. Six programs are still perfect, five of them in the East Division. The conference is loaded with talented squads that could make a run at the title (along with plenty of teams that could play the role of frisky upset), and it is already shaping up to be the best race in college football.
I believe there are five teams with a genuine shot at the crown. However, they all possess a fatal flaw that could sink the team.
An early apology to all the Wisconsin Badgers and Maryland Terrapins fans out there. Maryland’s 3-0 start feels more like a nod to the schedule than anything else, and the Badgers have done little to build my confidence in their offense.
With that out of the way, here are the five teams that could take the head seat at the Big Ten table. For each, we will look at their fatal flaw and impressive foundation.
Michigan State Spartans (20)
The Spartans’ attack on the ground is lethal, led by potential Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III. Walker III already has 493 yards and five scores in just three starts. He is the engine that powers the nation’s 11th-best rushing attack per game (263 YPG) and the fifth-best team in yards per attempt (6.82).
Michigan State can lean heavily on the ground and pound game thanks to a line pushing opponents around and a dominant running back.
MSU’s defense does not make sense. The Spartans allow lots of yards and do not particularly rush the passer well. They do not even rack up an impressive number of tackles per loss. However, the defense does an adequate job bending without breaking, holding opponents to only 17.3 points per game.
The team’s plus-three turnover margin helps with a defense that seems more mediocre than good. However, that can turn on a unit quickly if it is the one reason it is good.
Michigan Wolverines (19)
Michigan is scoring oodles of points, 47 per game to be exact. While the competition has been lackluster, a team that can score points in command must be respected. If your offense can potentially go nuclear at any time, it scares me a little bit.
It is also worth noting that Jim Harbaugh led Michigan teams with double-digit wins seem to drop at least one 50-piece each year (in 2015, they had 49 points, close enough).
It is a Harbaugh-led Wolverines squad. He and his Michigan team need to prove they can beat Michigan State and Ohio State.
Ohio State Buckeyes (10)
This offense is overflowing with talent at wide receiver and running back. Ohio State can score 30 points or more, seemingly at will. That is all thanks to a bevy of talent that keeps the offense balanced.
Studs at RB can grind out the ball or top-level WRs can change things into an air-raid attack instantly. It is why the Buckeyes were favorites to win the conference ahead of the season.
C.J. Stroud might need more time to take the talent around him to the next level. In matchups against the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Oregon Ducks, sailed passes led to painful interceptions.
It is a tendency that has shown up consistently in each of the opening three games of the season and does not seem to be going away.
Penn State Nittany Lions (6)
The Nittany Lions win gritty games by dragging down opponents into the mud with them. The defense is not the best in the conference, the running game is not anything to write home about, and the passing game will not smother anyone. Penn State drags you down like a crocodile and starts to barrel roll.
Every year, a team wins a lot of games by forcing every opponent to play into their style. Penn State is that team.
The flip side of being a gritty team is that they do not seem to do any one thing exceptionally well. Penn State follows that equation, as they are not exceptional at any one thing.
As of right now, there is no measure to fall back on. The Nittany Lions seemingly have nothing to break the glass and pull in case of emergency. That could ruin Penn State’s run.
Iowa Hawkeyes (5)
The defense of the Hawkeyes is truly soul-crushing, ranking inside the top 20 against the run and top five in scoring. Iowa also gets into the backfield more than most teams in the country, racking up 10 sacks and 19 TFL.
The defense has had legitimate tests against preseason darlings in the Indiana Hoosiers and Iowa State Cyclones. This unit has some teeth and could plague the Big Ten all season long.
The third-down conversion rate for the Hawkeyes is horrible and ranks 87th in the country. Many drives stall out because Iowa gets in third and long situations and struggles to convert.
It is a problem that could rear its head when trying to clinch the West, and defenses like Penn State and Wisconsin are up ahead on that schedule.