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Big Ten Football: Mid-season musings

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Yes, we have hit the halfway mark to the 2018 college football season. It’s hard to believe that Week 8 is upon us, and largely because the first half of the season has seemed like a blur of craziness. 

Amidst that craziness somehow the natural order of the Big Ten seems to be on track. Ohio State is running away with the league, Wisconsin is still in the drivers seat of the West division and Michigan is looking like a 10-win team too. 

But, there are so many intriguing storylines happening and a few of them that I think are worth expounding on. So, let’s get to the musing over what we’ve seen so far in the first half of the 2018 season. 

Ohio State look like a national title contender

Alabama, Alabama, Alabama. 

If you listen to national writers and pundits, the Crimson Tide are the only team that matters in 2018. They have a super human quarterback and a dominating defense — certainly ingredients to winning a national championship. 

But, plenty are discounting the fact that there’s another team in 2018 with that exact makeup and plenty of other parts to love. That team is Ohio State. 

The Buckeyes have some guy named Dwayne Haskins, who is fourth in the country in passing yards per game (333), leads the country with 28 touchdown passes, has just four interceptions and who’s passer rating of 188.1 is third in the country. 

OSU also happens to have two of the better wide receivers in Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill who have over 40 receptions each in half of a season. 

That makes no mention of a dominant defense that is giving up just 19.1 points per game and terrorizes opponent quarterbacks to the tune of 24 sacks (which leads the Big Ten and 4th in the country). That’s happened even as star defensive end Nick Bosa went down injured and has decided to focus on the NFL draft instead of coming back maybe by the start of the College Football Playoff should they make it. 

Yes, Alabama’s numbers are ridiculous to date, but it’s almost as if everyone is forgetting about how great Ohio State has played to start its season. If the first half trends continue over the second half, there should be two teams with equal chances at winning a national title and Ohio State is one of them. 

Wisconsin continues to be a QB away from national contention

If you’re a Wisconsin Badgers fan there seems to be a familiar theme — ever so close to the promised land of national title contention only to find out they are still a quarterback away from making it happen. 

Unfortunately, even in the season they finally had a quarterback that could be a difference maker, the Badgers failed to give Russell Wilson enough help on the defensive side of the ball to keep them in the national title picture. 

That said, recent history suggests this team is seriously just one quality quarterback away from getting over the final hurdle and competing with the upper echelon of the college football world. 

For the Badgers, it is clear that quarterback Alex Hornibrook is not the consistent player they were hoping to find after his breakout Orange Bowl performance. Instead, they’ve see the player who shrinks under pressure and in the spotlight. 

That player showed up when the Badgers needed him to be a stud last Saturday in Ann Arbor. Instead, he completed the first three passes of the game and took until midway through the fourth quarter to complete another pass. By that point, the game was out of hand and Hornibrook had given up a pick-six and played his team out of any choice but to hope and pray he would find some consistency.

It never happened and that has been the pattern for the majority of the big games in his career. But, do the Badgers have a better option in waiting? We simply don’t know because head coach Paul Chryst has refused to get the hook out and allow younger players like Jack Coan and Danny Vanden Boom an opportunity to prove themselves. 

Why not allow that to happen in situations like the upcoming Illinois game or do it to send a message to Hornibrook that he can’t use the same excuses as a third-year starter as he did the first year. 

But, this is a question beyond Hornibrook, because it’s been a pattern for the better part of 20 years in Madison. They thought perhaps 4-star Bart Houston would be the answer in the mid 2010’s, but he never was able to get it going and injuries didn’t help. 

Now, Wisconsin is adding one of the top pro-style quarterbacks in the country in 2019 in Graham Mertz. He’ll likely have a season of seasoning thanks to a senior season from Hornibrook. 

Can Badgers fans be patient enough to wait until at least 2020 to see if a difference maker at quarterback can emerge? Will they get sick of being just one player or one game away from getting to the next level? 

At some point it may be a hill they aren’t willing to die on and that could change the landscape of things in Madison in a very interesting way. 

Is Purdue the 2nd-best team in the Big Ten West division? 

I don’t think this was even a legitimate thought heading in to the season. But, after seeing what has happened on the field to this point, this is a question I have been pondering for most of this week. 

Arguably, Purdue has the most explosive offense not in Scarlet and Gray in this conference. The Boilermakers are averaging 33.5 points per game and that is good for fourth in the B1G. It also is tops amongst all West division teams, with Purdue trailing only Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan to date. 

Don’t let the fourth place spot fool you though, as all schools not named Penn State have most of their difficult games coming up. This is also an offense that has put up four or more touchdowns in each of the last four games and put up 30 points on one of the toughest non-Big Ten defenses in the country — Boston College. 

Given the weakness of squads like Illinois and Nebraska, Purdue’s offense alone has elevated themselves into the conversation just behind Wisconsin and alongside Iowa and Northwestern. 

Yes, the Boilers lost to the Wildcats, but that was in the season opener and I have a feeling the Purdue team we see after six games would be able to win that matchup if it were played now. 

Don’t be surprised to see the Boilers give Iowa and Wisconsin plenty of trouble down the road here. That’s especially true if the defense that showed up in games against BC and Illinois comes to play against better competition. 

Sitting at 3-3, this Boilermakers team is at a cross roads and with an upcoming schedule that includes OSU, MSU, Iowa and Wisconsin we’re going to find out if both sides are ready for bigger competition. 

A lot will depend on the defense, which has improved but still has plenty of work to do. If the improvement can show against the upper echelon of the league, we may see Purdue give all of those four team a scare. 

Of course, Iowa has to be the first team you think of when it comes to second place behind Wisconsin as we speak. Their throttling of Indiana this past weekend was a huge marker for their claim as the second-best in the division. 

Iowa also took the Badgers to the wire at home to open the Big Ten slate for both teams and that game could’ve easily been a win too. Iowa’s defense sits second in opponents scoring, but since the start of Big Ten play, they are allowing opponents to average 25 points per game, including a season high 31 points to Minnesota. 

The good news there is that Iowa’s offense has become explosive without a huge run game in the mix. Nate Stanley may be the second best quarterback and his tight ends are easily the best in the B1G. 

So, while it may be tempting to love seeing Purdue move up the ranks, what Iowa has put on film and in the win-loss columns makes it easy to still choose them as the second-best team for now. 

Depending on what happens to Wisconsin in front of them, they may even be the team to represent the division in Indianapolis the first weekend in December. 

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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