Tate: Weekend of woe shows league weakness

Michigan stopped a last-ditch Akron bid that dented the 1-yard line in a 28-24 result Saturday. How many Big House fans had Appalachian State on their minds as the clock ran down?

But that narrow escape, which kept the Wolverines unscathed, didn’t alter the nation’s perception of Jim Delany’s conference. It was Black Saturday, another day in which boys from the Big Ten failed to impress the folks in the Far West and Deep South.

Penn State’s stumble offers further indications that the sanctions are having an effect. Three Big Ten teams fell to Pac-12 rivals — UCLA scored the last 38 points at Nebraska — and Purdue succumbed to Notre Dame. They’re not even smiling at 3-0 Minnesota, where coach Jerry Kill had another epileptic seizure.

Ohio State continues to roll, but the expectations are unreasonably high. When you’re undefeated through 15 straight, nothing short of a BCS title-game opportunity will suffice for Buckeye fans. But Ohio State will need help because the Pac-12 has joined the SEC as clearly stronger ... creating a strength-of-schedule advantage. Even if Ohio State goes undefeated again, the early implications for the Buckeyes are dour.

Why? OK, it’s too early for this kind of talk, but take a moment: Ohio State won’t reach the final BCS national championship game in Pasadena without finishing a game ahead of the Pac-12 champion, the SEC champion and possibly the winner of that basketball conference, the ACC. Don’t doubt Clemson. The Tigers already own a 38-35 win against Georgia, which vaulted them ahead of No. 4 Ohio State in the AP poll. If the Tigers finish 12-0 with wins against Florida State and South Carolina, they’ll be hammering at the title door.

Go West, young (football) men
You already know about Alabama and the SEC. Those southerners are in another football realm. And even with USC in a temporary lull, the Pac-12 is sweeping past the Big Ten on multiple fronts with stadium renovations, ever-increasing income and swifter, more flamboyant athletes.

All four Pac-12 teams scored 30 or more against the Big Ten on Saturday, although Ohio State ran up 52 at Cal while Heisman candidate Braxton Miller watched from the sideline. The fact that Kenny Guiton received Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors is an indication of how deep and talented the Buckeyes are. But, as noted, they’ll need help to be selected for the championship because the overall look of the Big Ten, by comparison, is mediocre.   

Look at it from the view of a voter. After Florida A&M on Saturday, Urban Meyer’s team faces Wisconsin and Northwestern ... then a stretch of five games against arguably the five weakest teams in the Big Ten — Iowa, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana — before closing at Michigan. Wisconsin will probably fall from the Top 25 if the Badgers lose at Ohio State on Sept. 28. Northwestern is a solid No. 18 at this juncture but has Ohio State and Wisconsin back-to-back in early October and consecutive dates with Michigan and Michigan State in November.

Point is: Pat Fitzgerald could be fielding his best team, but these Wildcats will have to peak repeatedly to stick in the rankings. If they don’t, Ohio State could march into Michigan on Nov. 30 without having faced a single member of the late-November Top 25 (the Buckeyes don’t play Michigan State, Nebraska or Minnesota).

Here’s my advice for Buckeye Nation. Relax, watch for the upsets, and make sure you’re not one of them. Remember, it’s only September.

Chicago afterthoughts:
— If the Battle for Chicago can be reflected in attendance, the Illini drew 47,312 on Saturday as compared to Northwestern’s 38,033 for the Wildcats’ opening win against Syracuse. But Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips can point to major increases since his first year in 2008 when the same Syracuse game drew 20,015 and the opener against Towson in 2009 showed 17,857. The coupling of Phillips’ campaign with Fitzgerald’s successes has not only boosted overall attendance but fundraising and corporate sponsorships as well.

— Mostly man-to-man coverage by four seniors in the Washington secondary had much to do with Nathan Scheelhaase’s inability to find open receivers in the 34-24 UI loss. He struggled through a 9-for-25 day after coming in with 74 percent completions. Watch for more UI rivals to mix a lot of man coverage with their zones.

— Strong outside rushes by defensive ends influenced Bill Cubit to employ Scheelhaase on third-quarter draws that revived the Illini offense. But the Illini still aren’t able to free the tailbacks on routine ground plays. Some of us expected Donovonn Young to run for 100 yards against SIU. Instead, the three-game stats show Young with 128 yards in 35 carries, a 3.7 average.

— Biggest positives: (1) Cubit again demonstrated an ability to adjust on the run, (2) despite the missed field goal, UI special teams are clearly better, and Justin DuVernois’ punting was terrific and (3) the fact that Illinois outscored Washington 14-3 in the last 20 minutes allowed the squad to leave Chicago with its confidence intact. After UI fans wallowed in negativism for nine months, a 3-1 start to the season would be applauded.   

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Jam wrote on September 17, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Loren,  the offensive line is improving.  Maybe they are not the best but compared to last year they are better.  Kudos to the offensive line coach.  The holes for DYoung will get there.

Moonpie wrote on September 17, 2013 at 3:09 pm

What, Sir Oracle Tate Legend is no longer hyping the Illini after they got run over? I'm shocked, I tell ya -- gambling, right here in River City? Meanwhile, just as it was way too soon to hype the Illini, it's too soon to write the conference obituary.