by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Drawing definitive conclusions during nonconference play is a dangerous proposition. In this early segment of the season, proceeding with caution is the most logical approach, no matter the body of evidence pointing to various trends. But no one's reserving judgment on the Big Ten. The punditry is unanimous: the league is bad, perhaps the worst iteration since the turn of the century. At this point, it's nigh-impossible to refute that point. The conference's four preseason favorites -- Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin -- have all fallen against beatable competition. Of those four, perhaps only Nebraska's and Michigan State's losses, at UCLA and against Notre Dame, respectively, are slightly excusable. But for two teams who harbored legitimate national title aspirations, the general expectation was that Michigan State and Nebraska would skate their way through nonleague play, carry that momentum into the Big Ten season and play their way into the BCS conversation. Neither looks equipped to make good on those expectations. As for Michigan and Wisconsin, any and all preseason BCS projections have dissipated as look far less complete than we once believed. All told, the Big Ten's top four is a large step down from the batch of elite programs that on paper had the talent, depth and solidity to carry the league banner with pride into the postseason. This is why preseason polls and predictions are so hit-or-miss, why it's never prudent to prognosticate too far into the future without seeing teams test their outwardly enticing qualities on the field.
Take, for example, the Northwestern Wildcats. Most pegged NU to finish near the bottom of the Legends Division. But after a 4-0 start, and an overall poor showing from the conference favorites, a division championship, or a top-half finish, is well within its grasps. But even this statement is fraught with risk. Remember, division and conference standings only reflect the course of events in league play. Which means NU's promising start could go out the window if it struggles in conference play. This weekend, when Indiana visits Ryan Field, heralds a new slate of competitive evenness -- not just for NU, but for the entire Big Ten. Conference play allows teams to put behind their nonleague mishaps and start anew, to reinvigorate their floundering campaigns. NU is hoping for just the opposite. It doesn't need a new start. The strong foundation it has created with three victories over BCS opponents is the type of launching pad that can propel the Wildcats to a strong Big Ten finish. Unlike so much of the Big Ten, NU made the most of its nonleague slate . Their hope is to continue the momentum they built through the first four weeks of the season. That process begins this weekend.
We hope this post finds you in good temperament as you proceed through whatever gameday routine accompanies these precious fall Saturdays. Hopefully our preview material has you ready for the upcoming matchup, but in case you missed anything, below we’ve compiled a last-minute study guide for any opponent queries that may yet stand unresolved. It never hurts to get some last-minute cramming in before watching your beloved Wildcats in game action. That said, read up, and enjoy the game!
Numbers never paint a complete picture, but they sure provide helpful benchmarks for college football scribes like yours truly. I pinpointed three metrics that provide a nice window into what you should expect from the Hoosiers.
The best information on opposing teams comes from the inside -- the coaching staff, the players, program staffers. Unfortunately, we don't have that type of access. But we got in touch with someone who does, and his pedigree is more than flattering. Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star spews his Hoosiers wisdom for InsideNU.
You may recognize some of Indiana's players from previous years, but roster turnover -- one of the inevitable and invariably potent forces of college football -- has shaken things up quite a bit in Bloomington. These are the players we feel warrant your attention, plus our take on IU's biggest strength and weakness.
Predicting outcomes and scores is a common practice. But predicting which team will win each phase of the game (offense, defense, special teams), that's next level stuff. Know what to look for in each phase, and how the Hoosiers stack up against NU with this composite breakdown.
You won't be surprised to learn our friendly Northwestern media contacts have all predicted a Wildcats win. But the different score predictions and reasoning behind those predictions are extremely diverse. See how your prediction matches up with those from some well-informed NU writers'.