There are many things to be learned from non-conference play. First-year coaches get their first real runs with new teams. Veteran returners begin to congeal with underclassmen. True freshmen take the field for the very first time. The winner of that long preseason quarterback battle attempts to validate his coach’s choice. But most of all, we get to look back on where we thought teams stood at beginning of the season, asses how far they’ve come since and thusly gauge how accurate preseason rankings – from Phil Steele to the AP Poll to media sites’ power rankings, and everything in between – were.
We learned quite a bit from this year’s non-conference season. One conclusion? The Big Ten isn’t close to regaining its status as one of the nation’s premier conferences. The league has a long way to go, even if teams like Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan (barely) and Wisconsin all look top-25 caliber. As is, the Big Ten probably ranks fifth in terms of sheer quality, behind (in order) the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC. There were other lessons gleaned from individual teams’ performances, including the Wildcats, and all of them will go into helping us select the team we believe is the best in the Legends Division. We’ve put out conference power rankings each week in our Monday “rewind,” and those provide a handy snapshot, subject to weekly revision (of course), of where Big Ten teams stand amongst each other. But the Legends Division race – the thing Northwestern needs to win in order to reach the conference championship game – is the more acute concern.
Like most of these “debates,” the terms of engagement are subjective; “better” is a nebulous modifier, when you really think about it. That’s why – and we can’t stress this enough – it’s important to read the explanations before summarily dismissing our choices. Anyway: Legends Division. Teams. Who’s the best?
Opinions change over the course of the season. In August, I strongly believed Michigan was the best team in the Legends Division, and I reserve the right (warning: I will) to revisit that point if the Wolverines do end up beating out Northwestern, Nebraska or whoever else for first place. But right now, days before most teams begin conference play, the best team is Northwestern.
People who don’t frequent this site, or support another Big Ten team, will be cynical about my response because I cover Northwestern, know more about it than any other Big Ten program and thus, as the theory goes, am susceptible to a wrongly inflated opinion of it. But if there’s something I’ve learned over my time reporting and writing about sports – and Northwestern in particular – it’s how to analyze a topic objectively, and eliminate any bias that may arise from spending a lot of time reading, writing and talking about the team I cover.
I see Northwestern play and practice every week, and still – however much one might think that would lead me to unjustly elevate it above other teams – it doesn’t seem unreasonable or “optimistic” or “biased” in any way to say the Wildcats are, after a month of games, the best team in the division. The last two weeks may dispute this notion (after peaking against Syracuse, Northwestern’s performance has slipped in consecutive games) and were it not for other events – Michigan looking terrible against Akron, and nearly as terrible one week later at UConn; Nebraska being enveloped by a messy coaching controversy (and accompanying media firestorm), and fielding an undercooked defense that allowed more than 7.0 yards per play against South Dakota State – I would have had to rethink my choice.
But the Wildcats just look better than the other candidates right now. I mentioned Michigan and Nebraska above, but even the third possible challenger, Michigan State, after showing glimpses of offensive hope last week against Youngstown State, proved why – no matter who starts at quarterback – it cannot be trusted to score enough points to beat good teams.
That leaves Northwestern. The important thing to remember is that this ranking is temporary, subject to change – likely, even. For as awful as Michigan has played the past two weeks, and as porous as Nebraska’s defense appears, either of those teams is capable of righting the ship in relatively short order and passing Northwestern on my Legends power ballot. I’m more bullish on Michigan – who has already put together a complete performance against an ostensibly good team (Notre Dame) – engineering a midseason turnaround. Nebraska’s defensive impotence doesn’t look like something that can be corrected over the coming bye week; the Huskers problems on that side of the ball seem like inherent personnel flaws. And Michigan State continues to look more and more like last season’s 7-6 team than the conference championship contender of recent vintage.
Just because Northwestern owns the No. 1 spot right now doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to keep it all season long. In fact, I suspect the two-week stretch (Oct. 5-Oct. 12) featuring Ohio State at home and Wisconsin on the road will force a downward revision. But that, too, will only be temporary – a snapshot. It’s far too early to answer this question with any measure of conclusiveness; it will require the entire conference schedule, including crucial November games between Nebraska, Michigan and Northwestern, to get a complete picture.
Right now, before conference play offers evidence suggesting otherwise, Northwestern is No. 1.
- Chris Johnson
I probably should have made a guess for argument's sake, by frankly, I have no idea which team is the best in the Legends Division. While Northwestern, Michigan and Nebraska look like the three best teams in the division right now, Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa are also potentially players in the division race, as pointed out by BTN's Tom Dienhart. So instead of picking a winner, I'll handicap my top three.
Northwestern: There's a big difference between the "best team" in the Legends Division and the team that I think will win. Right now, Northwestern looks like the best team, but the Wildcats have a difficult schedule and will need to come up with some big wins to end up in Indianapolis. That isn't to say they can't, but Nebraska, which has struggled mightily so far, may only have to split games with NU and Michigan to win the division thanks to an easy schedule.
So far, though, NU probably deserves the "best team in the Legends" title. I don't know if NU really is the best team in its division, because Michigan could certainly turn things around. However, the Wildcats have played like the best one so far, so they deserve the benefit of the doubt. There are some major issues on defense (particularly at defensive tackle and corner) that NU must figure out, but all in all, this may be the most complete team in the division.
Michigan: So which Michigan are we going to get for the rest of the season? Are we going to get the one that beat Notre Dame or the one that struggled to beat UConn and Akron? Clearly, Michigan was overrated heading into the season. Devin Gardner is good, but not a Heisman winner and the offense has struggled to find a rhythm. When Gardner and his receivers are in a rhythm, the Wolverines are hard to stop, but they've been very inconsistent so far.
The good news for Michigan is its biggest problem — turnovers — is fixable. Maybe Gardner is turnover-prone and that won't change, but it's something that can be fixed with more discipline. If the Wolverines fix that and get the offense in sync, they'll be a dangerous team that may be better than NU in the Legends.
Nebraska: The offense is great. Taylor Martinez has turned into a good quarterback, Ameer Abdullah is a rising star at running back and the receivers — headlined by Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner — are the best group in the Big Ten. However, the Cornhuskers can't stop anyone. It's incredible how bad the defense has been, particularly up front, where the line has gotten no push against opposing offensive lines. Nebraska won't be the most complete team in the Legends this season, but if the Huskers can steal a game from Michigan or Northwestern, they're right in the division race.
So really, who knows who the best team is? As I mentioned, NU looks like the best team so far, but non-conference season can be misleading. We'll find out soon enough which teams are for real, but with the bottom half of the division poised to make some noise as well, it should be a fun race.
- Kevin Trahan