Each week during the season, BTN.com web editor Sean Merriman and a featured guest will debate a topic related to Big Ten football. This week, Nebraska beat writer Brian Rosenthal and I debate the following question: “Heading into Week 5 of the college football season, which team is your favorite to win the Legends Division”? Our answers may surprise you…
Sean: This is the burning question on every Big Ten fan’s mind right now. I can say that all six teams have a legitimate chance at taking the division, although I think it’s also fair to say that we can eliminate the loser of this weekend’s Minnesota-Iowa game from that equation. Michigan and Nebraska were the popular picks heading into this season, but I’m going to go with the team playing the best football right now in that division—Northwestern.
The Wildcats are getting it done on both sides of the ball, averaging more than 41 points per game, and that includes games against two respected teams in Cal and Syracuse. But most importantly, this defense is getting a ton of takeaways. Did you know Northwestern has totaled 10 interceptions through four games, four of which have been returned for scores? With that type of production on both sides of the ball, this Northwestern team is going to be hard to beat.
Brian: I see this race being more wide open now than when the season started. I mean, really, is it too early to start brushing up on the tiebreaker rules? It seems that Northwestern is now kind of the trendy pick to sneak up and win the division, and if there was ever a time for the Wildcats to do so, this is the year. But they’ve got a brutal start to Big Ten play, with Wisconsin and Ohio State, and while I think Northwestern is capable of beating Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska, I don’t see them winning all three, and maybe not even two. I know the defense has been opportunistic, but the offense, minus Venric Mark, hasn’t seemed to find its stride, and I still wonder if the defense can avoid the big plays that have bitten the Wildcats in the past.
If Michigan State had just an average offense, I’d pick the Spartans because of their outstanding defense and favorable schedule. Conversely, if Nebraska had even just an average defense, I’d pick the Huskers, because of their offense and favorable schedule. Trouble is, I don’t see either team greatly improving their Achilles’ heel any time soon.
That leaves Michigan, the team I picked at the beginning of the season, and team I’m sticking with. I believe Devin Gardner will emerge from this funk, as Brady Hoke described it, and the Wolverines, despite two ugly victories over bad teams, will rebound and look more like the team we saw beat Notre Dame.
Don’t look for the Wolverines to run the table, though. Like I said, brush up on those tiebreakers.
Sean: I had a feeling you would point out Northwestern’s schedule, and rightfully so. This is arguably the toughest schedule in the Big Ten, but I’ve said from the start that the Wildcats need to take care of business at home and if they can do that, they will be right there with the big boys. Pat Fitzgerald’s club has Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State at home. That home field advantage should help Northwestern tremendously. So, I have to ask– Does this mean that you are counting out both Iowa and Minnesota?
Brian: I’ve liked the way Minnesota has started the season. While the nonconference competition wasn’t stiff, the Gophers were sound. They’re taking to Jerry Kill’s philosophy of running the football, being physical and not beating themselves. Minnesota has committed only 10 penalties and three turnovers through four games. But at some point, the Gophers will have to show they can throw the football consistently. Being too one-dimensional is no way to win a division crown. I do, however, think Minnesota gets a leg up by beating Iowa on Saturday. The Hawkeyes have rebounded nicely from their season-opening loss to Northern Illinois, and also can run the football. But I don’t see them rising up and challenging for this division.
Sean: Valid points all the way across the board Brian. I was in the same boat as you at the start of the season. I picked the Wolverines to take the Legends Division, and I admit, I was on the Devin Gardner bandwagon after that convincing win over Notre Dame under the lights in Week 2. But since then, I just think that the Wolverines’ weaknesses have really surfaced and Big Ten teams will be able to take advantage of that. For starters, Michigan turns the ball over way too much. Devin Gardner has turned it over 10 times through four games, including eight interceptions. But we all know about the turnover problems with this team, the question is why?
Well, I think it’s because Gardner has to create so much himself because the team hasn’t received much production from the running back position. Fitz Toussaint is averaging just four yards per carry, and has topped the 75-yard mark on just one occasion this year (last week vs. UCONN). After Toussaint, the leading rusher from the running back position is true freshmen Derrick Green, who has carried the ball just 13 times for 60 total yards. Gardner is the ultimate jekyll and hyde quarterback. When he’s on and doesn’t turn the ball over, this team can beat anyone. When he makes careless mistakes like he has been as of late, this team is in a world of trouble.
But on the other hand, Northwestern is steady. They do everything well, which is why I think they can win this division. And look, as you mentioned, this offense has been this good without their top weapon, Venric Mark. How scary-good could this unit be once he comes back? I’m looking forward to finding out…
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Brian: Your jekyll and hyde comment about Devin Gardner is fair and valid. In fact, it’s a comment that could be made about some facet of every team in the Legends Division. Obviously, if Michigan continues turning the ball over at this rate, the Wolverines won’t win the division. But I believe that this early in the season, it’s an issue that can be corrected. Same goes for the running game. Remember Wisconsin last season? The Badgers looked inept at running the football early and even midway through the season. Wasn’t that way by the end.
Northwestern has a nice team. Good skill position players. An opportunistic defense. But the Wildcats need to prove to me they can win a big game, and another, and another. One big win over, say, Michigan State won’t suffice. They’ll need to be consistent and find ways to win close game, too, something they couldn’t do last season.
|About Sean Merriman||BTN.com web editor Sean Merriman covers football and men’s basketball and provides original content for BTN.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BTNSean.|