B1G debate: Which surprise unbeaten will contend?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Which surprise unbeaten will contend?
RYAN: In 49 other states, it’s just football. Right?
Usually at this time of year, Indiana and Purdue fans are getting ready for the state’s favorite sport, basketball. But after an interesting couple of weeks in the Big Ten, Indiana and Purdue are among the league’s 5 unbeatens, along with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Meanwhile Penn State, Iowa and Minnesota—all of which were ranked in the preseason AP poll—are 0-2.
- Indiana is ranked 13th in this week’s AP poll, its highest ranking since 1987. With a win over No. 23 Michigan, the Hoosiers could potentially climb in the top 10 for the first time since 1969.
- Purdue is 2-0 for the first time since 2007, which is the last time the Boilermakers won 8 games.
- Northwestern is 2-0 for the first time since 2015 and 2-0 in B1G play since 2014.
So which of those 3 teams has the best chance of continuing this early-season roll and contending in the B1G? I think the popular choice may be Indiana, but I’ll go against the grain and take Purdue.
The wins over Iowa and Illinois were by a combined 11 points, but considering the circumstances, they were very impressive. The Boilermakers have played both games without their best player, Rondale Moore, and the Iowa one without head coach Jeff Brohm. Moore’s status moving forward is unknown, but I have to assume he opted back in to this season for a reason and he will be on the field at some point.
Without Moore, David Bell has played like an All-American. He leads the Big Ten in receiving yards (243), receptions (22) and is tied in TD catches (4). Milton Wright has also stepped up without Moore, which will only make this group stronger when he is back. A defense that can’t just fixate on Moore is going to have a ton of difficulty defending Purdue.
The last time Purdue had a running back finish in the top 10 in the Big Ten in rushing was 2015. It’s early, but Zander Horvath is currently 3rd in the conference in rushing yards per game at 115.5 per game and is averaging over 5.3 yards per carry. That is huge for Purdue sustaining success long term; it doesn’t need an All-American in the backfield, but it needs someone to keep defenses honest in this pass-heavy attack.
Defensively, new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has the Boilermakers at 4th in the conference in points per game (22), an area that Purdue usually is among the worst in the league. It’s a small sample size, for sure, but it’s a big step in the right direction. Purdue doesn’t have to have a Wisconsin-level defense to win thanks to its offense.
Perhaps the biggest reason I believe Purdue can contend is its remaining schedule. The game against Wisconsin this week is canceled, meaning the Boilermakers won’t play the West favorite. Northwestern still has to play Wisconsin, while Indiana has Michigan and Ohio State still to go. Purdue’s 2 East crossover games are Rutgers and Indiana. The schedule is very manageable.
CONNOR: Did you really have to take that opening line? Word for word, that’s the first thing I told my father-in-law in Indianapolis when he called to ask me how Purdue and Indiana were both 2-0.
You’re right in that this year has been a total surprise. That’s been par for the course in 2020. Go figure that both Texas, Oklahoma, Penn State and LSU would all have multiple losses before November. There’s nowhere to hide in this conference-only slate.
On that note, yeah, I’ll take the trendy Hoosiers as my surprise 2-0 team to contend. Why? Isn’t the division too daunting? I’m not convinced of that. Indiana has 1 game on its schedule that looks totally un-winnable, and it’s Ohio State. Nobody in the B1G should be treating the Buckeyes as a “winnable” game at this point. But this is about contending, which Indiana has already shown signs that it could do.
We talked about how you weren’t as high on Indiana because there was a lot that went wrong before those final 2 minutes against Penn State, and that it seemed like everyone was consumed by the ending. That’s fair. The passing game struggled and if the Nittany Lions avoid some costly mental errors, we’re talking about a team with 1 Rutgers win and nothing else.
But isn’t that a sign that things are turning around for Indiana? I’ve watched many an IU game that followed that exact script, but it ended with the Hoosiers making the colossal mistake against a ranked foe. I’m talking Damarlo Belcher dropping the pass against Iowa in 2010. I’m talking Jehu Chesson somehow catching a dart from Jake Rudock as time expired to force overtime against Michigan in 2015. The fact that the Hoosiers finally got over that mental hurdle cannot be overstated.
The Hoosiers have defensive issues to figure out—mainly stopping the run—but Tom Allen is still capable of making those adjustments. With all due respect, give me Allen over Diaco all day, every day. (Sidenote: Do you see the strain? Look that one up, non-Nebraska fans.)
It’s not crazy to think that Indiana has turned the corner as a program. Since the start of October 2019, IU is 7-2 against the B1G. One of those losses was the down-to-the-wire game at Penn State.
As favorable as that Purdue schedule is, I can’t trust that team to contend without knowing what the future holds for Rondale Moore. The Boilermakers played with fire even more than Indiana and against weaker competition.
RYAN: Indiana’s start feels a little flukey to me because it caught every break imaginable. If everything doesn’t align perfectly, it’s the “same old Indiana” and they are 1-1, with only a win against Rutgers to show for it, as you said.
To recap, Penn State…
- missed all 3 of its field-goal attempts, including a 25-yarder!
- had its starting running back get injured on the first series.
- had a mental breakdown on its final possession of regulation that should have ended the game.
- got terribly unlucky on the official ruling of the fateful 2-point conversion.
It’s as if many of the national media jumping on the bandwagon only watched the last 2 minutes of regulation and overtime. I watched that whole game and was disappointed in the way Indiana looked offensively, especially Michael Penix Jr. Penn State has a good defense, but this isn’t the ’85 Bears; Justin Fields made Penn State look like a JV team last week. Indiana is currently averaging 279 yards per game, and the offense needs to play much, much better if the Hoosiers are going to keep winning. Besides, the bottom of the East looks like it will be tougher than anticipated. Michigan State, Rutgers and Maryland have all shown signs of life and won’t be the automatic wins I thought they would be.
I hate to be a buzzkill, but Indiana does not feel like the No. 13 team in the country. A win against Michigan this week would change my mind, though.
There isn’t anything that feels flukey about Purdue. It is 5th in the B1G in yards per play without one of the most dynamic players in the country. My projection for Purdue as a contender prices in a Rondale Moore return, as I think the Boilermakers eventually need him to bail them out during days when they aren’t quite clicking offensively.
Neither of us chose Northwestern, which is a program that at least has a track record of contending. Remember when the Wildcats won the West 2 years ago? Man, that feels like a lifetime ago. We figured Pat Fitzgerald’s crew would bounce back, and indeed it has. We were born in Northwestern’s backyard (well, a hospital in Evanston to be exact, but you get the point), so why no love for our hometown team?
CONNOR: I think there’s a lack of optimism just because you usually don’t go from 1-8 in league play to competing for a Power 5 division title in a year’s time. Then again, you usually don’t go from winning a division title to 1-8 in league play in a year’s time, either.
I think the Northwestern skepticism is always there by default until there’s a head-turning win. Perhaps that should’ve been the comeback at Iowa, but the Hawkeyes had already lost a game, so it didn’t really come as some perception-changing moment. Indiana had that. I’d argue that Purdue had that in the opener without Brohm. Northwestern won’t get that unless it beats Nebraska, which shouldn’t really be considered a “perception-changing win,” but it’s beating a traditional power that carries weight in this sport.
(For what it’s worth, I’m well aware that the Northwestern-Nebraska matchup is always bananas. I remember being on the field for that 2013 game with the walk-off Hail Mary in Lincoln. That’s still one of the wildest plays I’ve ever seen.)
But you’re right in that we should probably be taking the Cats a bit more seriously in this discussion. Peyton Ramsey is an underrated college quarterback, and that defense looks like one of the better groups Pat Fitzgerald has had. Perhaps this weekend will be the turning point for how Northwestern is discussed.
How about this—which 0-2 team has the best chance of being in the mix at season’s end? I’ll still go with the boring answer of Penn State, who still has a pretty favorable road moving forward.
RYAN: Penn State is the only team I feel confident in right now to turn it around. Each should win this week as they are all at least touchdown-favorites. But Iowa appears to be in free fall after a chaotic offseason and one of their best players getting suspended after the latest loss, while Minnesota looks like it could give up 40 points to a high school team right now.
The Nittany Lions outplayed Indiana in that opener and of course lost to Ohio State. I would be surprised if Penn State didn’t at least win 5 of 6 to close the regular season, if not win all 6. It’s weird to think that Penn State, currently without a win, has a decent chance of winning more games than unbeaten Wisconsin.
It will be fun to look back on these predictions in a month and see which of these unbeatens, if any, kept it rolling. As unpredictable as this season has been already, nothing would be a surprise.