B1G debate: Who is the Big Ten’s most disappointing team and who is the biggest surprise?
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: Who is the Big Ten’s most disappointing team and who is the biggest surprise?
RYAN: We’re about a quarter of the way through the season, so it’s time to take stock of our preseason expectations and do some evaluating. Which team, relative to expectations, has been the biggest disappointment and which team has been the biggest surprise?
I think there is a clear choice for each. First, for the most surprising.
I didn’t see this coming from Michigan State. I’ll admit, I picked the Spartans to finish dead last in the Big Ten East. And in retrospect, can you blame me? Look at the East! Aside from the usual suspects (Ohio State and Penn State), Rutgers (3-0), Maryland (3-0) and Michigan (3-0) all look great so far and have a ton of momentum. Plus, Indiana was coming off that great season. It was almost like process of elimination.
It’s not that I didn’t think this kind of start — 3 victories by 17 or more, including a 21-point win at No. 24 Miami — was possible for Mel Tucker. It’s just that I didn’t think it would happen this quickly. I thought the Spartans were just a little bit behind Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana. I was very, very wrong.
Michigan State has been one of my favorite teams to watch thus far because of the offensive balance. RB Kenneth Walker III is a true workhorse, and QB Payton Thorne has been better than expected, with 3 legit weapons out wide in Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor and Tre Mosley. There are 2 teams in the top 6 in the Big Ten in both passing offense and rushing offense — Ohio State and Michigan State. That’s great company to keep.
If I had to re-pick the East, Michigan State would be no worse than fourth, and I would be tempted to pick the Spartans as high as second. Would I be surprised if the Spartans won the East? Yeah, that’s probably too big of a leap at this point, but they do get Michigan, Penn State and Maryland all at home. Michigan State can definitely go 6-3 in the Big Ten playing at this current level.
Now, for my most disappointing team. Is this even a question? It’s Ohio State.
The Buckeyes somehow look even worse on defense than last season, when they were 13th in the Big Ten in pass defense. They just let up 428 yards through the air to … Tulsa. I don’t think the Big Ten has a ton of great quarterbacks by any means, but if Ohio State is allowing 501 yards to the Golden Hurricanes, what does that mean against Taulia Tagovailoa, Sean Clifford or Payton Thorne? (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.)
I’m honestly shocked at the way Ohio State has played thus far. It has been outscored 36-30 in the first half this season. A team with such a wide advantage in talent should not be having this many issues. And quite frankly, strip the Buckeyes of their name and reputation, and they would be nowhere near the Top 25 based on their current resume, much less ranked 10th. If not for a stud true freshman running back, Ohio State probably would’ve lost to Tulsa. (Again, I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.) That game was so much closer than the final score of 41-20.
Anyways, who are your most surprising and disappointing teams?
CONNOR: This is going to be an extremely B1G East-heavy debate, but I think it has to be.
Michigan State is a solid choice. I wasn’t crazy about the Mel Tucker hire, but that was more because of the circumstances around it with him getting overpaid. Or at least what felt like an overpay. Now, though, you’re starting to see why he’s so respected in this industry. Guys love playing for him and he’s not a micro-manager.
For my most surprising team, give me Rutgers. Yeah, I know. No games against B1G competition yet. But Rutgers is 3-0 for the first time in 9 years and all of those wins came by double figures. I’m old enough to remember a time when I joked about whether the Knights could hit the “over” on a 1.5-win projection. Rutgers is now attempting to match its highest regular-season win total since 2015. We’re in September!
This just proves that Greg Schiano is the only human being who should ever coach at Rutgers. What I think is impressive is that Schiano is doing this not necessarily with a ton of homegrown talent — though Bo Melton’s presence has been key — but by getting transfers to buy in. Noah Vedral was a castoff at Nebraska, Aaron Cruickshank found a new life after being just a return specialist at Wisconsin and Brandon Sanders was a nice find from Bucknell. I’m not saying that Rutgers is sitting here about to make a push for East contention, but Schiano’s squad is a competitive Michigan game away from getting AP Top 25 votes. That’s something.
I don’t really have a problem with you going with Ohio State for your most disappointing team. I guess I’m still of the belief that as bad as the defense has been, the Buckeyes will still somehow find a way to get to Indianapolis and win the B1G.
I’ll instead go with Indiana. To go from having the program’s first preseason AP Top 25 berth in over 50 years to losing in 2 of the first 3 weekends is just peak-Hoosier football. It’s strange because I was skeptical of the Hoosiers coming into this year, but seeing the way in which they lost those games was more deflating. It’s been so many self-induced mistakes, too. Michael Penix Jr. isn’t right, and you can’t count on him to win a game against a competent defense, much less 2 elite ones like Iowa and Cincinnati. I mean, he couldn’t even hit 5.0 yards per attempt against Idaho.
I’m looking at those first 3 B1G games at Penn State, home against Michigan State and then home against Ohio State, and I could easily see a path to an 0-4 start to B1G play. That’d be devastating for that program with how difficult it is to fill Memorial Stadium, especially once basketball season starts.
Are the Hoosiers a buy-low team for you? Or are you also of the belief that there are tough times ahead if Penix’s decision-making doesn’t drastically improve in a hurry?
RYAN: Indiana is not a buy-low team for me. For one, the East looks awesome, as we’ve mentioned. Maybe if the Hoosiers swapped places with Purdue and could play Illinois, Northwestern and Nebraska, I might be more optimistic. But the teams that are supposed to finish in the bottom half of the East (Rutgers, Maryland and Michigan State) all look great so far. Indiana has a realistic chance of starting the season ranked 18th and going 4-8. And I actually predicted Indiana would start 1-2 (I actually had them at 2-3, with a loss next week to Penn State before running the table. Whoops!).
The reason Indiana isn’t a buy-low for me is because of the way the Hoosiers have lost. As you mentioned, Penix has played terribly. I don’t think it’s debatable that he has been the worst QB in the Big Ten — and he was the preseason frontrunner for Offensive Player of the Year!
I’m wondering, is it time to play former Utah transfer Jack Tuttle? The guy did win at Wisconsin last year (albeit with no fans in a down year for the Badgers). Penix really wasn’t all that great last year aside from a few plays against Penn State and a terrific performance against Ohio State, which we’ve learned isn’t all that difficult given how shaky that defense is. Don’t forget, the Hoosiers had 211 total yards against Penn State last year. That was the part I never understood with the coronation of Penix as this elite player. Indiana’s defense that was second in the country in interceptions played a major role in the Hoosiers’ terrific season.
Another problem is that for the last few years, Indiana has not been great up front. That has led to a below-average run game and Penix often running for his life because of poor protection. That’s tough to overcome.
Are you buying low on the Hoosiers? Or Ohio State’s defense? I think this is setting up to be a wacky year where Ohio State loses multiple B1G games, and either Penn State or Iowa wins the B1G.
Also, are we sure Greg Schiano is the only guy that can win at Rutgers? Maybe the only guy available. I’m thinking Rutgers is the next stop for Urban Meyer when Schiano takes the vacant Tennessee job in 2 years. (Kidding. Sort of.)
CONNOR: How DARE you say a non-Schiano human can win at Rutgers. The guy has more bowl game appearances than all other Rutgers coaches combined, and he was on the sidelines for 5 of their 6 bowl victories in program history. There’s not enough Papa John’s on this planet to get Meyer through a month of coaching at Rutgers.
As for the Indiana stuff, I agree with you. The preseason Penix buzz was far too great. It’s almost like people only saw the stretch against Penn State and then the Ohio State game. I think he’s too far gone to become an elite quarterback, as intriguing as he is because of some of the things he can do.
That’s the problem, though. With ample time to prepare, I saw Tuttle struggle against a horrendous Ole Miss defense last year, which is probably skewing my impression of him too much. It’s not like Tom Allen has a bevy of capable backups to right the ship. Could he perhaps avoid some of those costly turnovers and manage the game a bit better so Indiana’s defense has a chance? Perhaps. Maybe a 2-interception first quarter against Penn State would yield that scenario.
I’m not really buying low on Ohio State’s defense, either. I heard Danny Kanell make an excellent point about the Buckeyes’ defense. Kerry Coombs did the same exact thing that doomed Don Brown at Michigan. This single-high safety stuff just isn’t working. Ohio State is also slow at linebacker, and they don’t have a Chase Young/Bosa brother who can take over a game and make life easier. That’s why Coombs got demoted out of play-calling duties.
Are we suddenly buying the Buckeyes’ defense with Matt Barnes calling plays? I mean, they gave up 501 yards to Tulsa. Even Ohio State players said there really wasn’t much of a difference. That defense isn’t a quick-fix unit. They’re going to put pressure on CJ Stroud all year.
Hey, speaking of Stroud … let’s pick our best B1G quarterback for next week’s debate. How early is too early to call dibs on Taulia Tagovailoa?
RYAN: Very sneaky of you to take Tagovailoa right before his numbers get skewed against Iowa. Or are you setting yourself up to look bad? I’m looking forward to that.
I can’t decide which QB I’ll take. Probably either Sean Clifford, Payton Thorne or Cade McNamara — you know, all the guys I predicted would be great this season.
Talk to you next week!