The Big Ten has been a mixed bag of tricks so far this season.
Whether it was Wisconsin’s upset on opening night against Western Illinois, Ohio State knocking off Kentucky, or Northwestern opening the season at 11-1, putting a finger on the pulse of the Big Ten has been difficult. On any given night, anything can happen.
Nonetheless, with non-conference action wrapping up for most teams this week, a few things do appear to be clearing up for the Big Ten and particularly, the top of the Big Ten. Though no team has necessarily divided itself as the favorite to win the conference crown, it seems obvious at this point that in some order, Maryland, Michigan State, and Purdue are the teams to beat.
Through the first dozen or so games of action, Maryland, Michigan State, and Purdue have really proven their worth. The Spartans are undefeated and the Terps and Boilermakers each have one loss. Plus considering that the two losses came away from home against good North Carolina and Butler teams, that’s not even that big of a hit to Maryland and Purdue’s resumes.
Thanks to this hot start, Maryland, Michigan State, and Purdue have all earned some lofty rankings from both the human polls and the advanced stats. In fact, all three teams are in the top 16 nationally in the AP Poll, USA Today Coaches’ Poll, KenPom ratings, and the Sagarian ratings.
Nothing is guaranteed, but in all likelihood, it’s hard to see anyone except these three teams hoisting the Big Ten regular season title at season’s end. It’s difficult to separate who will win of these three, but it’s not hard to project one of these three winning.
Of course, none of this is breaking news.
After all, projecting one of the best three teams to win the conference title isn’t exactly a bold projection. However, it does beg the question about which team is set to finish fourth. After all, many of the teams perceived to finish near the top of the Big Ten like Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have seen mixed results so far this season.
So, who is the front-runner for fourth in the Big Ten this season?
Let’s begin by selecting the candidates.
Again, nothing is guaranteed, but it does seem like a few teams have emerged as the top contenders for fourth place. These teams are Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Maybe that group seems a bit big, but that’s just the reality of this year’s Big Ten.
Among these candidates, there also seems to be some separation, at least from a broad perspective. Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan seem to be the prime contenders, Northwestern seems to be just a tad below, and Ohio State and Wisconsin appear to be relative long shots.
Let’s take a look at each tier.
At the top, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan look like the top contenders. Undoubtedly, the Hawkeyes have shown the most so far. Iowa is 9-3 overall and already has wins over Florida State, Marquette on the road, and Wichita State. Plus, it’s important to note that Iowa has yet to lose at home and has shown up away from home as well.
Meanwhile, Indiana and Michigan have had relatively similar seasons. Neither team has recorded a win against a great team, each has a win against a good team (Notre Dame, Texas), a decent team (Creighton, North Carolina State), and has dominated most of their weak opponents. Indiana probably has the better single win (Notre Dame), but Indiana also has the worst losses of the two teams as well.
Behind these three teams seemingly lies Northwestern. As discussed earlier this week on Today’s U, the Wildcats are a complete unknown at this point. The team has really only played one good team (North Carolina) this season and lost. Northwestern has racked up plenty of wins so far, but one can only learn so much from a game against New Orleans and SIU Edwardsville.
One could argue that Northwestern should be with Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan, but three overtime wins over teams rated outside the top 100 on KenPom has left some real doubts about the Wildcats. Northwestern will have opportunities ahead, but there are still too many question marks to slot the team in much higher.
Finally, Ohio State and Wisconsin have to be the long shots to make a run at fourth place in the Big Ten this year. Both have some really nice wins this season (Kentucky, Syracuse), but neither has looked anywhere close to consistent enough to be in serious player for fourth. Each has already suffered three home losses and at least one blowout loss. To finish high in the Big Ten, a team has to take care of business at home and neither of these teams have done that.
Overall, there’s no debating that the middle of the Big Ten is wide open.
There is a lot of potential for not only the teams listed above, but even some of the teams like Illinois and Nebraska. The conference just doesn’t have the dominant teams of the past and as a result, there’s a lot left for the taking.
It’s hard to pick a single team as having a significant edge, but Iowa has to be considered the prime candidate to finish behind Maryland, Michigan State, and Purdue this season. The Hawkeyes have played the best and have shown that they can take care of business at home and be competitive on the road. Indiana and Michigan are also serious candidates, but until either shows a little more consistency, it’s hard to feel too confident.
The Big Ten may be having a “down” year, but for fans around the conference, this might be one of the more intriguing years in recent memory. Everything is wide open and it’s anyone’s guess who ends up making a run.