Week 3 of Big Ten football went about as well as weeks 1 and 2.
With Michigan State losing badly to Notre Dame, six of the league’s top seven traditional programs have lost a game. And Ohio State, the lone exception, was on the brink of defeat against mediocre Cal.
What’s it mean? Well, the Big Ten jokes are only beginning (they’re a lot more fun when your school isn’t part of the league, aren’t they Husker fans.) But move past the punch lines for a moment. Recognize the opportunity for Nebraska.
There isn’t a game on the schedule the Huskers can’t win. Nothing like last year’s trip to Madison.
The Big Ten is staggering through its worst non-conference season in — I don’t know — forever. But 10 years from now, nobody will remember that. The winner still gets a trophy. The winner still gets to hang a banner in its palatial practice facility.
It’s hard to understate the stakes for Bo Pelini over the next seven weeks. The top half of the league is bunched so tightly, the smallest personnel changes, schematic tweaks, in-game decisions or lucky bounces could make the difference between 11-2 and 7-5, between ecstasy and agony.
How is this fallible Nebraska team possibly good enough to win the school’s first conference title in 13 years? In this Big Ten environment, that’s the wrong question.
The right question is, who’s better?
>> How is Nebraska going to divide carries when Rex Burkhead returns to the lineup? That’s a big question as Ameer Abdullah continues to shine.
Rex has obviously earned the right to start — and to carry the majority of the load — but for every 10 Burkhead carries, Abdullah deserves six or seven. There aren’t 10 teams in America with a 1-2 punch like Nebraska’s. I expect Tim Beck to occasionally put No. 22 and No. 8 on the field at the same time.
>> I wrote a game column Saturday about Eric Martin’s emergence on defense. Something I didn’t address was Martin’s potential liability in the run game. Since he’s undersized at 250 pounds, he’s not as effective against quality rushing teams.
John Papuchis said after the game that he’s learning this won’t be a defense of starters and non-starters. You might see certain players one week, then it will switch the next depending on the foe. Whatever Nebraska does, it needs to keep giving Martin chances on third down.
He’s the No. 1 pass rusher on the team, and No. 2 isn’t even close.
>> Lee Barfknecht traveled to Wisconsin this week to document the mess in Madison. In hindsight, we probably should’ve seen it coming.
You can’t lose six assistant coaches in the offseason without taking a hit. And a year after Russell Wilson flourished, Bret Bielema appears to be getting burned by his mercenary strategy at quarterback. When times get tough, players in the locker room are naturally more willing to fight for teammates who have been around a while. That’s not Danny O’Brien.
>> I understand there aren’t 25 really good teams in college football. But why can’t pollsters get past their preseason biases and rank teams based on merit?
Case in point: Wisconsin. The Badgers are 24th in the coaches’ poll. Seriously? After nearly losing at home to Northern Iowa and Utah State? After losing on the road to Oregon State? Meanwhile, a Big Ten team with three BCS-conference wins — Northwestern — is still unranked.
The coaches have proven themselves incapable of ranking teams properly, especially early in the season. The only answer — until we get our playoff in 2014 — is holding the first official poll until mid-October. At least then voters will have six weeks to watch some actual games.
>> If I see one more offensive coordinator put his quarterback in the shotgun from the 1-yard line, I’m gonna throw a Popsicle at my Plasma TV.
Arizona State, trailing Missouri by four points late in the fourth quarter, had third-and-goal at the 1-foot line. One foot! Todd Graham, a spread offense guru, went shotgun. Mizzou stopped the QB draw for a 2-yard loss. Then Arizona State failed on fourth down. If you can’t get 1 foot on a quarterback sneak under center, you should blow up your offense and start over.
The irony: Gary Pinkel is famous for the same goal-line strategy. This time, even Pinkel had to laugh at Graham’s lunacy.
>> Manti Te’o didn’t need to play a single down Saturday to be an All-American. But the Notre Dame linebacker surely earned thousands of new fans with his performance at Michigan State. Last week, on back-to-back days, his grandmother and girlfriend both passed away in his native Hawaii. Read Dan Wetzel’s column on Te’o and the emerging Irish.
>> As I mentioned on Twitter Saturday night, Stanford reminds me of traditional Nebraska teams. You win big games at the line of scrimmage, and nobody (outside the SEC) is tougher in the trenches than the Cardinal. Now, are they fast enough to beat Oregon? I doubt it.
>> You thought Bo Pelini and John Papuchis had a stressful week following 653 yards at UCLA? At least they’re not Carl Pelini. His Florida Atlantic defense gave up 713 at Georgia on Saturday. And this week the Owls go to Alabama. On the bright side, he could give up 1,000 and I’m not sure (senior) citizens of Boca Raton would notice.
>> How’s this for parity? After two weeks of pro football, 20 teams will be 1-1. The Cardinals are 2-0 after beating the Patriots on the road. The Saints are 0-2 after losing to the Redskins and Panthers. There’s a reason the NFL is so incredible. It’s completely unpredictable. My Super Bowl prediction to start the year was Packers-Ravens. I’ll stick with Baltimore, but, at least right now, the 49ers are clearly the best team in the NFL.
>> Danny Woodhead almost scored the game-winning touchdown Sunday. Almost. His nifty 30-yard dash in the final minute was wiped away by Rob Gronkowski’s holding penalty. Then the Patriots missed the game-winning field goal.
>> The Kansas City Chiefs, for the second straight year, have started the season in flames. And look at the columns coming out of the hometown paper. Scott Pioli should spend this week hiding in his compound.
>> Former NBA guard Sam Cassell blasted the NCAA for ruling his son, a Maryland basketball recruit, ineligible.
>> Jeff Passan, one of my favorite baseball writers, hammers away at something I love — the second wild card.
>> Finally, the funniest story I’ve read all month: The obituary for Kevin Gilbride’s mustache. Kudos to the New York Times’ Sam Borden, who reminds us that newspapers don’t always have to be serious to be great.