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September 29, 2008

Dienhart: Penn State is Big Ten's great hope

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. Illinois coach Ron Zook knows it. So does the white-shirted throng that turned Penn State's Beaver Stadium into the "White House" on Saturday night. And typical fans also likely are dialed into the notion that the Big Ten isn't dead.

Instead, the Big Ten has a national championship contender: Penn State.

"Well, they are a good football team," said Zook, whose team was whipped 38-24 by the Nittany Lions on Saturday night. "I don't think there's any question. They are good offensively, they are good defensively and they are good on special teams. Their quarterback just continues to get better. They've got threats. They got weapons on offense, and of course their defensive front is really, really good.

"Yeah, there's no reason why they can't be as good as anybody else."

Ohio State was supposed to be the team in the Big Ten. But one month into the season, the Big Ten's deck has been shuffled. Though Ohio State opened league play with a 34-21 win over Minnesota on Saturday, a 35-3 whipping at USC has pushed the Buckeyes to the side in their quest to return to a third consecutive BCS title game.

The Buckeyes have lost in the past two BCS title games 41-14 to Florida after the 2006 season and 38-24 to LSU last season. More than anything, those one-sided losses sullied the Big Ten's reputation. But take a closer look: The Big Ten that folks love to bash really hasn't done that poorly in the postseason:

The Big Ten has appeared in 17 BCS games, more than any other conference, and has sent two teams to the BCS in seven of the 10 seasons. The Big Ten is 8-9 in those games, including 2-0 in 2005, 1999 and 1998.

With apologies to unbeaten Northwestern, which looks to have its best team since the program went to the Rose Bowl after the 1995 season, here are the biggest remaining games in the Big Ten.
Oct. 4: Ohio State at Wisconsin
Oct. 11: Penn State at Wisconsin
Oct. 18: Michigan at Penn State; Ohio State at Michigan State
Oct. 25: Penn State at Ohio State; Michigan State at Michigan
Nov. 1: Wisconsin at Michigan State
Nov. 22: Michigan at Ohio State; Michigan State at Penn State
The Big Ten is 14-13 against the SEC in bowls in the past 10 seasons, joining the Big East (6-1) as the only automatic-qualifying conferences with a winning record over the SEC in bowl play in that span. In comparison, the Big 12 is 8-13 and the ACC is 4-13. The Pac-10 has not faced the SEC in a bowl in that time.

The Big Ten is 7-7 against the SEC in bowls in the past five years, more wins than the other four automatic-qualifying conferences combined. The Big East is 1-0 against the SEC, followed by the Big 12 (3-7) and ACC (2-6).

Still, even those cold, hard truths may not be enough to restore the luster of the Big Ten after Ohio State's colossal flops. And Penn State still looks to be a notch below national title contenders Oklahoma, LSU, Missouri, Texas and Alabama.

One thing that hurts the Big Ten is a lack of quality quarterbacks. The best of a mediocre bunch may be Penn State's Daryll Clark and he's in his first season as a starter. That's an indictment on returning starters at Purdue (Curtis Painter), Minnesota (Adam Weber), Michigan State (Brian Hoyer), Northwestern (C.J. Bacher), Illinois (Juice Williams) and Indiana (Kellen Lewis). Two other returning starters Ohio State's Todd Boeckman and Iowa's Jake Christensen have lost their jobs.

"He was phenomenal," Penn State wide receiver Deon Butler said of Clark, who heads a unit that leads the Big Ten in total offense (515.2 ypg), rushing offense (267.6 ypg), scoring offense (49.8 ypg) and is second in passing offense (247.6 ypg). "He hit open guys, he scrambled, he held onto the ball. He did a good job considering the crazy atmosphere and his first Big Ten game.

One thing holding back the Big Ten is average quarterback play. Here's where the eligible Big Ten quarterbacks rank in the nation in passing efficiency, which takes into account - above all else - completion percentage, yards per attempt, interceptions per attempt and touchdowns per attempt.
Name, School Rating Rank
Daryll Clark, Penn State168.311th
Adam Weber, Minnesota151.624th
Ricky Stanzi, Iowa144.834th
Juice Williams, Illinois139.439th
Allan Evridge, Wisconsin130.252nd
Kellen Lewis, Indiana122.172nd
Todd Boeckman, Ohio State121.575th
Curtis Painter, Purdue117.880th
Brian Hoyer, Michigan State114.786th
C.J. Bacher, Northwestern113.987th
"I think as the season goes on, he'll be calmer and more comfortable."

And better, too, which is why Penn State is a team to watch. Next up for the Nittany Lions who also have the Big Ten's No. 2 defense (252.2 ypg) is a trip to Purdue, which should be a mere speed bump as Penn State steams toward games at Wisconsin, against Michigan and at Ohio State later in October.

The showdown at Columbus could be huge. Bad news for Penn State: It has yet to win at Ohio State since joining the Big Ten in 1993 and has just one offensive touchdown in the past 10 quarters against the Buckeyes. And while Michigan still is fitting into a new scheme under Rich Rodriguez, it has won nine in a row over the Nittany Lions.

Don't forget about Michigan State's visit to Happy Valley on Nov. 22. It could end up being a de facto league championship game. The Spartans have been one of the league's biggest surprises under Mark Dantonio. Following a season-opening 38-31 loss at California, Michigan State has reeled off four wins in a row behind running back Javon Ringer, the nation's No. 2 rusher (179.4 ypg, 12 touchdowns).

"In regards to ourselves, we just kept coming," Dantonio said after his Spartans won 42-29 at Indiana on Saturday.

The Spartans are just one team coming after Penn State, the Big Ten's last hope for national prominence this season.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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