When Michigan State absorbed its second conference loss Oct. 15, Spartans Coach John L. Smith prematurely declared his team "out of it." As it turned out, Smith underestimated the unpredictability of the Big Ten, because with one Saturday remaining in October there are seven teams still alive for the conference crown, each with no more than two league defeats.
Michigan State lost its third Big Ten game Saturday to Northwestern, whose emergence has epitomized the parity-laden conference. Following consecutive six-victory seasons, the Wildcats (5-2, 3-1) are not only closing in on a bowl bid but also find themselves in the thick of the conference race.
Northwestern's offense is as potent as nearly any in the nation. Ranked fourth nationally in total offense, the Wildcats are directed by quarterback Brett Basanez, who completed 24 of 30 passes Saturday for 331 yards. He threw for two scores, ran for two more and incessantly implored his team not to let up on the Spartans in the 49-14 victory.
If not for a porous defense, Northwestern likely would have beaten Penn State on Sept. 24. The Wildcats held a 23-7 lead before losing, 34-29. Penn State Coach Joe Paterno came away so impressed with Basanez that he delivered this message to friend and Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian afterward, albeit half-jokingly, "I know you have [Peyton] Manning, but that quarterback is pretty good."
Few are capable of giving as accurate an assessment of the Big Ten's parity as Paterno, who has watched programs perceived to be inferior improve over the past 10 years not only with better recruits but also with quality coaches. " When I first got in the league there were a couple guys I thought I could out-coach," Paterno said last week. "I can't out-coach anyone right now in this league."
As a result, the league could see a finish similar to 1990, when four schools tied for the title with 6-2 conference records. The popular belief this past summer was that the Big Ten would offer a three-month slugfest featuring Iowa, Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State, four programs ranked in the top 15 of the preseason Associated Press poll.
Few would have been surprised had the Big Ten champ earned a berth in its traditional bowl, the Rose Bowl, the site of this year's national title game. Barring an unforeseen scenario, that won't be the case this year, but an intriguing scrap for the league title promises to unfold in the coming weeks.
No school is unbeaten in league play. The last time no Big Ten team started conference play 4-0 was 2000, when three teams -- Michigan, Northwestern and Purdue -- tied for the conference title.
On Oct. 15, five Big Ten games were decided by an average of 7.6 points. What's more, Michigan's last five games have been decided in the final 24 seconds or overtime.
Some believe that the rotating schedule is partially responsible for the congestion in the standings. For instance, Purdue was a trendy preseason pick to win the league because the Boilermakers played neither Michigan nor Ohio State.
"It has the tendency to keep everyone in the mix," Smith said. "It's not only the parity but it's the [scheduling] system. It might be one of those years that two losses gets you in there."
Perhaps no player had a more difficult Saturday than Auburn place kicker John Vaughn, who made only 1 of 6 field goal attempts in an overtime loss at Louisiana State. Three of Vaughn's misses were from more than 40 yards, including a 49-yarder with two seconds remaining in regulation.
Vaughn said he had not made one that long in warmups, so he felt he needed a little luck. And when he attempted a 39-yard kick in overtime, he said, he yanked it into the left upright.
"About three of the kicks, when I hit them I thought they were good," he said. "I got a little unlucky and they went right or left. The last one tonight, I thought I hit it pretty good and when I looked up I knew I was probably going to need a little bit of luck right there."
Texas Tech controlled the ball for almost two-thirds of the game against No. 2 Texas, outgained the Longhorns 468-444 in total yards and intercepted quarterback Vince Young twice. Yet Texas made it look easy, eviscerating the previously undefeated Red Raiders, 52-17.
The toughest remaining game for Texas could be at Baylor on Nov. 5, which means the Longhorns will be headed to the Rose Bowl barring a monumental upset.
"I would have to say this is the best Texas team that I have been involved in playing against," Texas Tech Coach Mike Leach said.