That, of course, stuffed Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State into the same half of the league. The presence of Michigan State, which was in the midst of its best decade in a half-century, only made the Big Ten East more imposing.
Yes, they would beat up on one another, but it sure looked like Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers would serve as near-permanent punching bags. And for a while, it seemed it might stay that way.
But three weeks into this season, the division is a combined 18-3, with the losses coming against Cincinnati, Iowa and Oregon. Ohio State, the most recession-proof team in the sport, has one of those setbacks. Penn State, with defeats of Wisconsin and Auburn, has climbed back onto its usual perch as a credible contender.
But this start goes well beyond the division’s two most consistent programs.
- Michigan outscored its three nonconference foes by a combined 141-34 and is 3-0 for the first time since 2017.
- Michigan State, bolstered by five starters snatched out of the transfer portal, has knocked off Northwestern and Miami on its way to its first 3-0 start since 2015.
- Maryland beat Illinois last week on the final play of the game to get to 3-0, with consecutive home games up next.
- Rutgers is 3-0 for the first time since 2012 and has assured itself of avoiding a nonconference regular season loss in a non-pandemic season for the first time since 2014.
Even Indiana at 1-2 has earned some grace thanks to a combined 14-7 mark over the past two seasons. The Hoosiers, after all, did plenty to close the gap on the division’s traditional powers last year.
Indiana is 4-24 against Michigan/Michigan State/Ohio State/Penn State since 2014, but three of the victories came last year. Against those same teams, Maryland is 4-21 since entering the Big Ten, and Rutgers is 2-26. Over the next two months, it’s plenty possible the usual form holds.
But it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the Big Ten East as a far tougher neighborhood than usual for the full season. Indiana has proved itself a credible program and still has dynamic quarterback Michael Penix Jr. Rutgers is clearly making substantial progress in Greg Schiano’s second go-round. Maryland’s talent in the passing game has the potential to make it a hassle for anyone.
None of that means any of those teams are on their way to special seasons, or even bowl trips. None of it means anyone other than Ohio State or Penn State will be a serious division contender. But from top to bottom, the Big Ten East might be as strong as it has been since its establishment. The next 10 Saturdays — starting with Rutgers’ trip to Michigan on Saturday — will sort it out.
Five with the most at stake in Week 4
1. Arkansas: The Razorbacks’ reputation this month was built on a Sept. 11 thumping of Texas. While the victory’s actual value is debatable, there’s no question it gave another boost to second-year coach Sam Pittman’s regime. Is No. 16 Arkansas (3-0) really a top-half-of-the-SEC team? There are few better chances to prove it than on a neutral field against No. 7 Texas A&M (3-0), an opportunity the Hogs receive in Arlington, Tex.
2. Notre Dame: The Irish’s meeting with Wisconsin (1-1) at Chicago’s Soldier Field is probably its most high-profile game outside of South Bend all season. (The other contenders are trips to Stanford, Virginia and Virginia Tech.) No. 12 Notre Dame was better against Purdue than in earlier escapes against Florida State and Toledo, and it needs to play even better to get past the Badgers.
3. N.C. State: What is the signature victory of the Dave Doeren era in Raleigh? It’s a true puzzler and reflective of a résumé filled with solid teams and absent any truly great ones. The Wolfpack is 4-17 against ranked teams in his eight-plus seasons, having doubled the victory total last year with squeakers over Pitt and Liberty. On paper, the best win in that span might have come against Lamar Jackson’s Louisville in 2017. Emotionally, it was probably a bowl-bid-clinching upset of North Carolina in 2016. Maybe that changes on both fronts with a vulnerable Clemson team arriving at Carter-Finley Stadium this week.
4. Wisconsin: The No. 18 Badgers come off an open date and encounter a Notre Dame team led by former Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan. But forget about that awkwardness. This begins a tricky six-week sequence through the end of October that also includes visits from Michigan, Army and Iowa and trips to Illinois (where the Badgers lost in 2019) and Purdue. It’s a little early to know just how good Wisconsin is, though the initial returns suggest defense is still the strength in Madison. A better answer awaits soon.
5. Clemson: The Tigers have two touchdowns in two games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, and their saving grace is they have yet to allow another offense to reach the end zone. Still, No. 9 Clemson is 2-1 and coming off a lackluster offensive showing against Georgia Tech, and it has been a long while since it has looked so vulnerable entering a league game against someone other than one-year ACC member Notre Dame. Could trouble be lurking at N.C. State?
1. QB Bryce Young, Alabama (811 yards, 10 TDs, 0 INT passing): Enjoyed a solid day in a tight victory over Florida, completing 22 of 35 for 240 yards and three touchdowns. He has connected on 68 percent of his pass attempts and should be in for another fine outing this week against Southern Mississippi. (Last week: 1)
2. RB Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State (493 yards, 5 TDs rushing; 3 catches, 17 yards, 1 TD receiving): One of many reasons the Spartans are 3-0, Walker rumbled for 172 yards in last week’s defeat of Miami and is picking up a slick 8.6 yards per carry in his first season in East Lansing. (LW: 2)
3. QB Matt Corral, Mississippi (997 yards, 9 TDs passing; 158 yards, 5 TDs rushing): After carving up Louisville, Austin Peay and Tulane, Corral’s Rebels have an open date before next week’s trip to No. 1 Alabama. (LW: 4)
4. RB Blake Corum, Michigan (407 yards, 7 TDs rushing; 6 catches, 46 yards, 1 TD receiving): Corum has hit the 100-yard plateau in all three games, and his average per carry — 7.9 against Western Michigan, 8.1 against Washington and 9.6 against Northern Illinois — has gone up each week. He’ll receive even more attention if that trend continues as the Wolverines meet Rutgers. (LW: Not ranked)
5. QB Jake Haener, Fresno State (1,464 yards, 10 TDs, 1 INT passing; 3 TDs rushing): A star in the best game in recent memory that went unwatched in about two-thirds of the country, Haener threw for 455 yards, two touchdowns and a pick as the Bulldogs upended UCLA on the Pac-12 Network late last Saturday. (LW: Not ranked)
6. QB Brennan Armstrong, Virginia (1,298 yards, 11 TDs, 2 INTs passing; 15 yards, 2 TDs rushing): The Cavaliers had three 400-yard passing games in their history coming into the season. Armstrong just went for 405 yards against Illinois and a school-record 554 yards against North Carolina in consecutive weeks. That’s worth taking note of at this stage. (LW: Not ranked)