Posted by Adam Jacobi
It's been one heck of a year in the Big Ten's first go at a 12-team lineup, and if there's anything close to a certainty after the first seven weeks of play, it's this: Wisconsin is really, really good. The Russell Wilson free agent acquisition purely academic-based graduate school enrollment decision has worked out beautifully for the Badgers, who are currently rolling toward, at worst, a Rose Bowl berth.
With that, let's get onto the superlatives for the year thus far. There was plenty of competition every step of the way, and truth be told we could have handed out some ties on a lot of these categories, but if college football fans wanted ties we wouldn't have overtime, so here we go.
Offensive Player of the Year: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin. This was a tough, tough call, especially with Denard Robinson over in Ann Arbor putting up huge numbers against tougher competition, but the fact is that Wilson has exceeded nearly every expectation set for him at Wisconsin, not only from the standpoint of his offense's prodigious production but also his own level of play. Yes, Wisconsin's schedule has been cake so far. But offensive player of the year isn't a question of RPI, it's a question of production, and Wilson's systematic dismantling of Nebraska's once-vaunted defense proved the Badgers are capable of running it up on anybody. Also considered: Denard Robinson, Michigan; A.J. Jenkins, Illinois; Montee Ball, Wisconsin
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Defensive Player of the Year: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois. Illinois is a surprising 6-1 right now, and that start has been primarily responsible to not only the heady play of QB Nathan Scheelhaase, but the Illini's imposing front seven. Leading that charge is defensive linemanWhitney Mercilus, who leads the nation in sacks per game and ranks fourth in TFLs (TsFL if we're being super-accurate), and has been that disruptive force on the defensive line that folks generally thought Illinois wouldn't have after Corey Liggett decided to go pro after 2010. Also, his name sounds like "Merciless," and that's an even better name for a defender than former Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer. Also considered: Lavonte David, Nebraska; Mike Martin, Michigan
Coach of the Year: Ron Zook, Illinois. This award is usually a euphemism for "team that overachieves the most," which is the only reason why Jim Tressel didn't win it year after year despite Ohio State mashing its opponents to pulp. But truly, Ron Zook deserves recognition for what his players have accomplished so far, even after three stars declared early for the NFL. Illinois wasn't supposed to be good. It is good. That doesn't happen in football despite a coach. Not at this level. It happens because of a coach, and that's why Ron Zook deserves recognition so far this year. Also considered: Bret Bielema, Wisconsin; Brady Hoke, Michigan
Surprise: Michigan. The consensus among Big Ten media was that whileBrady Hoke was the right hire and Denard Robinson was the conference's most dynamic playmaker, the Wolverine's latest ascension to Big Ten prominence was at least a year away. Not so, as the Wolverine defense has looked surprisingly adept thus far as Michigan has stormed to a 6-1 record early. They could use a bit of help in the Big Ten race, but not as much as you'd think, and this Wolverine offense might be the only one in the Big Ten that can keep pace on the scoreboard with Wisconsin if the championship comes down to those two teams. Also considered: Illinois
Disappointment: Ohio State. Everybody knew difficulties were coming once Jim Tressel resigned and Terrelle Pryor was sent packing, but Ohio State has always prided itself on an overall talent advantage against everybody else in the Big Ten, and that advantage has yet to manifest itself this season. OSU has been throttled by Miami and shut down by Michigan State, and even when the Buckeyes were spotted a late 21-point lead at Nebraska they couldn't seal the deal. Perhaps last week's win over previously unbeaten Illinois is a sign of things to come, but for now, it looks like OSU is just lucky to be over .500 on the season, and that is stunning. Also considered: Nebraska; Minnesota; Northwestern
Game of the Year (so far): Notre Dame at Michigan. Was this a pretty game? Lord no, not for one second of the contest's 60 minutes or the fans' three and a half hours. Was it an exciting game? Of course it was, and it leads off our list of the best games of the year in the Big Ten. For three quarters, Notre Dame looked like it was snuffing Michigan out, holding a 24-7 lead headed into the final stanza. Then Denard Robinson came alive, erupting for four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and even an Irish touchdown with 30 seconds left proved to be too much to leave the Wolverines as Michigan marched 80 yards down the field in just three plays and scored the game-winning TD with two seconds left. Pandemonium ensued, and Michigan fans had to be asked (politely) by police to leave the stadium after the win. Now that's the way to host your first home night game ever. Also considered: Ohio State at Nebraska; Nebraska at Wisconsin
Game of the Year (to come): Wisconsin at Michigan State. Excepting the first Big Ten Football Championship Game in league history (aside from all the de facto championship games between Michigan and OSU, anyway), the game of the Big Ten's regular season actually takes place this weekend as Wisconsin travels to the only team that beat the Badgers last year and the team that has the last, best shot of upending them this year: Michigan State. Past that, games against OSU, Illinois, and Penn State loom for Bucky, but those team look like Wisconsin roadkill until proven otherwise. Also considered: Nebraska at Michigan; Ohio State at Michigan
Legends Division Champion: Michigan State. MSU took a huge step forward from its early-season loss to Notre Dame by not only beating Michigan, but doing so in a very important way: beating the Wolverines on the ground. Sparty was pushed around on both sides of the ball against ND, which seems very un-MSU this year, and the Spartans' cakewalk of a schedule from here until last week precluded any definitive assessments of the team's actual merit. The dismantling of Denard Robinson's offense and MSU's active defensive attack were both better than we've seen out of any Wolverine opponents this year, and both factors portend well for the upcoming Michigan State-Nebraska matchup.Also considered: Nebraska; Michigan
Leaders Division Champion: Wisconsin. It's going to take multiple upsets to take the Badgers out of contention for the Leaders Division crown, and a team that steamrolls its opponents on such a consistent basis doesn't usually make itself available for those types of losses. This bodes poorly for everybody else on the Badgers' schedule. Also, Montee Ball looks like he's going to set records when it comes to touchdowns, as the talented junior has racked up 18 (16 rushing, 1 receiving, 1 passing) in just six games. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Also considered: Illinois
Big Ten Champion: Wisconsin. It has to be Wisconsin until anybody can demonstrate an ability to bottle the Badger attack, and no defenses thus far have so much as demonstrated an ability to take either the run or the pass out of the Badger offense. And if you can't stop the conference's most prodigious rushing offense from even passing, you're not really playing defense, you're just praying. And let's be honest: that's terrible advice for anyone who wants to see his team take the conference crown this year. Also considered: Michigan State, but only to be sporting about it
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