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Published: Monday, 9/24/2012

COMMENTARY

Rockets may have tough road in West

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

College football over lightly, with conference races about to heat up:

It was quite a weekend for the Mid-American Conference. Central Michigan stunned Iowa (Big Ten) at the buzzer, Northern Illinois rallied late over Kansas (Big 12), and the Big East went down twice as Western Michigan beat Connecticut and Ball State handled South Florida a week after the Cardinals edged Indiana. That's a lot of Big wins, or Big losses, depending on your perspective.

All of those MAC teams mentioned, you may note, play in the West Division, which Toledo was picked during the preseason to win. It was expected that Northern Illinois and Western Michigan would give the Rockets a run for their money, especially with UT on the road for both of those games. If CMU and Ball are going to be factors, too, it could be a long, hard climb for Toledo.

■ Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who can be a bit prickly in good times, was a terse jerk in his postgame press conference Saturday, as if members of the media were dropping all those passes.

But only a couple Big Ten coaches -- Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Minnesota's Jerry Kill, both enjoying 4-0 starts, come to mind -- have reasons to smile.

The conference, as a whole, doesn't have a whole lot to celebrate.

Sure, Ohio State is 4-0, but the Buckeyes haven't played anybody and haven't left the friendly confines of the Horseshoe to do it. That will change Saturday when OSU tries to add to Dantonio's bad mood, spawned by a lethargic effort against a bad Eastern Michigan team, in East Lansing.

Urban Meyer isn't smiling much because his team's record doesn't nearly reflect how the inconsistent Buckeyes have struggled to accomplish it. Suggestions that OSU may be the Big Ten's best team are by no means a compliment to the conference at this point.

That best team may be Michigan State. It may yet prove to be Michigan. Probably it's Nebraska. Wisconsin is a counterfeit 3-1 and goes to Nebraska this Saturday with Montee Ball's health an issue. Iowa is a fading program. It's hard to take any of the unbeatens, including OSU, too seriously at this point. Time will tell.

Same goes, perhaps, for the early notion that the Big Ten should not be taken seriously as a whole.

■ On the national scene:

Five top teams -- Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Georgia, Kansas State.

Five surprising unbeatens -- Oregon State, Stanford, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Rutgers.

Five frauds -- UMass (welcome to the MAC), Eastern Michigan, Arkansas (really, John L?), Illinois (52 points at home to Louisiana Tech, coach Beckman?), Washington State (you lose to Colorado, you take their place).

■ I am on a small national Heisman Trophy panel that picks weekly frontrunners, not an easy thing to do in the early season when mismatches are a scheduling rule of thumb. It's much easier when the Kansas States start beating the Oklahomas.

So K-State quarterback Collin Klein gets one of my three votes this week. Geno Smith, the West Virginia quarterback, gets another. For fun, since defensive players hardly ever are considered, we'll give the other to linebacker Manti Te'o, who has made Notre Dame football relevant again. It certainly isn't the Irish offense that has done it.

Braxton Miller? Not yet. The Ohio State quarterback has a make-or-break game, regarding Heisman hopes, next Saturday at Michigan State after four home wins -- a couple smooth, a couple not so smooth -- over unranked opponents.

Denard Robinson? It's over. Hapless performances against two rugged opponents, Alabama and Notre Dame, have eliminated the Michigan quarterback.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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