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Summer daze has Big Ten looking out of it

Wisconsin's head coach Bert Bielema stands on the sideline during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday Sept. 8, 2012. Oregon State won 10-7. Wisconsin's head coach Bert Bielema stands on the sideline during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday Sept. 8, 2012. Oregon State won 10-7. (AP Photo/ Greg Wahl-Stephens)
By Ralph D. Russo
AP College Football Writer / September 11, 2012
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Fall is still more than a week away and the Big Ten is already down to one team with a realistic chance of playing for the national championship.

No pressure Michigan State.

The conference is coming off a 6-6 weekend that left it with only three ranked teams and plenty of reasons for concern.

In the Leaders Division, the NCAA eliminated No. 12 Ohio State and Penn State from Big Ten title game contention before the season even started.

Now favored Wisconsin is searching for its offense after a startling 10-7 loss to Oregon State on Saturday, and neither Illinois nor Purdue has done anything to suggest they will be more than, well, Illinois and Purdue.

As for Indiana, 2-0 looks great until you see it was against Indiana State and Massachusetts.

Over in the Legends, Nebraska needs to fix its defense, Michigan's D also has shown holes and Iowa's offense has been worse than Wisconsin's.

Then again, at least the Hawkeyes haven't fired anybody -- yet.

Wisconsin coach Brett Bielema did that on Sunday, letting go Mike Markuson, who was in his first season on the Badgers' staff.

"Panic is for the outside world," Bielema told reporters in Madison, Wis., on Monday. "Reality is what I live with."

Of course, firing a coach two weeks into the season does nothing to ease the fears of jumpy Wisconsin fans who have become accustomed to watching the Badgers bulldoze opponents on their way to the Rose Bowl the past two seasons. Wisconsin managed 35 yards rushing against the Beavers.

But, yes, Bielema is right. It's too soon for Badgers fans to panic. A third straight Rose Bowl is still in reach.

It is not too early, however, to wonder aloud if the Big Ten is headed toward a limp league race and a season of national irrelevance.

Ohio State's first season under Urban Meyer is off to a 2-0 start and quarterback Braxton Miller is already blossoming into one of the most dynamic players in the country. But the Buckeyes are playing only for pride as they serve their one-year NCAA bowl ban. Anything less than a perfect season makes the Buckeyes a sidebar until next season.

Penn State is also NCAA-banned from the postseason, though it doesn't look as if that will matter. The Nittany Lions are 0-2 and staring at a difficult first season under coach Bill O'Brien.

Wisconsin only needs to be better than Illinois, Purdue and Indiana to earn a second straight trip to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. The Badgers will try to get healthy Saturday against Utah State (2-0). No gimme considering the Aggies are coming off a victory against Utah.

Michigan and Nebraska were expected to challenge No. 10 Michigan State for the Legends title. That could still happen, but both traditional powers are looking defenseless.

Brady Hoke's Wolverines have allowed 522 yards rushing in a humbling loss to Alabama and a 31-25 win against Air Force.

"... I think we got a long way to go," Hoke said Monday of his rebuilt defensive line.

Right below Michigan in the Big Ten's defensive rankings sits Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have allowed 529 yards rushing, and the 653 total yards they gave up in a 36-30 loss to UCLA was the second-most Nebraska has ever allowed in a game.

"I've been sick to my stomach since that game," coach Bo Pelini said.

If the Spartans lose to No. 20 Notre Dame on Saturday, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany might be feeling a bit queasy, too.

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HEISMAN WATCH

Heisman Trophy contenders come and go in September. Remember Tate Forcier's first few games at Michigan?

UCLA tailback Johnathan Franklin is a player worth keeping an eye on. The senior leads the nation in rushing with 431 yards after ripping through Nebraska for 217. He is averaging 10.5 yards per carry for the No. 22 Bruins.

Franklin has been a good player on a mediocre team the past couple of seasons. He ran for 976 yards and 5.9 per carry last season, as the Bruins unraveled in coach Rick Neuheisel's last season. In 2010, he ran for 1,127 yards, 5.3 per carry and eight touchdowns.

With redshirt freshman Brett Hundley providing new coach Jim Mora the best looking quarterback UCLA has had since Cade McNown, defenses won't be able to stack up against Franklin and the Bruins could win enough games to keep the tailback in the Heisman conversation all season.

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EDSALL BOWL

Maryland coach Randy Edsall faces his old team for the first time, when Connecticut visits the Terps on Saturday.

Edsall wasn't exactly Nick Saban at Storrs, 74-70 in 11 seasons, but he won over most Huskies fans by generally maxing out his teams' potential. They figured that one day Edsall would leave for a better job ... but Maryland? And just hours after the Huskies had lost the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma.

Fair to say there were some hurt feelings.

"It is not going to be hard to get fired up for that one, definitely. That is about it; that is all I am going to say about that," UConn defensive tackle Ryan Wirth told the Middletown (Conn.) Press after a 10-7 loss at home to North Carolina State.

The Terps already have matched last season's win total with close with victories against William & Mary and Temple. Though Edsall has a long way to go to convince the many skeptics in College Park.

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QUICK HITS

-- No. 14 Texas visits Mississippi, off to a 2-0 start under new coach Hugh Freeze. Not much was expected of the Rebels, but a 28-10 victory against UTEP has Ole Miss fans pumped to welcome the Longhorns to Oxford. Texas hasn't played a Southeastern Conference team other than Arkansas in the regular season since 1992. Ole Miss hasn't hosted a nonconference opponent from another BCS automatic-qualifying conference since 2008.

-- Colorado fans have to be hoping this is rock bottom after losses to rival Colorado State and Sacramento State to open the season.

-- Really big game in the Big East on Thursday with Rutgers (2-0) visiting South Florida (2-0). Both teams are coming off a short week, but all short weeks are not created equal. The Scarlet Knights shut out Howard at home on Saturday. The Bulls came from 11 down in the fourth quarter to win at Nevada, and then got home at 4 a.m. Sunday. USF coach Skip Holtz said Monday he had a "tired" team.

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LAST WORD

"We still believe in John L., 100 percent." Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg said about coach John L. Smith. Razorbacks fans aren't quite as confident after a loss to Louisiana-Monroe, especially with No. 1 Alabama coming to Fayetteville on Saturday.

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AP Sports Writers Eric Olson in Lincoln, Neb., and Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Ark., contributed.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at http://www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap

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