Legends Division race looks wide open

The Big Ten Leaders Division race could very well be decided next week when Wisconsin goes to Ohio State. With Penn State ineligible for the conference championship game and Illinois, Indiana and Purdue all looking at least a step behind, the winner of that Saturday showdown in Columbus will occupy the inside lane on the road to Indianapolis.

As for the Legends race? Well, it might take all season to sort out that scrum.

A little more than a week ago, Michigan looked like the division favorite. That was before the Wolverines barely got by Akron at home, and then -- as if to prove that wasn't merely a post-Notre Dame letdown -- they struggled mightily in a come-from-behind, 24-21 squeaker at winless UConn in Week 4. Brady Hoke's team has some serious issues, including an unreliable running game and Devin Gardner's sudden inability to keep the ball from going to the other team.

Northwestern remains a major threat, but the Wildcats' tendency to play down to their competition surfaced again in an unimpressive 35-21 win over Maine. It sure seemed as though Pat Fitzgerald's team was playing with one eye on the calendar, which presents a bye week in Week 5 followed by possibly the biggest regular-season game in school history: Ohio State's visit to Evanston on Oct. 5.

In South Bend, Michigan State showed it is exactly what we thought -- a great defense saddled by continual ineptitude on offense. The Spartans will be in every game because of that defense; how many they can actually pull out is a big question mark. Nebraska weathered the storm of the Bo Pelini controversy but still hasn't ironed out its problems on defense, which is priority No. 1 for Pelini for the upcoming bye week.

But the real reason the Legends has become so unpredictable is because the bottom has risen up.

Two of the most eye-opening performances of Week 4 in the Big Ten belonged to Iowa and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes smothered Western Michigan 59-3, getting four non-offensive scores on a pair of punt return touchdowns by Kevonte Martin-Manley and two pick-sixes by cornerback B.J. Lowery. Head coach Kirk Ferentz called it a "double‑double victory" because for once the Hawkeyes got to empty their bench and didn't have to lean too hard on workhorse back Mark Weisman. Iowa is now 3-1 and starting to develop toughness in the trenches, the leading trait of all Ferentz's teams.

"We're pleased with the win, don't get me wrong, but I think everybody realizes we're still very much a work in progress," Ferentz said after the game. "But I think we improved today. There's no question I felt better today than I did two weeks ago sitting here. We're on the right track, but it's day‑to‑day, week‑to‑week, and I know our older guys understand that."

The Hawkeyes are by no means a juggernaut, but they're turning into the type of team no one will want to play. The same goes for Minnesota, which pounded San Jose State 43-24 behind 353 rushing yards and only 12 passing attempts. The Gophers improved to 4-0 against an admittedly weak schedule, but they have a definite identity.

"They are Midwest, Big Ten football," San Jose State head coach Ron Caragher said in what must have been music to Jerry Kill's ears. "It is about the power run game for four yards and eat up the clock."

Iowa and Minnesota will knock heads for the Floyd of Rosedale next week in what should be one of the most evenly-matched editions of the pig game in several years. While it's unlikely that either will win the Legends, both teams appear much better equipped to compete physically with their division opponents than they did a year ago.

That's why the Legends race should be fun to follow, long after the Leaders' frontrunner is determined next week.