- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 11, 2012

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.

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