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Oct 29, 2009

Indiana no longer the top dog in the Big Ten

In the past, Big Ten soccer brought to mind one team: the Indiana Hoosiers.

With seven national championships, 11 Big Ten tournament titles and 13 Big Ten regular-season titles in the conference's 18 years of existence, it was a distinction IU had earned. But Indiana is no longer considered the conference shoo-in.

OK, that might be a bit of stretch, since the Hoosiers were tabbed as the Big Ten preseason favorite for the seventh straight year, but it's only a matter of time until they are unseated as the perennial top pick.

Such a prediction has nothing to do with a lack of talent at Indiana. It's simply an acknowledgement of the increasing level of talent across the conference. Anyone who plays in the Big Ten can tell you the conference has never been a cakewalk, but now everyone outside the Midwest knows it as well.

While rankings and preseason speculation might not always reflect it, the Big Ten has had four different conference tournament champions in the past five years -- Michigan State (2004, 2008), Penn State (2005), Indiana (2006) and Ohio State (2007). Only one team has gone undefeated in conference play in any of those seasons -- and it wasn't IU. The 2005 Nittany Lions went 6-0.

This season, five of the Big Ten's seven teams have been ranked. (Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue don't field men's soccer teams.) No team will go undefeated in Big Ten play. And at the moment, every team looks like a conference title contender.

If you have to pick a favorite, Northwestern's the team to choose. The No. 12 Wildcats are 9-2-4 (2-1-1 Big Ten) and coming off a 2-0 win over Indiana. Achieving success at that level has become so expected of Northwestern, it's hard to believe the Wildcats once were a team that had to claw its way to a single conference win.

Credit coach Tim Lenahan for the turnaround. Taking over the program in 2001, Lenahan was not simply faced with the standard coaching challenges of rebuilding the team, reloading players, restocking talent. Lenahan had to redefine the entire program -- and he has.

Before the coach came to Evanston, Northwestern had four conference wins in 10 years. It took him three years to get the first one, but the Wildcats have been racking up Big Ten victories ever since. Ten of the Northwestern's 18 conference regular-season wins have come in the past three-and-a-half seasons -- with two Big Ten games still to play in 2009.

In 2004, the Wildcats earned their first NCAA tournament bid and, aside from a hiccup in 2005, have been every year since. But they still have something to prove. Northwestern has yet to win a Big Ten title -- regular or tournament. For a team that's become accustomed to winning, falling short in conference competition is unacceptable. This year could be the year the Wildcats turn that around as well.

However, Northwestern has yet to play Michigan and Michigan State, two teams that were both ranked in the top 25 earlier this season.

The Wolverines really slipped under the radar last season, despite going 4-1-1 in the Big Ten to finish second in the regular season. Michigan (9-5-1) got off to a strong start, going 6-1 to crack the top 25, but has had a tough time in the Big Ten, going 1-3 so far.

Michigan State also got off to a strong start, breaking into the top 20, but faltered after a pair of losses in California. The Spartans (10-4-1, 2-3 Big Ten) have rebounded, winning their past four games. But after hosting San Diego State on Nov. 1, MSU closes out its regular season with two big games on the road -- at Akron and at Northwestern. A win in either of those games would provide a major boost, but anything less and the Spartans will head into the postseason with little momentum.

Penn State (9-5-2, 2-1-1) is looking to bounce back after a tough 3-0 loss at Akron on Wednesday night. The Nittany Lions sit tied with Northwestern for second in the conference standings and host Wisconsin on Saturday before traveling to Indiana to close out the regular season next Friday.

A pair of wins would guarantee Penn State a share of the regular-season Big Ten title, and while nothing's guaranteed in the Big Ten, it's certainly within the realm of possibility. Indiana's not a friendly place to play, but the Hoosiers have had a hard time taking advantage of that this season. IU is just 2-3-1 at home.

Wisconsin (6-7-2, 3-2) leads the Big Ten standings at the moment, but the Badgers have just one conference game -- against Penn State -- left to everyone else's two. A 1-0 loss to Northern Illinois on Wednesday night dropped Wisconsin back below .500, but this season can already be considered a step in the right direction.

Regardless of the outcome against Penn State, the Badgers' three Big Ten wins are more than they've totaled the past two years combined (one in 2008, winless in 2007). A victory over the Nittany Lions would tie Wisconsin's Big Ten record of four, a mark the team last reached in 1995.

For its part, Ohio State remains in the mix as much as anyone. The Buckeyes are 8-4-4 and sit in a three-way third-place conference tie at 2-2 with two games to play. OSU entered the rankings at No. 25 last week, but fell after playing West Virginia to a scoreless draw and being shut out 2-0 by Wisconsin.

Then, of course, there's Indiana. The Hoosiers (8-7-1, 2-2) are much better than a team hovering just one game above .500. There's a reason Indiana's ranked seventh in the RPI, and it's because the team plays almost unarguably the most difficult schedule in the nation: Akron. Wake Forest. UC Santa Barbara. Louisville. That kind of schedule might not leave a team with the best record, but it's hard to imagine games that could give a team better experience.

There's a reason Indiana has been the Big Ten program by which all others are judged, and it will continue to be. But the distance between the Hoosiers and the rest of the pack is closing.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.

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