An early candidate for the Big Ten’s game of the year solidified Penn State’s status atop our power rankings this week. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, acquitted themselves well against the Nittany Lions during a week in which there may have been some close calls but not too many that changed our opinions of the conference pecking order through one-third of the season.
The meat of the conference schedule is on the horizon. Shake-ups are almost certainly lingering as well. For now, here’s how we see the league stacking up after four weeks of football.
1. Penn State (previous ranking: 1): Kinnick Stadium is dark and full of terrors, but Penn State’s ability to drive the length of the field in crunch time and beat a tough Iowa team shows that the Nittany Lions have the makeup of a championship contender. Saquon Barkley’s dazzling performance on a big stage should launch him even further into stardom. No Big Ten team has a more impressive win on its résumé right now than Penn State.
2. Wisconsin (2): The Badgers were idle this weekend, and the teams nipping at their heels didn’t make quite enough of a statement to catch them. If quarterback Alex Hornibrook remains as efficient against Northwestern in six days as he was against nonconference competition, Wisconsin will remain a heavy favorite to play in the Big Ten championship game in December.
3. Ohio State (3): J.T. Barrett is 14 yards from reaching 10,000 yards of total offense during his prolific career in Columbus. He should have no problem blowing past that mark next week at Rutgers while his Buckeyes continue to plow through the confidence-building portion of their schedule. They’ll probably need one of the two teams in front of them to falter if they’re going to move up the rankings before a head-to-head meeting with Penn State in late October.
4. Michigan (4): The Michigan offense got a little jolt this weekend from backup quarterback John O'Korn in a 28-10 win over Purdue. In reality, though, it might not matter what the offense looks like if Michigan’s defense remains as dominant as it has been through four games. The Wolverines allowed just 12 yards to Purdue’s rejuvenated offense during the second half on Saturday.
5. Iowa (6): Speaking of nasty defenses, the Hawkeyes managed to minimize the damage against Penn State and were one play from toppling another top-five team at home. Akrum Wadley gives Iowa its own playmaking back, and the Hawkeyes look like a real threat to beat any Big Ten team when playing their best -- especially if their best comes under the lights in Iowa City.
6. Indiana (9): The Hoosiers climbed in the rankings this week through attrition. After dropping the opener to Ohio State, they have comfortably beaten two lesser opponents. It’s back to a big-time challenge this weekend with a visit to Happy Valley.
7. Purdue (8): The Boilermakers deserve to be in the top half of the league (for the first time in a very long time) despite being shut out in the second half against Michigan. The defense in West Lafayette showed it, too, has some teeth to match the fun-filled scoring attack by frequently getting pressure on the Wolverines' quarterbacks on Saturday. Purdue should remain a tough out for most teams in the league.
8. Minnesota (10): After taking care of business in the nonconference schedule, P.J. Fleck and his Gophers will give the rest of the conference a better way to gauge the results of his culture rebuild with Maryland, Purdue and Michigan State on the horizon the next three weeks. If they can win the winnable games, they have a chance to start 7-0.
9. Northwestern (11): Like Minnesota, the Wildcats rise two spots despite not playing this weekend thanks to some other losses around the league. Northwestern needed to take full advantage of its bye week to iron out some issues before heading to Wisconsin this weekend.
10. Maryland (5): The Terrapins came back down to earth a bit courtesy of Scott Frost’s UCF team. It wasn’t yet clear Sunday morning if freshman quarterback Kasim Hill would be healthy enough to play moving forward, but losing their top two quarterbacks in the first three games would put a serious damper on the optimism in College Park.
11. Michigan State (7): Mistakes were easier to hide against MAC competition. Against Notre Dame, sloppy penalties and a slew of turnovers doomed the Spartans to a loss. What looms (Iowa at home, then trips to Michigan and Minnesota) could put Michigan State in a big hole if it doesn’t do a better job taking care of the ball.
12. Nebraska (13): The Huskers fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, but he didn’t take a lot of doubts about the football program with him. Surviving a scare from Rutgers didn’t inspire much confidence in the ability of coach Mike Riley or quarterback Tanner Lee to lead a dramatic turnaround this season.
13. Rutgers (12): After losing to Nebraska on Saturday, coach Chris Ash & Co. haven’t beaten an FBS team in more than a calendar year. (New Mexico on Sept. 17, 2016, is their only win in that category.) There are definite signs of progress and also definite signs that a lot more work lies ahead.
14. Illinois (14): The Illini’s only loss this season came against a ranked opponent. They struggled enough through a 2-1 start, though, to make us believe that a young defense allowing 433 yards per game so far has a season of growing pains ahead of it.