A crazy week in college football at large did more to confirm our suspicions in the Big Ten than cause any major shakeups. Four teams in the AP's Top 10 fell over the weekend, but all five of the league’s ranked teams were victorious and will likely slide up the polls because of it.
A couple -- looking at you, Mitten State -- made things interesting in the fourth quarter. Others, such as Ohio State and Wisconsin, played to their strengths and in the process strengthened their postseason outlook. Penn State returns to action this week as our top five starts to really get tested. After seven weeks of football, the pace is just about to pick up. Here’s how the Big Ten stacks up heading into the second half of the year.
1. Penn State (Last week: 1): James Franklin said the bye week came at a good time to give his team a little extra rest ahead of the East Division gauntlet ahead of them. The Nittany Lions host Michigan before traveling to Ohio State and Michigan State in consecutive weeks. If Penn State holds up during that stretch, its playoff claims will be as strong as any program in the country. But that’s a big “if.”
2. Ohio State (3): The College Football Playoff committee rewards good performances more than it dings teams for losses, so we’ll do the same this week. The Buckeyes offense has apparently found the groove it was looking for in September. J.T. Barrett completed 81.8 percent of his passes and contributed seven touchdowns in a dismantling of Nebraska. Barrett & Co. still have to prove they can excel against good teams. That chance will come after the bye week.
3. Wisconsin (2): The Badgers’ drop to third is due to a boring schedule, but frankly it doesn’t really matter where they sit. Wisconsin, thanks to the legs of freshman Jonathan Taylor, is running away with the West. It would take a major letdown for Paul Chryst & Co. not to end up in Indianapolis in December with a chance to prove they deserve to be at the top of this list.
4. Michigan State (4): This week was running back L.J. Scott’s chance to shine in a win at Minnesota. The Spartans’ rush defense has remained consistently impressive during their climb to 5-1. Quarterback Brian Lewerke said Saturday night that the team should be 6-0, but gave away a game to Notre Dame. It’s fair to say they’ve got their confidence back.
5. Michigan (5): It’s time to stop accusing Michigan of underperforming and realize that this is who the 2017 Wolverines are. The blowout wins of a year ago are going to be hard to find. Without a potent offense to match a top-notch defense, Michigan will have to battle its way to close wins like it did in overtime at Indiana. Luckily for Jim Harbaugh, his young team showed a willingness to fight through those battles along with all their mistakes in Bloomington.
6. Purdue (6): The Boilermakers offense didn’t have enough steam to reach the end zone against Wisconsin. Jeff Brohm said he thought his team “hung in there” against the West Division’s best, which is as much as any other opponent has done this year. With Rutgers, Nebraska and Illinois in the near future, Brohm’s team could be bowl eligible by early November.
7. Iowa (7): The Hawkeyes stay put during a week of rest. An injured offensive line for the Hawkeyes needed a break in order to gear up for a challenging second half of the year.
8. Indiana (8): We won’t dock the Hoosiers for leaving yet another opportunity to take down a high-profile opponent just out of reach. A 10-point comeback in the fourth quarter showed Indiana still have the ability to push the pace on offense this year. They’ll need to win one of those close games to climb into the upper half of our rankings.
9. Northwestern (11): The Wildcats beat last week’s No. 9 team, Maryland, and snagged their higher spot in the rankings. Justin Jackson broke loose for 171 rushing yards after struggling to find holes behind a subpar offensive line for much of the year. Consistency remains the biggest question mark for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad.
10. Minnesota (10): The Gophers have lost three straight winnable games. Home-field advantage wasn’t quite enough to complete a comeback effort against surging Michigan State. This team might take a step backward in 2017 under P.J. Fleck before it’s able to start moving forward.
11. Maryland (9): The Terps continued their drop in the rankings this week as they struggle with a hard-to-believe stretch of quarterback injuries. This team, which climbed as high as No. 5 in our poll a month ago, isn't equipped at the moment to win shootout games, giving up 30-plus points like it did this Saturday against Northwestern.
12. Nebraska (12): The Cornhuskers were embarrassed on their home field by Ohio State again. It was the second straight visit from the Buckeyes in which Nebraska didn’t force a single punt. Neither side of the ball is up to standards in Lincoln, and it’s fair to start wondering how much longer Mike Riley will be sticking around.
13. Rutgers (13): The Scarlet Knights won the battle of the basement and confirmed our feelings that they were a step ahead of the Illini this weekend. Congratulations to Chris Ash on his first Big Ten victory. (The first for Rutgers in its past 17 conference games.) Enjoy it while you can.
14. Illinois (14): The Illini have the worst rushing defense (197.2 yards per game) and the worst rushing offense (118.3 yards per game) in the Big Ten. That’s a recipe for disaster in this league, and unless at least one of things drastically improves, Illinois may not win another game this year.