Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer 389d

Big Ten Week 8 power rankings: Penn State sets up battle for top spot

The regular-season game of the year in the Big Ten comes early this season. It's set for Saturday in Columbus, a colossal matchup that will provide Penn State or Ohio State with an inside track to the East Division crown, the College Football Playoff and the top spot in these power rankings.

After the top five, the rankings this week are a mess in the wake of losses by teams in the five through eight spots from last week. Northwestern fits ahead of Iowa and Purdue ahead of Minnesota because of head-to-head results.

Indiana, winless in the Big Ten, remains ahead of Nebraska and Rutgers, both of whom have won twice in league play. Why? Because we think the Hoosiers would beat them both.

1. Penn State (last week: 1): The Nittany Lions moved to 7-0, exacting revenge on Michigan with a 42-13 rout of the Wolverines before a record crowd at Beaver Stadium. Saquon Barkley raced 69 yards for a score on the second play from scrimmage. For one night, Penn State answered every question.

2. Ohio State (2): There will be doubts, despite the Buckeyes' 228 points scored in the past four weeks, about their ability to keep pace with Penn State. What an unfamiliar spot for Urban Meyer, who is 43-2 in the regular season against Big Ten competition.

3. Wisconsin (3): The Badgers haven't mathematically clinched the West Division, but they'd have to lose three times to get knocked out of the top spot. And even that may not do it. So yeah, after a 38-13 win over Maryland, it's time to make those reservations for Indianapolis.

4. Michigan State (4): The Spartans again did nothing spectacular in victory, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Indiana 17-9. The margin of victory was their largest in four Big Ten wins. Don't look now, but Mark Dantonio's team can spoil the plans of the top dogs in the East. Haven't we seen this before?

5. Michigan (5): A stout defense can only carry the Wolverines so far. Now we know how far. And it's not within three scores of Penn State, a team that Michigan beat 49-10 a year ago in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines gained just 269 yards and were outscored 28-0 after cutting the PSU lead to one point in the second quarter.

6. Northwestern (9): It's time to accept that the Wildcats are going to win games this year and just not look pretty doing it. They're above .500 for the first time since Week 3 after a 17-10 overtime win over Iowa. And with a manageable schedule ahead, Northwestern may stand pat as the second best team in the West.

7. Iowa (7): Three losses in four games have led to feelings of restlessness around the Hawkeyes. Things just aren't operating smoothly, as evidenced by a fourth-down pass that should have kept Iowa moving in OT at Northwestern. It fell to the ground, not unlike the once-high hopes for this season at Iowa.

8. Purdue (6): The Boilermakers can't yet be trusted. They outgained Rutgers 474 yards to 217, yet failed to convert a two-point conversion to tie the game in the final minute of a 14-12 loss. What a missed opportunity to ascend to the top of the Big Ten's second tier.

9. Indiana (8): Winless in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers have gotta get a break soon, right? Well, there's a trip to Maryland before Wisconsin visits Bloomington. Suddenly, after years of struggling to play defense, Indiana can't score. Such is life under a first-year coaching staff. When you patch one hole, another opens.

10. Minnesota (10): Kobe McCrary carried the Gophers to a late score and rushed 153 yards in a 24-17 win over Illinois, coach P.J. Fleck's first Big Ten victory. And it's a good thing he got it, because few chances to win, if any, as strong as Saturday remain on the schedule for Minnesota.

11. Nebraska (12): Since consecutive losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State in which the Cornhuskers allowed touchdowns on 11 straight possessions, they've welcomed a new AD who will rule on the status of coach Mike Riley after a five-game stretch that starts this week at Purdue. Talk about pressure.

12. Rutgers (13): The Scarlet Knights needed just two big plays to knock off Purdue. QB Gio Rescigno won a second straight start, marking huge progress for coach Chris Ash and his program. Nebraska owns the head-to-head edge, but Rutgers is pushing for a bigger promotion than one spot in the power rankings.

13. Maryland (11): The Terrapins stayed within two scores of Wisconsin with 10 minutes to play in Madison. But again, the QB injuries have taken a large toll. The threat of a potent passing game is gone, placing too much stress on the Terps' ground game and defense.

14. Illinois (14): The march toward a winless Big Ten season nearly veered off course as QB Jeff George Jr. managed a nice game at Minnesota. But a lack of big plays doomed the Illini, whose take an 0-4 league mark into the most treacherous portion of the schedule.

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