Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 9

The Big Ten boasts four top-20 teams and a fifth in Illinois that seems a lot closer to the top tier than the bottom tier. After the top five, the league is a real mystery until the bottom two.

Just remember, these rankings reflect how a team is playing right now.

1. Michigan State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten): The Spartans are alone at the top, but they learned Saturday how tough it is to win with a target on their backs. Kirk Cousins looks more and more like a premier quarterback, and his receiving corps stepped up in a big way at Northwestern. Cousins and his targets will need another big performance at Iowa, especially if the run game doesn't reignite.

2. Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1): Bret Bielema proved the last two weeks that he's a big-game coach, and his fake punt gamble in the fourth quarter paid off in a big way. The Badgers didn't let several key injuries stop them on an impressive fourth-quarter scoring drive, and they prevailed despite a defense that couldn't get off of the field on third down. A bye week beckons before a very manageable closing stretch.

3. Ohio State (7-1, 3-1): Losses both last week and last year clearly didn't sit well with the Buckeyes, who completely dominated Purdue in a 49-0 win. The offense pretty much did as it pleased, but the real encouraging sign was a defense that held Purdue to nine first downs and 118 total yards despite playing without star linebacker Ross Homan. If Ohio State plays like this down the stretch, it could be headed back to Pasadena.

4. Iowa (5-2, 2-1): This might be a better Iowa team than the 2009 version, but the Hawkeyes aren't as clutch as they were last fall. Kirk Ferentz can say what he wants about the timeout decision, but it was poor clock management in a critical situation. Iowa still has an outside shot at reaching a BCS game, but it can't afford any more slip-ups the rest of the way.

5. Illinois (4-3, 2-2): The offense remains a bit of a work in progress, but Illinois has made significant upgrades on both defense and special teams. Martez Wilson and Corey Liuget continue to blossom along with Nate Bussey, and Illinois recorded two pick-sixes and two blocked punts to pull away from Indiana. The schedule sets up very favorably for Ron Zook's squad down the stretch.

6. Michigan (5-2, 1-2): A bye week arrived at a good time for Rich Rodriguez's crew, which needs to figure out how to improve on defense and on special teams for the stretch run. Michigan might be able to simply outscore some of its remaining opponents, but it's hard to win games with a defense as poor as this one has played. Rodriguez faces the most critical game of his Michigan career this week at Penn State.

7. Purdue (4-3, 2-1): The Boilers received a harsh reality check Saturday, and they'll pay a heavier price with another poor showing this week at Illinois. But the 2-0 conference start still means something, and Danny Hope's team has shown its resiliency before. Illinois' defense is playing at an extremely high level, and Purdue offensive coordinator Gary Nord will need to make some tweaks for Rob Henry or whoever starts at quarterback in Champaign.

8. Penn State (4-3, 1-2): It wasn't the prettiest win, but Penn State really needed a W and overcame the loss of its starting quarterback to get one at Minnesota. Rob Bolden looked very good before suffering a possible concussion, and the Nittany Lions received lifts from receiver Derek Moye, defensive back D'Anton Lynn and running backs Evan Royster and Silas Redd. A banged-up defense remains vulnerable, though, and Penn State will be tested by Michigan's attack.

9. Northwestern (5-2, 1-2): Had Northwestern held on against Michigan State, it would be No. 5 in the power rankings and ranked in all the major polls. But a second consecutive Big Ten loss at home leaves Pat Fitzgerald's squad searching for answers, particularly on defense and along the offensive line. Quarterback Dan Persa is an absolute warrior, but his offensive line has underachieved and the defense let down in the clutch.

10. Indiana (4-3, 0-3): Indiana's defense allowed only 289 yards and Illinois scored 43 points. Wow. How does that happen? Five turnovers and two Indiana punts blocked. You can't expect to win Big Ten road games making so many mistakes. It's not November yet, but I can't see Indiana making a bowl game unless it beats Northwestern at home this week. Huge game for coach Bill Lynch and the Hoosiers.

11. Minnesota (1-7, 0-4): I didn't know what to expect from Minnesota following the coaching change, but it turned out to be more of the same. The defense continues to backslide and the offense couldn't convert a ton of yards (433) into enough points. Things likely will get ugly this week against Ohio State, and unless Minnesota grows up on defense, the Gophers are looking at 1-11.