The 2011 regular season is in the books, and the Big Ten has some separation.
The league's top two teams, Michigan State and Wisconsin, will meet Saturday in the inaugural Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. Michigan also proved it belongs near the lead pack after beating Ohio State to finish 10-2 and likely secure an at-large BCS bowl spot. Nebraska and Penn State were evenly matched in their Nov. 12 matchup, and there's not much separating the 9-3 teams in the power rankings.
There's definitely a dropoff after the top 5 and it will be interesting to see how teams like Iowa, Ohio State, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois fare in their bowl games. Ohio State showed some life on offense against Michigan, but fell to the Wolverines for the first time since 2003. Iowa and Illinois struggled in their finales, and Northwestern's season-long woes on defense showed up against Michigan State. Purdue found a way to beat Indiana, but will need a stronger effort to win its bowl game.
Let's get to the rankings.
1. Michigan State (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten): The Spartans are peaking at the perfect time and head to Indianapolis after a perfect 4-0 performance in November. We loved the way coach Mark Dantonio kept his foot on the gas against Northwestern and ensured his team didn't lose momentum before the season's defining game. Senior quarterback Kirk Cousins is playing outstanding football, and the Spartans are making plays in all three phases. They'll be tough to beat in Indy.
2. Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2): Credit Bret Bielema's team for making the most of its second chance in the Leaders division. Wisconsin left no room for doubt about the division's best team by crushing Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium behind Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and a stout defense. The Badgers get their rematch with Michigan State, which broke their hearts with a Hail Mary on Oct. 22 in East Lansing. Like the Spartans, Wisconsin went 4-0 in November.
3. Michigan (10-2, 6-2): The Streak is over as Michigan beat archrival Ohio State for the first time since 2003, ending a seven-game slide. Saturday's game didn't go as many had envisioned, as Denard Robinson and the Wolverines had to outscore a suddenly energized Ohio State offense. Robinson came alive in the final two games as Michigan closed the regular season with three consecutive wins and likely locked up a BCS at-large berth.
4. Nebraska (9-3, 5-3): It took 11 games, but the Huskers finally put together the type of defensive effort many of us expected when the season began. Nebraska held Iowa to its first scoreless first half in four years and limited the Big Ten's No. 5 offense to seven points and 270 total yards. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and linebacker Lavonte David triggered the Blackshirts' performance, and I-back Rex Burkhead led the offense with his seventh 100-yard rushing performance. The win likely locks up a Florida bowl appearance.
5. Penn State (9-3, 6-2): Faced with a tall order in Madison, Penn State couldn't keep pace with Wisconsin and fell short of a division title that looked likely when November began. The Lions had no answer for Wilson and Ball, and dug themselves a big hole with three turnovers. They now await their bowl fate, which should be interesting given the negative publicity surrounding the program. Penn State's coaching search also should kick into high gear.
6. Iowa (7-5, 4-4): A roller-coaster regular season for the Hawkeyes ended with a major thud in Lincoln. The offense never showed up, as star receiver Marvin McNutt couldn't shake free of Dennard and quarterback James Vandenberg was unable to find a rhythm. The defense played admirably for a while before letting down late. Iowa failed to capitalize on a favorable schedule this season, but the Hawkeyes still can pick up another bowl win. They're very good in postseason play.
7. Ohio State (6-6, 3-5): Buckeyes fans had to be wondering where this offense was all season. Amid the Urban Meyer chatter, Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman opened up the playbook and the Buckeyes executed extremely well behind freshman quarterback Braxton Miller. While it wasn't quite enough to beat Michigan, Ohio State showed impressive fight. A very difficult regular season has come to a close, and all eyes are on the future.
8. Northwestern (6-6, 3-5): A great quarterback and a good offense can only take a team so far, and Northwestern ended a disappointing regular season at .500. The Wildcats' season-long struggles in the secondary showed up Saturday against Michigan State, as the Spartans repeatedly converted third-and-long situations. Pat Fitzgerald must continue to assess the direction on defense. Still, wins in four of the final five games should send Northwestern to a bowl for a fourth consecutive year.
9. Purdue (6-6, 4-4): Despite some tense moments in Bloomington, Purdue found a way to regain the Old Oaken Bucket and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. The Boilers went .500 in Big Ten play for the second time under Danny Hope and should land in one of the Big Ten's final two bowl tie-ins (TicketCity or Little Caesars Pizza). Running back Ralph Bolden (54 rush yards, 63 receiving yards) had a nice day and Purdue's balanced offense racked up 27 first downs and 508 total yards.
10. Minnesota (3-9, 2-6): If only Minnesota could play Illinois or Iowa every week. For the second consecutive season the Gophers recorded their only Big Ten victories against the Fighting Illini and Hawkeyes, finishing 3-9. Quarterback MarQueis Gray raised hope for the future with a superb performance in the regular-season finale, and Minnesota's energized defense shut down an anemic Illinois offense. Year 1 of the Jerry Kill era was tough both on and off the field, but better days could be ahead.
11. Illinois (6-6, 2-6): Ron Zook's fate likely had been sealed before kickoff Saturday, but an uninspired performance by the Fighting Illini made the decision easy. Illinois made history by winning its first six games for the first time since 1951 and made more history by becoming the first FBS team to drop its final six games after starting 6-0. A once potent offense has completely fallen apart. Illinois now awaits its bowl destination as AD Mike Thomas begins looking for Zook's replacement.
12. Indiana (1-11, 0-8): A difficult season mercifully ended Saturday as Indiana saw two leads disappear as Purdue took control in the Bucket game. Kevin Wilson finishes his first season as coach with just one win and none against FBS competition. There's clearly a lot of work to do, especially on defense, but the good news is Indiana played more young players than any team in America and should reap the benefits in 2012.