It's good to be kings.
Week 6 is in the books, and while nobody is bowl-eligible in the Big Ten just yet, one squad has pushed through unscathed and is now the unquestioned leader of the conference as a result.
Ohio State is 6-0, and it may turn out to be the case that only the NCAA can keep the Buckeyes out of a BCS bowl this year thanks to a one-year postseason ban that's turning out to be extraordinarily inopportune.
But as for the rest of the conference? Here, it gets tricky. Let's break down the Big Ten top to bottom in this week's power rankings.
It's a shame we can't just end the list right here. That's how far apart Ohio State is from the rest of the pack in the Big Ten.
Put it another way: Ohio State is ranked No. 8 in the nation by the AP and is a strong candidate to keep rising, as only one game remains against a ranked opponent. That'd be No. 25 Michigan, who's the only other team ranked in either poll in the entire Big Ten.
Of course, we've assumed Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska are the best team in the Big Ten over this year alone, so perhaps we're two crippling Ohio State losses away from a true nightmare for the conference's reputation.
Yep: The second-best team in the Big Ten is 3-2. For real.
A great deal of this ranking is buoyed by the fact that the rest of the Big Ten is utterly wretched, but it's also worth pointing out that if you had switched the schedules of Michigan and Ohio State before the season, 1) Michigan would have a great chance to be undefeated at this point, and 2) Urban Meyer would have been pissed.
At any rate, games against Michigan State and Nebraska loom before October is over, so we'll have a much better sense of where Michigan fits into this mix by then. All the same, what we've seen is a team that has no business declaring itself among the elite in college football, but since this is the Big Ten we're talking about, that's not enough to knock them out of the No. 2 spot here.
Oh, and don't look now, but Denard Robinson is up to fourth in the nation in rushing yards per game with 135.2 in Michigan's five contests. Your move, Braxton Miller.
First, the bad news: Rex Burkhead tweaked that left knee of his again during Nebraska's loss to Ohio State on Saturday, and consider this: By the time Nebraska finished the drive Burkhead was hurt on, it was 35-31 Ohio State. Final score? 63-38, a 28-7 spree by the Buckeyes to finish the game.
Granted, some of that's on Nebraska's defense, but if the Cornhuskers were still moving the ball reliably with Burkhead in the game (14 rushes, 119 yards), perhaps the flow of the game's a bit different down the stretch.
At any rate, Burkhead stayed on the sideline and rode a stationary bike during the second half, so this isn't a major knee injury. That's good because Nebraska has dates against three rather stout rush defenses in Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State in the next three games. Two wins out of three there, and Nebraska's still in great shape for a Legends Division title run.
So last week wasn't great, was it? No, not so great. Michigan State fell behind Indiana 17-0 in a disastrous first quarter filled with unsportsmanlike conduct calls and big plays by Indiana's passing game. Indiana even took a 13-point lead into halftime and a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter, but Michigan State eventually pulled away as Indiana's defense wore down.
On one hand, you really, really never want to see a team have a first half like Michigan State's. The Spartans had no life for about the first 20 minutes of the game, and Le'Veon Bell's 121 yards and two touchdowns are far less impressive when you consider he needed 37 rushes (see: nearly half of MSU's 82 offensive plays) to get there, but when everything was clicking, that team looked like a top-level Big Ten team once again.
Iowa brings walk-on sensation RB Mark Weisman to town this week, and his bruising running style has confounded would-be tacklers all season long. If Michigan State's front seven is as tough as it purports to be (and this is not reputation alone—MSU is 10th nationally in rush defense this year, giving up 86 yards a game on three yards a pop), this should be a wall Weisman can't break through. Count on a bounce-back game on Saturday to reestablish the Spartans as Legends Division contenders.
We really didn't expect to be putting Penn State in the top half of any Big Ten power rankings this year...or the next...or the next after the first two weeks of the 2012 season put the Nittany Lions in an unexpected 0-2 hole. But after a 22-0 fourth quarter helped Penn State come back for the 39-28 victory over previously undefeated Northwestern, the message from PSU is clear: "We're not going anywhere."
Now, it should be noted that Navy, Temple and Illinois are teams that the rest of the Big Ten should be defeating handily as well—heck, Illinois seems to be beating itself on a weekly basis—but that Northwestern win was a big deal, and it wasn't terribly fluky either. Penn State's defense came to play and eventually gave the offense the opportunities it needed to make the comeback.
The schedule continues to get tougher for Penn State—over the next 40 days, the only home game on PSU's schedule is Ohio State—but this is still a team that has redefined its baseline of success for the season, and that's utterly crucial momentum going into the long, hard winter of NCAA sanctions.
Yep, Montee Ball ran for 116 yards and two scores last week, and we're still picking a different tailback for Wisconsin's picture here. That's James White, who averaged seven yards per rush on the ground against Illinois and sparked the Badgers' scoring after a listless first half with a 62-yard catch-and-run from Joel Stave, tying the game at 7-7 and providing the push the Badgers needed for an eventual 31-14 win that wasn't nearly as impressive as the score would indicate.
That being said, rushing for 5.2 yards per carry against Illinois' defensive front is a big deal, because for the myriad flaws hounding that bad Illinois team, rush defense isn't one of them. Indeed, Ball had only six rushes for 12 yards in the first half. So wearing down the Illini defense over the corner of the second half is a pretty big deal and a sign that the Badger offensive line is starting to get it together.
And yet still, six weeks into the season, the Badgers' best victory is, let's say, Utah State—and that came down to a missed Aggie field goal at the final gun. There are no Utah States, no UTEPs left on the schedule. A trip to Purdue looms this week. We'll see if Wisconsin's a serious Big Ten team—and as of right now, we're still skeptical.
It's not time to hit the panic button on Northwestern yet, not by a long shot, but it is time to tamper expectations again just a tad. Penn State popped the Wildcats' balloon late in a 39-28 Nittany Lion victory that featured yet another instance of Matt McGloin burning the Northwestern defense, something Pat Fitzgerald can't possibly be happy about.
Moreover, we're about one or two more Northwestern losses from not only dismissing it from the Big Ten title race, but re-classifying that 4-0 non-conference slate with three BCS conference victories as more of an example of how labels can be misleading than an actual accomplishment.
That all said...
...Venric Mark is a name you need to know (especially if some big-name, low-info dope like Ivan Maisel doesn't) as he establishes himself as both a 100-yard rusher and one of the conference's most lethal return men. Northwestern's offense needs more than Mark to be successful, obviously—and it didn't have much else on Saturday in its loss to PSU—but there's some real talent on this team.
Purdue had an opportunity to establish itself as a leading contender for the Leaders Division's Big Ten championship berth—and maybe even a challenger for Ohio State's spot atop the division as a whole—when Michigan came to town on Saturday.
Some time around when the score was 28-3 in the first half, that opportunity was pretty well lost.
Purdue was smacked around on its home turf 44-13 by the Wolverines, and Denard Robinson easily topped 200 yards on the ground as the Boilermakers looked utterly unprepared for one of their biggest games of the conference season. Caleb TerBush was benched for Robert Marve, who looked better in relief but still couldn't guide Purdue to points until a late field goal drive.
Wisconsin comes to town this week in a game that could redraw the lines of the Leaders Division race, but after that, Purdue has four road games in a five-game stretch. Granted, only one is against a team lower than the Boilermakers in this week's power rankings, but when you're in the bottom half of those same rankings, no victory is to be taken for granted.
Purdue's season isn't over, nor is its candidacy for a Big Ten championship bid. Not by a long shot. But the Boilermakers are going to have to win all the games a good team is supposed to win from here on out; otherwise, it'll be another long fall and winter back among the have-nots of the conference this year.
The temptation was to keep Iowa in the bottom three as penance for losing to Central Michigan, but since the last time we saw Iowa, it was whipping Minnesota up and down the field. That would be dishonest. And we don't do dishonest around here.
Iowa can make a move up these rankings with a strong home showing against Michigan State this week, but it's hard to imagine that anemic Iowa offense doing much against the Big Ten's best defense—and it's equally hard to imagine RB Mark Weisman throwing off tackles against the likes of LB Max Bullough or SS Isaiah Lewis the way he's done to lesser defenses and defenders this year.
But he might! And it'll be worth watching to see if he can; if so, Iowa might move back up in these rankings.
Yes, a one-loss team in a terrible conference is 10th in the power rankings. Before you say that makes no sense, may we remind you that this is Minnesota? OK, great, back on the same page.
The last we heard from the Gophers, Iowa was running roughshod over what was supposed to be a strong defense, and it is strong...by mid-major standards, which was all Minnesota established in its 4-0 non-conference slate against the likes of Syracuse and three more cupcakes.
Max Shortell was fine for the Gophers in replacement of injured QB and team leader MarQueis Gray, but the fact that he led the Gophers in rushing and rushing attempts against Iowa (16 rushes, 42 yards) leads one to believe that this is an offense that's much more suited for Gray. Gray might be back against Northwestern; if he's not, he's basically a week away.
Oh, what could have been. For a while, it looked as if Indiana was going to deliver Kevin Wilson his first Big Ten conference win in style, flummoxing the Michigan State Spartans and delighting the home crowd with a frankly dominant performance in the first half.
That all fell apart as Michigan State cleaned up its act and made adjustments the Hoosiers couldn't handle, but for one half, it felt so, so real.
Even without the services of Tre Roberson for the rest of the year as he takes a medical redshirt to heal a horrible broken leg, the Hoosiers undeniably have some fight in them as they work toward rebuilding (or really, just "building"). They've averaged 31.7 points in their three losses and have led in the fourth quarter of two of those games. The third, a 44-29 loss to Northwestern, even featured Indiana cutting a 27-0 deficit to 37-29 before bowing out.
But that defense just needs a ton of help, whether from the juco ranks or just development and patience. Or magic and wishes, for that matter.
Still, the defense is at least improving, though there was really nowhere to go but up after a pure horror show in 2011. At least now the Hoosiers are only 94th in total defense and a surprisingly respectable 62nd nationally in passing efficiency defense. You can still put points on this defense and teams regularly do, but now, you'll have to work at it a bit.
Perhaps it's unfair to start judging Tim Beckman as a coach just six games into his first season at a new school. Transitions take time.
And yet Illinois either hasn't recovered from its 45-14 shellacking at the hands of Arizona State in Week 2 or it's just a terrible football team. Either way, it belongs at the bottom of the pile here.
The latest indignity was a 31-14 home loss to Wisconsin, who hasn't been able to beat a team by more than 11 points all year—not even FCS Northern Iowa or should-be-FCS UTEP. Wisconsin didn't take the lead of that game until the second half, but once faced with a deficit, Illinois just deflated, giving up over 100 yards of rushing to Montee Ball in the second half alone.
The offense is a mess even with Nathan Scheelhaase healthy. The defense bleeds points worse than anyone in the Big Ten. Donovonn Young is on pace to lead the team in rushing... with 454 yards. There's just so little going well for this team.
But hey, at least we'll always have Nathan Scheelhaase trying to high five the back judge. That will never, ever stop being funny.