We've got a hierarchy of sorts coming into Week 9 of Big Ten football, and for all we'll learn about all 12 teams this week, one thing that won't be happening is that hierarchy getting upset in any grand fashion because everyone's playing an opponent who's more or less on the same footing.
Ohio State and Penn State are 1-2 in the Big Ten Power Rankings for this week, and the "Big Ten Bowl" should provide a definitive answer to who the best team in the conference is.
Michigan and Nebraska also face off in the other prime-time game, and whoever comes away with a victory, there is a strong favorite for the Legends Division berth in the Big Ten Championship.
Iowa and Northwestern are two fading teams who could desperately use a win to revitalize their slim division title hopes; they're meeting in Evanston this week.
Purdue and Minnesota are now fighting for bowl eligibility, and a loss here could relegate either team to the "staying home for Christmas" column.
Indiana and Illinois are fighting to see who's not the worst team in the Big Ten.
If there's any matchup of teams who aren't in the same boat this week, it's Michigan State and Wisconsin, two teams moving in very different directions over the past couple weeks. It's been all Bucky up and Sparty down in October, and we'll see if that trend continues.
So let's actually take a look at these games, yes?
The early games start off with a tilt between Iowa and Northwestern, which has become something of a rivalry over the last decade or so with Northwestern often getting Iowa's goat. The Wildcats have won five of the last seven meetings, and four of those five wins involved double-digit comebacks.
Iowa took the last meeting 41-31, however, and Northwestern's defense is still in need of some retooling—especially late in games, as the Wildcats choked away a 12-point lead to Nebraska in the fourth quarter last week.
Still, Iowa's offense is anemic this season, and the fact that LT Brandon Scherff is lost for the year means RB Mark Weisman won't have his favorite lineman to run behind. Even if Iowa's defense looks stronger than it did against Penn State last week, the Wildcats will probably only need about 17 points or so to win. They'll get there.
Final score: Northwestern 24, Iowa 13
Final score: This game should be canceled
We'd feel better about this game for the Gophers if Jerry Kill hadn't pulled a Tim Brewster and sent his star quarterback, MarQueis Gray, out to play receiver—this time, it's for freshman Philip Nelson. Gray is still recovering from leg injuries, but it's hard to imagine someone with one good wheel is better suited to play wideout than quarterback.
At any rate, Nelson is talented, and after that heartbreaker of a loss against Ohio State last week, Purdue just might be disinterested enough to let the Gophers run wild. But even with the potential mental disadvantage, Purdue has the significant edge in talent here.
Final score: Purdue 27, Minnesota 17
This game looked a lot more exciting two months ago, didn't it?
The rubber match to 2011's two best Big Ten games is now a matchup of two teams with a combined six losses, which practically nobody would have predicted coming into the year. Michigan State, in particular, has been snakebitten with offensive line injuries for the second straight year—and now there's no reliable passing game to help bail out the Spartan offense.
Michigan State is 1-3 in the Big Ten, having lost its conference games by a grand total of six points. The Spartans are facing a brutal Big Ten schedule down the stretch, and going 6-6 on the year is a real possibility. That would be an unacceptable finish for Sparty, so there's a whole lot on the line here.
Wisconsin is back on track with its running game, but Michigan State is one of the most disciplined and productive run-stopping defenses in the nation. It's one thing for Montee Ball and James White to get loose against, say, Minnesota. But when the other side of the ball features tackle machines like Max Bullough, Chris Norman and Denicos Allen at linebacker (to say nothing of the size and athleticism along the line and at safety), yards are going to be much more precious.
That can spell frustration for an offensive line that was just getting its act together, and frustrated, inexperienced linemen are more liable to miss blocks or assignments.
That's what Michigan State needs here, and there's a chance Wisconsin just doesn't match up well on offense with the Spartans.
So while this game isn't the heavyweight prize fight we had hoped at the beginning of the year, it's certainly intriguing. And besides, the only other Big Ten game on at 3:30 is Purdue and Minnesota.
Final score: Wisconsin 31, Michigan State 20
Well, well, well. The Big Ten Bowl is here, a matchup of the two strongest teams in the conference, neither of whom will be allowed to represent the Big Ten in an actual bowl game thanks to NCAA sanctions.
Ohio State is undefeated, and until Purdue took the Buckeyes to the wire on Saturday, the Buckeyes had looked head and shoulders above everyone else in the Big Ten.
But the Big Ten's best player, Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, had a violent collision with the turf (connecting with his head and shoulders, as it would be) near the end of the third quarter on Saturday and did not return to the game. He is questionable.
Now, Kenny Guiton came into the game and led a miraculous last-minute touchdown drive then guided the Buckeyes to victory in overtime, but in the preceding 14 minutes of play, Guiton was 2-for-5 for 11 yards and one interception. He showed up when it mattered, but it only mattered then because his first few drives had accomplished utterly nothing.
So suffice it to say, Ohio State needs Braxton Miller back—and barring a recurrence of symptoms of head and neck injury, he will be; he's already practicing.
Then there's Penn State, who's seemingly peaking and looking dominant in the process. The PSU linebacking corps rivals that of Michigan State's for the best in the conference, and Gerald Hodges just might be athletic enough to limit Miller (or Guiton). That's a luxury Michigan State didn't have—and the Spartans were still good enough to push Ohio State to a 17-16 game.
Final Score: Penn State 23, Ohio State 20
Last year, Michigan welcomed Nebraska to the Big House for the first time since 1962 with a 45-17 shellacking that effectively ended Nebraska's shot at the Legends Division title and a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship. This game will likely not be as one-sided.
This time around, it's Michigan going to Lincoln for the first time in 101 years (seriously) for a game that should have even bigger postseason consequences, as Michigan and Nebraska are the two leading candidates to win the Legends Division this year. Win this game and it's time to start checking out hotels in Indianapolis, fans. Don't book 'em just yet...but it's cool to price 'em.
Nebraska's still missing Rex Burkhead, who continues to recover from a lingering knee injury. Ameer Abdullah has been strong in Burkhead's lieu, but there's still a precipitous dropoff in talent there, and it's one Nebraska can't ignore. Burkhead is questionable as of right now; whether he can go will likely make a difference in who wins this game.
The fact that this is a re-aggravation of the injury means Nebraska will probably be more cautious in getting Burkhead to a place where his knee can be trusted to hold up; that doesn't bode well for his prospects of getting in on Saturday.
Nebraska isn't only Rex Burkhead, though. Taylor Martinez has elevated his play considerably this year, especially through the air, and he's going to test a thin Michigan secondary repeatedly—especially when Michigan's loading up its defensive front and looking for the run.
But where Michigan has a big edge this year is at quarterback with Denard Robinson. Nebraska has struggled repeatedly against strong rushing games with fast quarterbacks, giving up over 700 yards on the ground between its games against UCLA and Ohio State. The Huskers held Northwestern's offense in check, but that was as much about Pat Fitzgerald's insistence on featuring passing QB Trevor Siemian over mobile QB Kain Colter as anything else.
So look for both teams to get points here, but the throngs of red at Memorial Stadium probably won't be going home happy for this one.
Final score: Michigan 37, Nebraska 28