No surprise who's at the top.
We're really into the home stretch at this point, as three weeks are all that's left of the Big Ten regular season. Three weeks and then it's time to settle in for the winter for Ohio State, Penn State and all the teams that couldn't manage six wins against the rest of this horrendous conference.
We're starting to see the stratification of the Big Ten come into clearer focus, as there's about three or four tiers of quality in the conference this year, depending on what you want to do with one certain team. You'll see.
So, let's rank the Big Ten not only No. 1 through No. 12, but in these tiers as well. Here's what they roughly correspond to:
TIER 1: Capable on any given week of playing the best of anybody in the Big Ten
TIER 2: Dangerous but flawed; still going to a bowl game
TIER 2.5: Could go either way, but not a great fit in either Tier 2 or 3
TIER 3: Wretched football that you shouldn't be forced to pay to see
Want to see where your team lands? Only one way to find out: keep reading.
Ohio State remains the class of the Big Ten not only in record (10-0) but in overall quality, winning handily against Illinois and boasting wins over the likes of Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan State.
As we mentioned last weekend, the real season begins for Ohio State after this bye week, as only Wisconsin (the putative Leaders Division representative in the Big Ten Championship) and Michigan (blood enemy) remain on the Buckeyes' schedule. Their season will be defined largely by those two games, and if either is a loss, Ohio State fans will have good reason to be disappointed.
At any rate, the Buckeyes are staying very strong and will likely end the season atop the Big Ten power rankings.
There's no shame in being second best in the Big Ten, particularly if the actual best team is ineligible for the postseason (hello, Pasadena!).
Nebraska is sitting pretty at 7-2 (4-1) and holds wins over Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern. So barring a collapse down the stretch, it looks as if the Big Ten's newest team will go to the Big Ten Championship in just its second year.
Taylor Martinez still has his bad moments, but when faced with yet another double-digit deficit at Michigan State on Saturday, Martinez rallied his team to victory with clutch plays on the ground and through the air.
Key among those plays was a perfectly delivered 38-yard pass to Kyler Reed on 4th-and-10 on the Huskers' last drive of the game.
There was also that terrible pass interference call. But hey—Martinez forced Darqueze Dennard to make a play, and the ref (somehow) thought Dennard didn't. That's Martinez dictating the action, which is what good, fearless quarterbacks do.
More on Nebraska's schedule later today on the Big Ten Blog, but for now, let's say the rest of Nebraska's season looks very, very good.
It was no Denard, no problem for the Wolverines, as Devin Gardner helped lead Michigan to a relatively easy 35-13 win at Minnesota. The win keeps Michigan on pace to go to the Big Ten Championship Game if it wins out and Nebraska stumbles. That's not exceedingly likely, but at least it means that whoever takes the division will have earned it down the stretch.
Denard Robinson should be back next week, seeing as how he was at least trying to give it a go in pregame warm-ups on Saturday. But even if his ulnar nerve injury needs another week to get sorted out, it's nice that Michigan's got a contingency plan in place with Gardner.
We've seen Penn State play some rancid games (losing to a Virginia team that won't be going to a bowl) and some brilliant ones (throttling Iowa at Kinnick Stadium—a whipping the Hawkeyes still haven't recovered from) and plenty of decent games in between.
What it all adds up to is a 6-3 (4-1) record and the sense that Penn State can hang with just about anybody in the conference.
Yeah, Ohio State controlled the physicality and tempo of its 35-23 win over PSU, but normally when Ohio State plays well, the game's not even close. Penn State kept it close.
The schedule stiffens up for Penn State considerably down the stretch, as the easiest opponent is likely a surging Indiana squad who's still got designs on a Big Ten Championship Game berth. Nebraska and Wisconsin are also on the docket, so Penn State doesn't have a winning record locked up by any stretch just yet.
But don't be surprised by a 2-1 finish and an 8-4 record to show for Bill O'Brien's first season in the gaping, snarling maw of NCAA sanctions. That's excellent work by both O'Brien and Penn State, and it bodes very well for the future.
Hang on, why does that guy have a LIGHT SABER?
Kudos to the Wildcats for making it to 7-2—particularly since, if they held every double-digit lead, they'd be 9-0 right now. But we're still at the point where the best team Northwestern has actually beaten is Vanderbilt, and road tests against Michigan and Michigan State still loom.
Then there's the season finale against Illinois, if the Illini haven't already folded their football program by then. It'd be for the best.
At any rate, Northwestern's still putting together a much better season than we anticipated coming into the season, and a win in either of the next two games will likely be enough to push the Wildcats into the top tier. They're close. The quality win has to happen first, though, and there aren't many opportunities left for one.
Nobody's been snakebitten as badly as the Michigan State Spartans this season, especially in Big Ten play. The Spartans have lost four Big Ten games by a total of 10 points, and that includes losses by one, two, three and four points. That's got to be a Big Ten first—and if it's not, our regrets to the fanbase who had to go through something similar whatever time before.
There's a significant base of talent here for Michigan State, but whether it be late defensive lapses, bad calls or a continually shaky wide receiver corps, there's seemingly always something to derail the game for Michigan State.
Now, it's also worth mentioning that MSU has three wins of four points or fewer this season, so perhaps this isn't quite the aberration one might think. But by and large this has been a tough, tough year for Spartan fans.
At the very least, it's still obvious that the Spartans have the talent to hang with anyone, even if the final score doesn't quite tip in their direction. For that, record be damned, they're in the top half of the Big Ten.
Wisconsin has had a better season than Michigan State overall, but the loss of Joel Stave has derailed the Badger offense once again, and it was a significant factor in MSU's comeback victory over Wisconsin two weeks ago.
For whatever reason, Wisconsin's offense just doesn't accomplish much of anything with Danny O'Brien at the helm—even the running game comes unglued. We need to see an actual good game from O'Brien against even a decent opponent, and Wisconsin's going to have that opportunity in the waning weeks of the season.
Indiana hosts the Badgers this, week with the Leaders Division berth for the Big Ten title game on the line. Past that, it's Ohio State and a season-ending trip to Penn State.
Wisconsin could absolutely finish this season 6-6. Anything better than 7-5 would be a welcome surprise—and the first sign that a Danny O'Brien-led Badger team could actually compete in the Big Ten Championship Game. Because, the way it looks right now, Wisconsin's in real trouble without Stave for the rest of the year.
And here we come to the enigma of the conference, the one team we're not really sure what to do with, tier-wise.
Indiana's not objectively good; it has losses to the likes of Ball State and Navy, and the best team the Hoosiers have beaten is, like, Iowa.
But Indiana looked better than Iowa, at the very least, and there's a quality to this team that we haven't seen out of Bloomington in a long, long time. The Hoosiers gave Michigan State and Ohio State minor heart attacks in two close losses, and the 44-29 defeat at Northwestern's hands almost had its own big Hoosier comeback before the Wildcats slammed the door with a late touchdown.
It's likely that Indiana doesn't get its six wins and stays home come bowl season. But the Hoosiers look just plain better than the four teams below them on this list. And if they can knock off a Wisconsin team in a minor crisis, they're all of a sudden in the driver's seat for the Leaders Division berth in the Big Ten title game.
So there's a lot going on with this team, and we'll know a lot more about Kevin Wilson's December plans by the end of the week.
Minnesota looked lively in its loss to Michigan last week, but by the end of the day, it was pretty obvious where the talent advantage was on that field. That's a problem Minnesota's going to run into over and over unless Jerry Kill gets some high-level talent on both sides of the line.
That being said, at least Minnesota is trying, and there's a good deal of potential for the future with freshman Philip Nelson at quarterback. That's more than we can say about the last three teams on the list, so congratulations for that, Gophers!
Yes, Iowa walloped the team in front of it in late September, 31-10. Small problem for the Hawkeyes: That was with a tailback and offensive line that aren't available at this point, and the team Iowa has in place now is painfully inadequate to compete in the Big Ten.
RB Mark Weisman has proven to be Iowa's only reliable option in the running game; he's still nursing a groin injury. The main engine of the offensive line, LT Brandon Scherff, is gone for a long time with a major leg injury suffered against Penn State three weeks ago. The passing game continues to be nightmarishly bad.
Thus, even when Iowa took an early 14-0 lead on Indiana last week, nobody in either fanbase thought that margin was going to hold up—and sure enough, it didn't. The Hawkeye offense petered out and Indiana's passing game got warmed up. And when the dust settled, the Hoosiers had regained control of the game and won 24-21.
It wasn't an upset according to the Vegas lines, and it didn't look like an upset on the field either.
What on earth happened to Purdue? The Boilermakers started off 3-1, with their only loss a nail-biter at Notre Dame, and there's enough talent there that Purdue came tantalizingly close to upsetting Ohio State in Columbus.
It's just that every other time they take the field, the Boilermakers get the ever-loving bejeezus kicked out of them.
Michigan rolled, 44-13. Wisconsin cruised, 38-14. Penn State logged a 34-9 win. Even the 44-28 loss to Minnesota was deceptively close; it was 44-7 Minnesota until midway through the third quarter.
This is the type of season that can get a coach fired, and if we're Danny Hope, we're getting the house ready to be shown ASAP.
Illinois is having a purely wretched season, and the fact that it's not in its own tier of badness is a testament to the widespread ineptitude of the Big Ten this season.
There are no bright spots on offense and barely any on the other side of the ball. The Illini score the fewest points of any team in the Big Ten...and give up the most.
At least the Illini are tops in the Big Ten in net punting. Hey, if you're going to do it 6.4 times a game (not an exaggeration), you might as well be good at it.