After all the preliminary non–conference showdowns and cupcakes, the time is now for conference play to begin rocking Big Ten country. What better time to bring in the boys from Australia, AC/DC, to add some theme music to the weekly power rankings?
Although most teams have played four games at this point, there remain more questions than answers about all of the teams in the race except for perhaps Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota. The first week of conference play will help sort out these rankings thanks to three compelling closely-matched games and an interesting non-conference game for Purdue against Notre Dame.
Let's delay no longer. After all, "It's A Long Way To The Top" (if you want to rock and roll through the Big Ten rankings)...
Theme Song – "Thunderstruck"
In a tough battle with a surprisingly good North Dakota State team and down by seven heading into halftime, the Golden Gophers had the ball just short of midfield with five seconds to go. Despite not having the arm to reach the end zone, quarterback Marqueis Gray heaved a Hail Mary into quadruple coverage and got picked off around the 10-yard line.
Ninety yards and one lateral later, the Bison sent Minnesota to the locker room down by 14 and shocked to the core. The Gophers never recovered from that blow, and it is these kinds of mistakes that are not acceptable for competing teams in major conferences. The Gophers have a long way to go.
This week brings the battle for the little brown jug at Michigan, which now seems leagues better than the team that was only slightly ahead of Minnesota heading into the season. The drought in this series will likely continue for another year as Minnesota struggles to find the way back to the top.
Theme Song – "Nervous Shakedown"
Although losing to a FCS school at home is bad, Indiana almost topped Minnesota in the hapless category after falling behind 24–0 at North Texas last weekend. However, just like against Virginia, the Hoosiers rallied late and fell just short despite getting more than 350 passing yards from Dusty Kiel.
Indiana has proven that their defense is not going to do the team many favors this season. Against the Mean Green, the Hoosiers could not contain running back Lance Dunbar, who racked up over 275 yards combined receiving and running. The defense simply must get better or else the offense will always be playing from behind.
Coming up this week is a home opener in conference play against Penn State, which struggles to get anything going on offense.
However, the one-dimensional passing offense will not fool the Nittany Lion defense. D'Angelo Roberts and Matt Perez need to step up in the running game for the Hoosiers to have a chance in these winnable conference games.
Theme Song – "Back In Black"
Purdue found the bye week at a great time last weekend, leading into a big game against Notre Dame. Robert Marve should be as close to 100 percent as he will get this season, and the Boilermakers passing game should improve with him at the helm.
Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers have led the offense into the top ten nationally for rushing at 258 yards per game so far. Considering the Irish have had troubles slowing powerful runners this season, the men in the black jerseys may be able to keep Notre Dame's offense off the field for long stretches this weekend.
This weekend will also be an interesting case study to see just how good the Boilermakers defense actually is, after playing well against three weaker teams to start the season. With Minnesota up next, the chance is there for Purdue to move up the rankings.
Theme Song – "Love at First Feel"
He's back! Dan Persa makes his return to the Northwestern starting quarterback job this weekend as the Wildcats head to Champaign to take on intrastate rival Illinois. Although Kain Colter looked fine for the first two games, his weaknesses showed against a clearly inferior Army team.
The Illini have been clutch on defense and have found success by putting on a heavy pass rush the past two weekends. Persa is a better quarterback than Alex Carder of Western Michigan or Brock Osweiler of Arizona State, but his reaction time and health will be tested by more blitzes and pressure from the Illini.
Assuming that Northwestern was simply overly protective of Persa, the Wildcats should thrive with more of a passing attack to balance the offense. Persa should find the end zone a couple of times this weekend, but the Wildcats likely need a couple of turnovers to beat Illinois this year.
Theme Song – "Satellite Blues"
Eastern Michigan was no match for the Nittany Lions, and both quarterbacks Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden looked effective for the first time this season. However, that does not solve the quarterback conundrum for Penn State, who may just be forced to have the two split time all season.
Silas Redd is averaging nearly 5 yards per carry, but the Lions rank below 75th nationally in rushing yards as well as in passing yards and points scored. The only saving grace for this team is a strong defense, led by one of the better linebacker crews in the conference.
This week's trip to Indiana should be another cake walk, although the Hoosiers have the best offense that Penn State has played so far. Even though the Lions may give up 14 or 21 points, the offense should be able to outscore the rebuilding Hoosiers as long as McGloin and Bolden continue to play well.
Theme Song – "Can I Sit Next to You, Girl"
The Hawkeyes are the only team sitting out this weekend for a bye, which means that Iowa will not have a break during conference play. James Vandenberg and Marcus Coker added to their season numbers in this past weekend by blowing out Louisiana Monroe.
The Hawkeyes do not have a lot of players injured or dinged up, so the team should head to State College next weekend mostly intact. Assuming that Penn State handles Indiana this weekend, the conference opener will show some differentiation between these two teams running right at the middle of the pack so far this season.
If Iowa survives this road game next weekend, then the Hawkeyes have a nice schedule that could push them to 4-0 when Michigan comes calling in November. For now, Iowa holds at the beginning of the back half of the power rankings.
Theme Song – "Are You Ready"
This song perhaps sums up the Buckeyes every week for the first half of 2011. Joe Bauserman proved he was not ready to be a starting quarterback, and Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith proved they were not ready to be the featured running backs.
Coming off a historic poor offensive performance at Miami, the Buckeyes received a big lift from new starting quarterback (and freshman) Braxton Miller. Miller will draw a lot of comparisons to his predecessor Terrelle Pryor, but his starting debut looked a lot more like Troy Smith when he took over at mid season in 2004. Smith won a Heisman, so that might be a better track to be on anyway.
This week brings Michigan State to town, a team that has struggled significantly against Ohio State in the past decade. With one more week to survive without the four suspended starters, this is a key game to keeping the Buckeyes in the hunt for a conference title. Look for Jordan Hall and Braxton Miller to run the ball over and over against the Spartans.
Theme Song – "Heat Seeker"
When Kirk Cousins throws the ball in the general direction of receiver B.J. Cunningham, the result always seems to be like a heat-seeking missile finding its target. Cousins and Cunningham are truly on the same page, having hooked up for 428 of the 947 passing yards Cousins has amassed in the first month of the season.
Michigan State handled Central Michigan easily, which is the third lesser foe dispatched with ease this season. However, the Spartans now must face another road test in a place they do not win much at all, in Columbus.
The Buckeyes are wounded, but there is no guarantee that Cousins will find the going easy against this defense. Running backs LeVeon Bell and Edwin Baker will need to fight for yards on the ground to open up the passing game more than they have in September. The Spartans are an enigma in the middle of the Big Ten, but that will sort itself out starting this weekend.
Theme Song – "Jailbreak"
If Illinois is going to take the next step and compete for the Leaders division title, games like this weekend against rival Northwestern are must win games. The strategy used to win the previous two games was to rush the quarterback all game to force just enough mistakes to lead to two three-point victories.
That strategy may pay off once again this week as Dan Persa sees his first playing time of the season. Persa is capable of picking apart a defense, especially if he is mobile enough to run. However, there are serious questions lingering about how much Persa wants to run, so the pressure game plan should continue.
With Indiana next weekend, Illinois is playing for a likely 6-0 start on Saturday. If that does not get the fans excited in Champaign when Ohio State comes to town, nothing will.
Theme Song – "You Shook Me All Night Long"
The Golden Gophers defense may be singing this theme by the end of the game this weekend, as Denard Robinson continues to make defenders look silly with cuts and fast moves. Robinson has run 71 times in September, which is more than double Fitzgerald Toussaint's 35 carries.
Considering that Robinson is averaging 7.8 yards per carry, Brady Hoke will likely just let him continue to use his gifts to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. If that gamble ends up failing when Michigan falls behind and cannot pass accurately to come back (although they did just that against Notre Dame), or if Michigan loses Robinson to injury again, then so be it.
It is hard to argue with being nationally ranked and looking like the team belongs among the Big Ten elite again. Minnesota will provide little resistance, but Northwestern and Michigan State will truly test that Wolverine defense in weeks to come.
Theme Song – "For Those About To Rock"
Everybody in Big Ten country circled two games on Nebraska's initial conference schedule when it was released a few months ago, and now those games are upon us. The home conference opener next week against Ohio State may have lost a bit of luster, but this weekend's trip to Madison has only gained in prestige as the weeks have gone by.
Nebraska has been a run-first team with Taylor Martinez at the helm, but the going should be much tougher against Wisconsin's defensive front. The only weakness shown thus far has been in the defensive secondary of the Badgers, so Martinez will likely need to make some big passing plays for Nebraska to leapfrog Wisconsin in these rankings next week.
Nebraska holds down the second spot because the undefeated teams below them have clear deficiencies on one side of the ball. The weak competition in non-conference play may have hidden some weaknesses in the Blackshirts defense though, so it will be interesting to see right away where Nebraska stands in comparison to the conference elite.
Theme Song – "Shake Your Foundations"
If you have ever been to Madison on the night of a big game, the "Jump Around" that happens at the end of the third quarter truly shakes the foundations of Camp Randall Stadium. Nebraska will be introduced to that shaking feeling right away in Big Ten play, and one can only hope that the game ends up being as competitive as advertised.
Wisconsin has annihilated all four September opponents by a total margin of 194-to-34. Now the Badgers get to pick on a program their own size, literally and figuratively. Nebraska has the defensive line and linebackers to go toe-to-toe with the Badgers zone-blocking attack, but do not expect the Badgers to go away from running backs James White and Montee Ball in this showdown.
Perhaps the key player this weekend will be Russell Wilson, who has looked impressive in his first four starts as a Badger. If Wilson can find some seams in the Nebraska defense, then Wisconsin will be able to cement their place at the top of the power rankings.
As always, see you later in the week with game previews and more analysis as conference play begins. Thanks for reading!