As promised, here are my Power Rankings for the future Heartland/Midwestern 12. There has been a lot of movement since I last did this a few weeks ago, especially in the case of Purdue (upwards), and Michigan (free fallin').
1. Ohio State (8-2, 5-1)
That's right, the Buckeyes are back on top. Most of their wins have been dominant this year. The three exceptions? A squeaker with Navy to open the season, which doesn't look so bad now that the Midshipmen are 7-2, and just beat Notre Dame, that awful loss to Southern Cal, which showcased Ohio State's weaknesses (conservative coaching in the Red Zone, underachieving offense), and the fluky upset against Purdue on the road, where Pryor just had an awful game.
Since then, the Bucks have reeled off comfortable wins against Minnesota, New Mexico State, and a ranked Penn State squad. Also, their defense continues to excel, holding Daryll Clark and Penn State to a mere seven points.
They play in their second consecutive huge game this week as Iowa comes to the Horseshoe (pictured at left).
2. Penn State (8-2, 4-2)
The Penn State offense has been inconsistent, racking up 30-plus points seven times, while being shut down by quality defenses like Iowa, and Ohio State (seventeen total points).
The defense, on the other hand, has only allowed 108 points all season, and OSU's 24 last weekend was their worst outing of the year.
Penn State's last three games are going to determined by the play of special teams, where OSU's Ray Small got two big field position punt returns last weekend. Indiana may not be much of a threat on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, but Ray Fisher is one of the best punt returners in the conference, and is always a threat to break one. And the road game at Michigan State will probably be close, decided by a few plays one way or the other.
If Penn State can get its special teams in sync with its defense, that flaky offense may not matter quite so much.
3. Iowa (9-1, 5-1)
According to ESPN, QB Ricky Stanzi had surgery on his ankle this week, and (at best) will be coming back for Iowa's bowl game. So Iowa is going to face big bad Ohio State on the road with a true freshman at the helm. Kirk Ferentz (pictured) doesn't look too pleased at the prospect.
This would be a very good time to try and run the ball 40 times. Unfortunately, Iowa doesn't have anybody who can do that. Their best play all year has been the deep ball. Against OSU's excellent defense, probably the best in the Big Ten, I don't give Iowa much of a chance.
Then again, ball-hawking safety Tyler Sash, and super D-Lineman Adrian Clayborn have been making plays all year, and if they can ruffle Terrelle Pryor's feathers like Purdue did a few weeks ago, this could become an upset in the making.
4. Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2)
Wisconsin got a bye week at the right time. After losing to Ohio State, and Iowa prior getting a week off, Wisconsin responded with a convincing sweep of the Hoosier State, crushing upstart Purdue, and holding off Indiana on the road. Wisconsin has the best running game in the Big Ten, led by sophomore John Clay.
Clay has 973 yards, and 11 TDs this year, and his backups are not exactly slouches, either. The Badgers currently sit at No. 20 in the BCS rankings.
The big difference from past Wisconsin teams? The defense is vulnerable. They've already given up over 200 points on the season, with three games left on the schedule. This week's match up, with struggling Michigan coming to Camp Randall, is a welcome one for the Badgers. The Wolverines are winless on the road this year, and in disarray.
Closing out the year with road dates at Northwestern, and at Hawaii (talk about getting two bowls instead of one!), virtually ensures this Wisconsin squad a nine-win season.
5. Northwestern (6-4, 3-3)
The Wildcats just got their defining win of the year, taking it to Iowa 17-10 for their third straight victory at Nile Kinnick Stadium. NU's quarterbacks combined for a mere 109 yards, but got key first downs when they needed them.
This is a team with clear strengths, and weaknesses. One strength is the defense, which has finally returned to last year's winning form thanks to the return of safety Brad Phillips, and several CBs from injury. This is a solid, seasoned unit with good players on all three levels.
Northwestern's other strength is more of a surprise. After losing almost 100 percent of their wide receiver production from last season, seniors Zeke Markshausen (pictured) and Andrew Brewer have stepped up big time.
Markshausen is the possession guy, weighing in at a petite 180 lbs. and standing 5'11" (both generous measurements). All Zeke has done this year is lead the Big Ten in receptions, with seventy through 10 games. That's sixty-nine more than he had in his entire career up until this year.
Meanwhile, big Andrew Brewer is the home-run hitter. Averaging over 15 YPR with five TDs, Brewer is a threat to take it to the house every time he gets the ball.
Unfortunately, the Kafka/Persa combo at QB is inconsistent, and neither has been able to run the ball as well as Kafka did last year in relief of CJ Bacher. The running game has missed Tyrell Sutton, as Scott Concannon has had to carry most of the load, and has been stuffed against top Big Ten defenses.
This Northwestern team needs to win at Illinois on Saturday to lock themselves into a bowl bid. Several teams that travel better than NU can still get to six, and if that happens, and the 'Cats can't win again, they could easily be left in Evanston for New Years.
...second half of the Power Rankings coming soon...