Justin K. Aller
We're halfway through the Big Ten slate, and things are starting to fall into place. We know who's good. We know who's bad. And here's a spoiler: We're Number One.
This week of football didn't do much to shake up our notions of the three tiers of the Big Ten conference, though it did help solidify the borders. Indiana continues to find new, heartbreaking ways to lose, Michigan State keeps trying to one-up them, and Wisconsin's climbed its way back from the brink. Northwestern is perfecting its brand of 3-quarters football, and Nebraska's perfecting the art of the late comeback. The middle of this conference is fantastically muddled, but there's nothing so wrong with that. It was pretty great to have a full slate of close games last week...at least until primetime.
The only real shake-up comes at the top, where the Big Ten's hottest team is set to collide with its most talented one, in the biggest game of the season that doesn't actually matter.
|1||(5-2, 3-0; Last week: #3) If you want to knock Penn State for its two losses over what now appear to be markedly inferior teams, that's fine. But this is not the same Penn State team that collapsed in the second half against Ohio and couldn't get out of its own way against Virginia. It's not just about capitalizing on this momentum, it's about a coaching staff that's figured out how to put its playmakers in the best position to succeed, and, honestly, the matchup with Ohio State is a pretty good one for the surging Lions.|
(8-0, 4-0; Last week: #1) For the second straight week, Ohio State narrowly scraped by a conference bottom-dweller, but that doesn't quite tell the story. Against Indiana, the Buckeyes built up a big lead before the Hoosiers made it close, but Saturday, OSU was playing from behind all game. The defense played better--Purdue only had one long scoring drive--and a possible trap game mentality didn't help (4 OSU turnovers, and a blown coverage on a kick return), but this is a very mediocre 8-0 team well overdue for its first loss.
|3||(5-2, 3-0; Last week: #2) After two weeks where this looked like the Michigan offense of old, the Wolverines reverted back into the one that struggled so mightily early on this season. Yes, Michigan State's defense is very good, but outside of Denard Robinson, there's a stunning dearth of weapons on this Michigan team. The defense, though, continues to be pretty fantastic. Jake Ryan is the best player in the Big Ten you (probably) have never heard of.|
|4||(6-2, 3-1; Last week: #5) Wisconsin is continuing its meteoric rise up the rankings, even if beating Minnesota isn't exactly something worthy of praise. The last three weeks have been pretty much identical--blowout wins against overmatched bottomfeeders--but that's the kind of thing the Badger team we expected to see this season would do. Now that Monte Ball has gotten untracked, it'll be a fascinating matchup watching this Wisconsin rush offense against the stout run D of Michigan State.|
|5||(6-2, 3-1; Last week: #4) Taylor Martinez played the best football of his career in the fourth quarter to lead the Huskers comeback charge, but you can't help but feel that this is a Nebraska team that's less than the sum of its parts, especially defensively. The toughest conference schedule in the Big Ten doesn't get any easier this week, when Nebraska hosts Michigan, and it's probably that whoever wins this game will be meeting Wisconsin in Indianapolis in December.|
|6||(6-2, 2-2; Last week: #7) Northwestern has to be getting really tired of this whole "crushing fourth quarter collapse" thing. And you have to be wondering whether it's time to pull the plug on the Trevor Siemian experiment--he was just 15 of 35 for 116 yards on Saturday and the past three weeks has just 255 yards on 78 passes. Yikes.|
|7||(4-4, 1-3; Last week: #8) The 2012 Michigan State team is basically a less dysfunctional 2011 Penn State team (at least, pre-November). They've got a defense that's probably the best in the conference, and an offense that, despite one of the best backs in the Big Ten, is one of the worst. Hold Michigan out of the end zone, and you usually expect to win. Not with this offense, you don't.|
(4-3, 2-1; Last week: #6) Womp womp.
Okay, I should probably elaborate: Iowa has the capacity to and has played better than they did Saturday night, though the loss of a pair of offensive linemen won't help in that regard moving forward. But man, that was a complete and total evisceration they suffered, and it's got to be hard to bounce back from that.
|9||(3-4; 0-3; Last week: #11) It would only slightly be hyperbole to say that Purdue outplayed Ohio State for 59 minutes Saturday, but, much to the Boilermakers chagrin, a football game lasts 60 minutes. Still, Caleb TerBush was at his best against the soft Ohio State D, Braxton Miller was pretty well bottled up, and Purdue held the Buckeyes to 40% on third downs. These are all good signs moving forward. There are no moral victories, especially when the loss was so excruciating, but that was a moral victory.|
|10||(2-5, 0-3; Last week: #10) Four of Indiana's five losses have come by a combined 10 points, and this week was another heartbreaker, but at some point you have to acknowledge that the Hoosiers, for all their fight, just aren't a good football team.|
|11||(4-3, 0-3; Last week: #10) The Gophers have scored exactly 13 points in each of their first three conference games. Unfortunately, their defense isn't good enough to hold anyone to 12.|
|12||(2-5, 0-3; Last week: #12)|