When the first BCS standings of the season were released last Sunday it looked about as bad for the Big Ten as you probably imagined it would. Yes, Ohio State cracked the top five at No. 4, but none of the conference’s other teams cracked the top 20. Rather than helping the Big Ten save face, Michigan and Nebraska sneaking in the rankings at Nos. 22 and 24 respectively only served to drive home how lightly regarded this league is right now and illustrate the bigger point: For better or worse, a conference’s reputation is largely set during non-conference play.
If three games go just slightly differently, the Big Ten could have four teams at least in the top 15 right now. If Nebraska doesn’t blow a big lead against UCLA the Huskers are surely in the top 10. If Michigan State doesn’t end up on the wrong end of a couple of pass interference calls against Notre Dame the Spartans are definitely top 10 worthy too. If Wisconsin gets a relatively easy field goal off against Arizona State (and makes it of course) the Badgers are probably in the top 15 even with a loss to Ohio State.
Instead, anyone who wants to talk about how weak the Big Ten is has ample ammunition to defend that argument in the polls and these things tend to carry over from year-to-year. So prepare for a second half of the season heavy on the slow jokes, and another preseason top 25 light on Big Ten teams in 2014.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual strength of teams, so let’s just focus on that for now. On to the Power Rankings.
1. OHIO STATE (Last Week: 1) — The pressing question for Big Ten fans right now: Should you be rooting for the Buckeyes to win out at this point and give the conference some modicum of “buzz?” Of course, no one is actively going to root against their school when facing Ohio State, but beyond that scenario the sad answer to that question is probably “yes.” There are a lot of eggs in the Buckeye basket at this point. An even sadder truth: Undefeated might not be good enough this season. Ohio State already sits behind Alabama, Oregon and Florida State and how are they going to move up? I don’t think a win in the Big Ten championship game — against whoever that may be — is going to offer a big enough push with the way things are going.
2. WISCONSIN (Last Week: 2) — The Badgers calmly and mercilessly dismantled Illinois last week, but they’re stuck in poll purgatory too. The BYU game in November might earn Wisconsin some points with pollsters, but there aren’t any games left on the schedule that truly move the needle nationally and the Badgers don’t have any real quality wins to point to. Doesn’t change my opinion of Wisconsin, however. I’m still convinced it is one of the 10 or 15 best teams in the country.
3. MICHIGAN STATE (Last Week: 3) — Look, I can’t explain why Michigan State struggled so mightily at home against a Purdue team that looked hopeless the week before against Nebraska. But I actually feel better about putting the Spartans at No. 3 than I did last week because, despite the 14-0 score, Michigan State was never really in danger of losing to Purdue. The defense is just that good and, among the group of flawed contenders in the Legends Division, Michigan State still has the strongest strength — what might be the nation’s best defense.
4. NEBRASKA (Last Week: 4) — Three weeks ago, Nebraska’s light October schedule, including two bye weeks, looked like the perfect sort of training course that would allow the Huskers’ young defense to improve. Maybe that happened. It’s hard to tell due to the teams Nebraska has played, but now, staring at that six-game stretch where both Michigan and Michigan State will at least get one break, it sure looks like a long, rocky road to Indianapolis. I’m fairly certain of one thing — getting there almost certainly involves winning out at home.
5. MICHIGAN (Last Week: 5) — Indiana is going to move the ball on a lot of people, but I thought the Wolverines’ defense would at least offer some resistance. There were some hints out there that Michigan’s defense, when adjusted for strength of schedule, wasn’t quite as awesome as it appeared on paper but I was stupidly ignoring those hints. I’m not any more.
6. IOWA (Last Week: 7) — Welcome to the division title race, Iowa. It won’t be easy because nearly beating Ohio State, while earning you points in these rankings, still counted as a loss in the standing. That’s two, meaning there’s a lot of catching-up to do and Wisconsin visits in two weeks, but beat Northwestern this week and you’re still alive. That’s something few would’ve projected to start the season. I certainly didn’t.
7. NORTHWESTERN (Last Week: 6) — Well, here are the Wildcats, back where I had them ranked to start the season. Injuries are a big part of that, but even if Northwestern gets healthy the schedule doesn’t offer any breaks until the road trip to Illinois to end the season. That said, Northwestern will spoil someone’s season over the next six weeks. Count on that.
8. INDIANA (Last Week: 9) — I really can’t decide between Indiana and Penn State at this point. The Hoosiers have the head-to-head win and a good performance against Michigan on the road, which should probably trump the Nittany Lions’ resume.
9. PENN STATE (Last Week: 8) — See above.
10. MINNESOTA (Last Week: 11) — Relative to the Big Ten, the Gophers run the ball pretty well and stop the run too. That’s the age-old recipe for success and it should keep Minnesota in a lot of games — including the one this weekend — from here on out. One more win gets the Gophers bowl-eligible, but it won’t be easy with Nebraska, Indiana, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State still on the schedule.
11. ILLINOIS (Last Week: 10) — In the only Big Ten result last week that made total sense, Illinois got clubbed by Wisconsin 56-32.
12. PURDUE (Last Week: 12) — Keep Danny Etling healthy. Let him make mistakes. Maybe beat Illinois on Nov. 23. That’s my prescription for a healthy season for the Boilermakers at this point.
THIS WEEK’S PICKS (Last Week: 4-1, Season: 49-15)
NEBRASKA at Minnesota — Gophers have the horses up front, both sides, to give Nebraska a challenge but the Huskers have too many offensive weapons to be totally shut down.
Northwestern at IOWA — Hawkeyes have won just two of the past eight games against Northwestern, but they’ve fared pretty well against the Wildcats at home.
MICHIGAN STATE at Illinois — If Purdue-MSU was an interesting game, this one has the potential to be as well but the Spartans are quite happy playing the “if they don’t score, we win” card and they play it pretty well.
Penn State at OHIO STATE — Other than the road trip to Michigan, this is perhaps the best chance of an Ohio State upset in the regular season and the line’s at 14.
THIS WEEK’S POWER RANKIN’ SOUNDTRACK: “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” by Porter Wagoner. I like few things more than weird, slightly macabre honky tonk and this, along with early Johnny Paycheck, is the epitome of that.