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Wisconsin wins the week…almost

The Big Ten opens another season, the Big Ten fails to impress. You know the drill. People are anxious to write off the plodding, dusty conference up North so, even though there’s little the Big Ten could’ve done in week one to improve upon its reputation, somehow the conference comes out of the opening weekend with the already low expectations lowered.

You can thank Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue for that. Is it fair? In some cases, yes, but we’ll get to that below.

Here are my Big Ten Power Rankings after the first week of games. They’re not strictly based on resume — though results play a major role. Rather, it’s a true power ranking. If team one were to play team two, the higher-ranked team is the one I’d expect to win on a neutral field. Simple as that.

1. OHIO STATE (LW: 1) — I was this close to moving the Buckeyes out of the top slot following last Saturday’s rather ho-hum 40-20 win over Buffalo, a game that could’ve been much closer. The Bulls, trailing 30-20 in the third quarter, appeared to have recovered a fumble inside the Ohio State 5-yard line only to have it nullified by a penalty. Ohio State went on to score and seemingly put the game away but then Buffalo went on a 75-yard drive only to have the Buckeye defense finally come up with a stop at its own 2-yard line. If Buffalo scores there, it’s a significantly different feeling coming out of this game. Ohio State only gave up 258 total yards, but the Bulls moved the ball surprisingly easily at times in the second half. Would I still pick the Buckeyes to win over every other team in the conference tomorrow? Yes, but the gap narrowed.

2. WISCONSIN (LW: 2) — A win over Massachusetts is nothing to write home about, but the Badgers checked all of the major boxes I expected them to last Saturday. Big plays from wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and running backs Melvin Gordon and James White? Check, check, check. Tough defense? Check. Ridiculous rushing numbers? Check. The only potential cause for concern was quarterback Joel Stave’s pedestrian day passing. He was 9-for-17 on the day for 197 yards, but 122 of those yards came on two touchdown passes to Abbrederis. Despite that, I still thought long and hard about moving Wisconsin into the top spot. There just aren’t many questions with the Badgers right now.

3. MICHIGAN (LW: 5) — How’s the transition to the Denard-less pro-style offense going? Michigan’s 59 points and 463 total yards against Central Michigan were pretty resounding answers. The Wolverines also turned in their usual stout defensive effort against the Chippewas, a bowl team in 2012. Devin Gardner’s two interceptions were one of the lone black marks on an overall stellar day for Michigan. Outside of Wisconsin, this might have been the most complete effort put forth by a Big Ten team in week one.

4. NORTHWESTERN (LW: 7) — Going West and winning at night isn’t easy. Doing it without your starting quarterback, your All-Big Ten running back and another starter at corner out for nearly half of the game is even harder, but Northwestern gutted out a 44-30 win over Cal nonetheless. The impressive, and somewhat surprising thing here, was the Wildcats’ defense. Yes, Northwestern gave up 548 yards but that was on 99 plays (5.54/play) and Cal’s running game went nowhere (93 yards on 35 attempts). It was the most impressive win for the Big Ten last week.

5. NEBRASKA (LW: 3) — What do you make of 602 yards? I’m still not sure and I’ve been trying to understand it for four straight days now. But the question here is not what it means for Nebraska’s future, but what it means right now and right now I’d still take the Huskers over the seven teams below them on this list. It’s not the theoretical slam dunk it once was, however. The defense, for all it did poorly last Saturday, did do some good things in that game on a unit-by-unit level. The problem was none of those units seemed to do those good things at the same time. Nebraska needs to synchronize.

6. PENN STATE (LW: 6) — So the Nittany Lions beat what should be a decent Syracuse team on a neutral field playing a true freshman quarterback and don’t move up at all? Penn State is trapped here this week by the logic of my own list. I wouldn’t pick them over Nebraska right now because their offense isn’t the type of offense that might put up 500 yards on the Huskers at the drop of hat. The Nittany Lions’ passing game will give plenty of people problems, but the running game was anemic against the Orange, averaging just 1.5 yards on 38 carries. In short, Penn State is about what I expected they’d be to start the year.

7. MICHIGAN STATE (LW: 4) — I was high on the Spartans all off-season, assuming Michigan State would somehow find a way to work around a lackluster offense. Like Nebraska’s defense, it looked about the same to me. Neither of the quarterbacks that played, senior Andrew Maxwell or sophomore Connor Cook, looked like they’d taken major strides over the past eight months though their receivers, who dropped a number of well-thrown balls, deserve some of the blame there. The defense, however, was as good as advertised, allowing the Broncos just 11 yards rushing. You can still go places doing just that, which the Spartans, again, look like they might have to do.

8. INDIANA (LW: 8) — The Hoosiers scored 73 points and put up 632 yards but also gave up 35 points to FCS foe Indiana State. It’s possible that I’ll just copy and paste that text and swap out the stats and team names until I see something different from Indiana. It’s still an explosive offense paired with a barely-there defense and until that changes, the Hoosiers could win any of its remaining games and it could just easily lose all of them. You just don’t know with these guys.

9. IOWA (LW: 10) — Point and laugh at the Hawkeyes all you want for losing at home to a MAC school, the fact is that Iowa — with the possible exception of Penn State — played the toughest opening week opponent of any team in the conference. Northern Illinois is going to win at least 10 games this year and will probably be favored on the road over Purdue in a couple of weeks. The real story here is the Hawkeyes’ offense which put up more yards (458) than it did in any game last year. The game was lost when sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock, in his first start, did something quarterbacks in their first start tend to do — make one ill-advised throw. His fourth quarter interception set up the Huskies’ game-winning field goal but outside of that Iowa’s offense looked better under Rudock.

10. MINNESOTA (LW: 9) — The Gophers beat UNLV by 28-points in their season opener, but it wasn’t nearly as good as it looked. Minnesota scored on a kickoff return, a blocked field goal and an interception to blur the reality of what was a 16-13 game at the half. The Rebels out-yarded Minnesota by 99 yards on the night, which doesn’t bode well for the Gophers going forward.

11. ILLINOIS (LW: 12) — We know this much: Bill Cubit’s new pass-first attack works against FCS competition. The new offensive coordinator was brought in to give the Illini offense some punch and senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a career passing day, throwing for 416 yards and two touchdowns. But you can’t ignore that Illinois rushed for 49 yards on 30 carries, allowed the Salukis to put up 407 yards of their own and was two plays away from having to win this game in overtime.

12. PURDUE (LW: 11) — Nine of the Boilermakers’ 11 drives in their 42-7 loss to Cincinnati, excluding end of the half kneel downs, lasted less than five plays. There’s not much more to say other than that, but suddenly Illinois’ season looks one game brighter.

WEEKLY PICKS (Last Week: 10-2)

San Diego State at OHIO STATE — Ummm, the Aztecs lost at home to Eastern Illinois last week.

Tennessee Tech at WISCONSIN — The Badgers’ new red helmets will be the most interesting thing about this game.

Notre Dame at MICHIGAN — This one will be tight, but the crowd in the Big House will be in rare form (i.e. loud).

Syracuse at NORTHWESTERN — The Orange is still finding its identity under new coach Scott Shafer. Northwestern has one after a tough road win at Cal.

Southern Miss at NEBRASKA — I expect the Golden Eagles to move the ball but without a mobile quarterback Nebraska should look slightly better in week two.

Eastern Michigan at PENN STATE — Hackenberg’s confidence grows in this easy tune-up.

South Florida at MICHIGAN STATE — This might be just the team to quiet the calls for a new offense at MSU. At least for a week.

Navy at INDIANA — There will be plenty of yards to go around in this game, but the Hoosiers’ pace becomes too much to handle.

Missouri State at IOWA — Nothing to see here. At least there shouldn’t be.

Minnesota at NEW MEXICO STATE — No big deal, just a quick trip out to the desert to repay the Aggies for visiting two years ago, wait what?

CINCINNATI at Illinois — Can the Illini do what Purdue didn’t? I suspect they’ll at least show up, but the Bearcats win a close one.

Indiana State at PURDUE — The real question here is how many people show up for Darrell Hazell’s home debut.

THIS WEEK’S POWER RANKIN’ SOUNDTRACK: “Southeastern” by Jason Isbell. It sure is a pretty album.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Which is more unlikely: giving up 35 first downs and winning or going 1-for-16 on third down and winning? Nebraska did the former, Penn State the latter in week one.