Big Ten

Big Ten Power Rankings: Cats, Hawkeyes are West's best

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Big Ten Power Rankings: Cats, Hawkeyes are West's best

After the season’s first full week of conference play, one thing is clear: The Big Ten West race ought to be a real fun one.

Northwestern, Iowa and even Illinois scored real impressive wins, with Wisconsin looking impressive in defeat. Meanwhile, teams previously thought to be contenders — Minnesota and Nebraska — look to be a complete shambles.

The Wildcats and the Hawkeyes, both undefeated, appear to be the class of the division, and it’s a wonder how far away they are from being grouped in the class of the conference with Ohio State and Michigan State, two teams which narrowly avoided defeat against Indiana and Purdue, respectively.

With intrigue at the top, take a look at how this week’s power rankings shake out.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0)

Last week: 2

The Buckeyes are back on top, not for finally finding their dominance but for defeating an undefeated team behind a Heisman-quality performance from Ezekiel Elliott. Holding off Indiana by a touchdown by stopping a last-second fourth-and-goal isn’t exactly the blowout we expected when seeing this matchup on the schedule in the preseason. But a previously believed lost offense has scored 72 points in the last two games, and Elliott rushed for a career-high 274 yards and three touchdowns. Ohio State might not be mowing down the competition on a weekly basis, but it’s still looking like a College Football Playoff contender.

[MORE BIG TEN: Hoosiers keep it close, but behind Ezekiel Elliott, Buckeyes survive]

2. Northwestern Wildcats (5-0, 1-0)

Last week: 3

Speaking of a College Football Playoff contender, it might be a bit early to start talking about the Cats in the sport’s final four. But if the season ended today, certainly they’d deserve as much consideration as anyone else. Northwestern has the nation’s best defense, limiting opponents to a stunning seven points a game. And to follow up huge non-conference wins over Stanford (now No. 16) and Duke (just outside the top 25), Northwestern crushed Minnesota, 27-0, in the Big Ten opener. Defensive touchdowns, takeaways aplenty and one 100-yard day after another for running back Justin Jackson. The Cats are on fire.

3. Michigan State Spartans (5-0, 1-0)

Last week: 1

Sparty is still undefeated and is in no way eliminated from College Football Playoff contention. But ever since that monumental Week 2 win over Oregon, Michigan State has looked anything but one of the nation’s best teams. Most recently, the Spartans survived a threat from Big Ten bottom-feeder Purdue in the conference opener. Leading, 21-0, at the half, the Spartans needed to sweat out a 24-21 win over the Boilermakers — in East Lansing, mind you — to keep their record perfect. While the Michigan State running backs continue to impress, a banged-up defense and a quarterback not playing up to his supposed eliteness are reasons for concern.

[MORE BIG TEN: Spartans down to No. 4, Northwestern up to No. 13 in AP poll]

4. Iowa Hawkeyes (5-0, 1-0)

Last week: 4

Iowa might have scored just 10 points and only won by four to move to 5-0, but none of that stopped the Hawkeyes from continuing to look mighty impressive. C.J. Beathard has Iowa looking like a completely different team than it’s been the past few years. Sunday’s top-25 ranking is the Hawkeyes’ first since 2010. Drew Ott and Desmond King led an amazing defensive effort Saturday, keeping Wisconsin out of the end zone and forcing Joel Stave turnovers. Oh, and did I mention this big win came at Camp Randall Stadium? We knew the offense was good after four weeks. Week 5 taught us the defense can ball, too.

5. Michigan Wolverines (4-1, 1-0)

Last week: 5

And while on the subject of defense, there are few better in the country than the one doing terrific things for Michigan. The Wolverines have now held opponents scoreless for eight straight quarters thanks to a second straight shutout win, this one a 28-0 dismantling of Maryland following that impressive 31-0 blanking of BYU. Even without De’Veon Smith, the Michigan offense came to life in the second half after a shaky start, while the defense kept the Terps from doing a thing. Many of those left unimpressed with Ohio State and Michigan State are calling Michigan a new Big East favorite, and with the way the defense has played, it’s hard to argue.

[MORE BIG TEN: Michigan blanks Terps for second straight shutout win]

6. Wisconsin Badgers (3-2, 0-1)

Last week: 6

Despite the Badgers’ 10-6 loss to the Hawkeyes in a game they could have won if they hadn’t kept turning the ball over, Wisconsin exited Saturday’s loss still looking pretty good. The Badgers’ defense is the thing that warranted the most praise in the three games since the season-opening loss to Alabama, and Saturday’s performance was no different. Iowa hit the end zone just once and didn’t score a point in the second half. Wisconsin ranks fourth in the country in scoring defense (9.6 points per game) and just outside the top 10 in total defense (278 yards a game). If defense is to be the name of the game in the Big Ten, the Badgers remain a contender.

7. Penn State Nittany Lions (4-1, 1-0)

Last week: 9

There’s again some cause for concern in Happy valley with how Saturday’s win over Army ended. A fourth-quarter Army touchdown brought the game to a one-score differential and kept Penn State sweating from there. Thankfully, the Lions still came away with the win, but they were out-gained by the Knights. Now, Penn State wasn’t at full strength, missing its two top running backs. But again, Christian Hackenberg was aggressively mediocre: 10-for-19 for 156 yards and a touchdown. The Lions have really yet to face a good team. The defense should be well tested against Indiana before an Oct. 17 trip to Columbus to play Ohio State.

[MORE BIG TEN: Hawkeyes stay perfect with huge road win over Badgers]

8. Indiana Hoosiers (4-1, 0-1)

Last week: 7

The Hoosiers deserved credit for their 4-0 start, but that credit goes way up after almost beating the Buckeyes on Saturday — and almost beating the Buckeyes without their two best players. Yes, both quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard left the game with injuries, and behind backup running back Devine Redding and backup quarterback Zander Diamond — who combined for 143 rushing yards and three touchdowns — the Hoosiers had goal to go with a chance to tie the game in the final minute. A heck of an impressive performance for a team that remains just two wins away from its first bowl trip since 2007 and second since 1993.

9. Illinois Fighting Illini (4-1, 1-0)

Last week: 11

Also just two wins away from a bowl trip are the Illini, who stunned Nebraska with a game-winning touchdown with 10 seconds remaining in Saturday’s game. The Illini offense was pretty atrocious throughout the game and without a doubt benefitted from some odd play-calling on the opposing sideline. But the Illinois defense has been a revelation, playing incredible on Saturday to limit Big Ten leading passer Tommy Armstrong to just 105 yards and a pick. And really, it’s played well all year outside of the North Carolina loss, ranking in the top 25 in the country in both total defense and scoring defense. In a division dominated by defense, the Illini are in the thick of things.

[MORE BIG TEN: It's how you finish: Illini come back in final seconds to stun Huskers]

10. Purdue Boilermakers (1-4, 0-1)

Last week: 12

Purdue has just one win, but it deserves a real pat on the back for Saturday’s performance, coming back from down three touchdowns to nearly upend Michigan State in a 24-21 loss. While the record will ultimately hold the most importance, it sure seems like the Boilers are on to something with David Blough at quarterback, as the freshman threw another touchdown pass. But there’s a potential emerging star at running back, too, as Markell Jones went for 157 yards and two touchdowns against the Spartans’ defense. Purdue has only been good enough to win once this season, but a narrow loss to a top-five team is as good as the moral victories get.

11. Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-3, 0-1)

Last week: 10

The Huskers look to be in some serious disarray, as some more glaring issues caused another shocker of a loss Saturday. This time, some strange play-calling decisions conserved just enough clock for Illinois to go on a final-minute, game-winning touchdown drive. The last-second loss to the Illini follows the Huskers’ losses to BYU (Hail Mary) and Miami (overtime) that have come in the game’s waning moments. But as flukey as they might seem, poor coaching decisions, poor play from the defense and costly turnovers have contributed mightily to the unlikely defeats. Nine wins weren’t enough for Bo Pelini to keep his job, but will Mike Riley even get to nine victories?

[MORE BIG TEN: Another stunning loss: Why does this keep happening to Huskers?]

12. Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-2, 0-1)

Last week: 8

Once believed to be a serious contender for a Big Ten West title, the Gophers look simply awful right now — and that’s despite a 3-2 record with losses coming against the Nos. 2 and 13 teams in the country. But the Minnesota offense just can’t get anything going right now, ranking 126th out of 127 FBS teams in scoring offense with just 15.4 points a game. Yes, Saturday’s 27-0 destruction came at the hands of a Northwestern team with the best defense in the country, but that doesn’t change what happened against Colorado State and Kent State. The Gophers’ defense is good, though not as elite as others in the Big Ten.

13. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1)

Last week: 13

Rutgers benefitted from a bye week, much needed as a brutal schedule awaits for a team that’s been plagued by negative headlines off the field and poor play on it. Up next is Michigan State, followed by Indiana and the Hoosiers’ explosive offense, No. 1 Ohio State and road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin. Good luck. And without its best players on both sides of the ball — defensive lineman Darius Hamilton is out for the year and wide receiver Leonte Carroo remains indefinitely suspended — how can the Knights compete with those teams?

[MORE BIG TEN: Grown-up Illini defense shines in powering comeback win]

14. Maryland Terrapins (2-3, 0-1)

Last week: 14

It doesn’t seem like the Terps can play worse right now. In back-to-back losses to West Virginia and Michigan, Maryland has been outscored, 73-6. Saturday’s loss to Michigan was a 28-0 blanking that actually saw the Maryland defense come to play for about a half until the Wolverines sprung to life after the break. The defense is allowing one avalanche of points after another, ranking 95th in the country in scoring defense. But offense is where the attention is for equal ineffectiveness. Quarterback Caleb Rowe threw three more picks this week to bring his season total to 12, and Randy Edsall doesn’t have an answer on who will be the starter going forward.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.