It all comes down to this.
Stakes don't much higher than the ones on the line in Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game. Undefeated Iowa faces one-loss Michigan State. The winner wins a conference title and goes to the College Football Playoff (in all likelihood). The loser does neither.
Both teams have turned in great seasons and are riding terrific hot streaks. The Hawkeyes obviously haven't lost since January, while the Spartans have turned in back-to-back great games to beat Ohio State and Penn State.
These two are firing on all cylinders. Throw in the highest of stakes, and Saturday night ought to be a real fun one in Indy.
Here are this week's Big Ten power rankings:
1. Iowa Hawkeyes (12-0, 8-0)
Last week: 1
The Hawkeyes are still undefeated and a win away from a spot in the College Football Playoff. Unsurprisingly, it was defense and a strong rushing attack that got it done for Iowa in win No. 12 against Nebraska, as the Hawkeyes intercepted Tommy Armstrong four times and got two long touchdown runs from Jordan Canzeri. That kind of play will need to happen again if Iowa wants to shut down red-hot Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game this weekend.
2. Michigan State Spartans (11-1, 7-1)
Last week: 2
From dead in the water to one of the hottest teams in the conference, the Spartans followed up their defensive clampdown on Ohio State with an absolute mauling of Penn State, dropping 55 points in a game that saw back-to-back touchdowns by defensive tackle Malik McDowell and center Jack Allen. Yeah, that kind of beatdown. One more win over Iowa could not just mean a spot in the College Football Playoff, it could mean the Playoff’s No. 1 seed.
[MORE BIG TEN: Could Spartans earn No. 1 seed in College Football Playoff?]
3. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-1, 7-1)
Last week: 3
After looking absolutely terrible against Michigan State, the Buckeyes exploded for a crushing of rival Michigan. Ezekiel Elliott had 214 yards and two touchdowns. J.T. Barrett went for 252 total yards and four total touchdowns. The defense held the Wolverines to 13 points. It was a championship-level performance, but one that came a little too late. Ohio State might still have an outside chance of making the Playoff, but the Buckeyes should’ve played like this a week before.
4. Northwestern Wildcats (10-2, 6-2)
Last week: 5
For just the fourth time in program history, Northwestern is a 10-game winner, a feat secured with a win over Illinois to close the regular season. Pat Fitzgerald’s campaign for a New Year’s Six bowl game might not bear fruit, but he’s right in suggesting the committee needs to consider the Cats and respect their resume, as well as their style of play. This defense has been so terrific this season, it deserves every bit of praise it can get.
[MORE BIG TEN: Fitz wants committee to respect Northwestern's resume, identity]
5. Michigan Wolverines (9-3, 6-2)
Last week: 4
No doubt about it, the Wolverines were absolutely stomped in Jim Harbaugh’s first The Game as head coach. It was easily Michigan’s worst game of the season. But it’s generally been a very good Year 1 for Harbaugh & Co. A year after not qualifying for a bowl game, Michigan will be back in one of the Big Ten’s better postseason contests. Heck of a rapid turnaround with pretty much all the same guys who were a part of that five-win finish a year ago.
6. Wisconsin Badgers (9-3, 6-2)
Last week: 6
We never really got to find out exactly how good these Badgers were this season. They played three teams that will end up in the top 15 — Alabama, Iowa, Northwestern — and lost to all of them. Everyone else they played was pretty weak, and they beat all of them. Wisconsin has now won at least nine games in all but two seasons dating back to 2004. Had Corey Clement been healthy, it could’ve been double-digit wins. He should be back next year, so get ready.
7. Penn State Nittany Lions (7-5, 4-4)
Last week: 7
It wasn’t a pretty end to the season for the Lions, mashed by Michigan State in the regular-season finale to round out a season-ending three-game losing streak. Though Penn State is going bowling, there were a lot of red flags this year, as only one of those seven wins came against a team that finished above .500 (San Diego State). The Lions ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in nearly every offensive category, costing offensive coordinator John Donovan his job Sunday.
[MORE BIG TEN: Purdue fires both coordinators; Penn State OC gone, too]
8. Indiana Hoosiers (6-6, 2-6)
Last week: 10
A great accomplishment for the Hoosiers to reach their first bowl game since 2007, second since 1993 and the first of the Kevin Wilson Era. As has been the case the past few years, the Indiana offense makes it able to compete with anybody, but the Indiana defense is a huge liability. That was evidenced again against Purdue. The Hoosiers scored 54 points but allowed 36 to the basement-dwelling Boilermakers. But Indiana’s in a bowl game. That’s huge.
9. Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-7, 3-5)
Last week: 8
Mike Riley’s first season at Nebraska was a pretty big failure. There’s really no arguing that point. The Huskers fired a perennial nine-game winner, replaced him with someone who had limited success at his last stop and then that guy went on to have limited success in Lincoln. It’s not that black and white, of course, as Bo Pelini’s culture was a big reason he got the boot and Riley’s team lost a ton of close games this season. But next year is going to be a big deal for Riley.
10. Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-7, 2-6)
Last week: 9
Jerry Kill’s abrupt retirement will be the lasting memory of this season, one where the Gophers underachieved, if you’re of the opinion they were supposed to keep moving up the Big Ten ranks after back-to-back eight-win campaigns. The offense again sputtered — so badly that Minnesota was one of the worst scoring teams in the country the first half of the season — and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was fired because of it Sunday.
11. Illinois Fighting Illini (5-7, 2-6)
Last week: 12
Bill Cubit did a pretty good job to win five games under trying circumstances, handed the interim coaching job a week before the season started. Now he’s the permanent head coach, and he’ll bring a positive attitude and visible passion to the gig. But will he do any better when it comes to winning games? His charge, the offense, struggled mightily this season, and the Illini didn’t play well against quality competition. Plus, just a two-year contract could hamper recruiting.
[MORE BIG TEN: It might not last long, but future is set for Bill Cubit, Illini]
12. Purdue Boilermakers (2-10, 1-7)
Last week: 13
It was another nasty season for Purdue, the second in three seasons under Darrell Hazell to end with double-digit losses. All in all, three Hazell seasons have yielded a 6-30 record and a 2-22 mark in Big Ten play. Hazell let both coordinators go Sunday after a season-ending loss to Indiana, but how much will that really change things?
13. Maryland Terrapins (3-9, 1-7)
Last week: 14
Terps fans couldn’t wait for this season to end, even though it ended in pretty fun fashion with a big comeback to beat Rutgers. Maryland is and surely has been fully focused on finding a new head coach, and that ought to at least bring a positive buzz to a program that looked miserable on both sides of the ball this year.
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (4-8, 1-7)
Last week: 11
Kyle Flood lost his job after turning in just the first sub-.500 regular-season finish of his four-year tenure at Rutgers, but it was all the off-field headlines that did in both Flood and athletics director Julie Hermann. Flood’s attempt to secretly influence the grade of one his players — a player who was then among five arrested and kicked off the team — was the biggest off-field issue for the Knights this season, one where the play on the field wasn’t much better.