The Big Ten boasts the two top teams in the AP rankings, but which of those two teams is better?
The AP voters say Ohio State, but I’m not so sure. Michigan State certainly has the better resume in 2015, with that big win over Oregon accompanied by two other victories in which the Spartan offense looked stellar. Ohio State, meanwhile, still has the talent to repeat as national champion but is coming off a concerning win over Northern Illinois in which the Buckeye defense was terrific but the Buckeye offense was ghastly.
Both teams, though not without their flaws, look capable of contending for a national title. If both teams keep winning ahead of their late-November matchup in Columbus, this will be the hottest debate in college football this season.
For now, though, there’s a change at the top of the Big Ten Power Rankings:
1. Michigan State Spartans (3-0, 0-0)
Last week: 2
I’m not ready to count Ohio State out of the College Football Playoff just yet, but through three games this season, Michigan State is the team that deserves this top spot right now. The Spartans are the team with the top-10 win on its resume. The Spartans are the team throwing touchdown pass after touchdown pass against weak competition, what it should be doing. The latest display was a 35-21 win over Air Force in which Connor Cook matched a career-high with four touchdown tosses, three of which were hauled in by Aaron Burbridge, who’s quickly establishing his star status. Not everything is rainbows in East Lansing. Defensive back Vayante Copeland is out for the season, unfortunately joining Ed Davis as a defensive starter lost for the year. And that defense, while good, has not exactly snuffed out every opponent, allowing an average of more than 24 points per game and at least 21 points a game in all three games. It’s a razor-thin margin between the Spartans and Buckeyes. But right this second, the Spartans just deserve it more.
[MORE BIG TEN: Aaron Burbridge scores three TDs as Spartans best Air Force]
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (3-0, 0-0)
Last week: 1
There’s no doubt that the Buckeyes have some issues right now. Still the No. 1 team in the country, a shaky 20-13 win over Northern Illinois does an awful lot to ding the confidence of many that Ohio State is an unstoppable juggernaut. Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett turned in a pair of poor performances, and the offense as a whole was unable to do much of anything, turning the ball over five times. But while all the talk this week will surely be of how the Buckeyes are in disarray, recognize that that only applies to one side of the ball. The Ohio State defense played exceptionally well against Northern Illinois, intercepting two passes, holding the Huskies under 200 total yards and coming up with the game’s biggest play: Darron Lee’s 41-yard interception-return touchdown that proved to be the difference in the game. As bad as the Buckeyes’ offense was, the defense was that good. So while there’s plenty of reason to be shocked over what happened Saturday, the long-term outlook is still, for the time being, pretty good.
3. Northwestern Wildcats (3-0, 0-0)
Last week: 3
Northwestern has the best defense in the country. That’s the truth, and it was showcased again this weekend in another gigantic non-conference victory, this one over Duke in Northwestern’s first road game of the season. Despite an offense stuck in the mud, the Cats’ defense was simply remarkable, coming up with three takeaways and holding the Blue Devils to just 10 points. The touchdown-less streak is over, but even that score can be excused, coming on an incredibly short field after a Clayton Thorson interception. Anthony Walker was again amazing, probably the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year after three games. He recorded 19 tackles against Duke. Dean Lowry had a terrific tipped interception. Godwin Igwebuike had a strip and recovery of his own forced fumble. There’s no better defense right now. And even the special teams got in on the fun, with Solomon Vault returning the opening kickoff of the second half for the go-ahead touchdown. The Cats have allowed just 16 points and one touchdown through three games. It’s why they’re currently the best team in the Big Ten West.
[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern stays perfect with big non-conference win over Duke]
4. Iowa Hawkeyes (3-0, 0-0)
Last week: 4
Wins don’t get more fun than the one Iowa had Saturday. After a go-ahead touchdown drive, Pitt responded with its own game-tying score with under a minute to play. But C.J. Beathard got the Hawkeyes to the Pitt 39-yard line, and Marshall Koehn hit a booming 57-yard field goal for a walk-off win. What a game, what a finish and what a kick. It’s another great win for Iowa, which is experiencing a complete 180 from last season. A lot of that can be attributed to Kirk Ferentz’s quarterback switch, picking Beathard over Jake Rudock (now at Michigan). Beathard, in three games, has completed 64 percent of his passes for 684 yards and four touchdowns and has ran in for an additional three touchdowns on the ground. He passed for a season-high 258 yards Saturday. But credit others, too, such as Jordan Canzeri, who ran for two touchdowns, and the Iowa defense, which held Pitt to just 55 rushing yards. Oh, and credit Koehn and his super-human leg.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-1, 0-0)
Last week: 5
While Minnesota’s offense is enough to drive any football fan completely insane, the Gophers’ defense has been pretty sensational. A 10-7 win over Kent State should be enough to drop this team — certainly a “worse” win than what the Buckeyes did — but the Gophers’ defense was good enough Saturday and was good enough in games against TCU and Colorado State to keep the 2-1 Gophers in this spot. I mean, Kent State managed just 142 yards against this Minnesota defense, a defense that wasn’t even on the field when Kent State got its lone touchdown on an 80-yard fumble return. That fluke TD only looms so large because the Gophers’ offense has been so inept through three games and because it was particularly inept Saturday, scoring just 10 points against a defense that Illinois scored 52 points against just two weeks earlier. Jerry Kill admitted he has no magical answer to fix the offense but that he has to find one. Yeah, he does, otherwise Minnesota isn’t going to be taking that next step this season.
[MORE BIG TEN: After ugly win, Gophers still looking for answers on offense]
6. Wisconsin Badgers (2-1, 0-0)
Last week: 6
Wisconsin has followed up an upsetting season-opening loss to Alabama with back-to-back easy wins over Miami (Ohio) and Troy, winning those games by a combined 86-3 margin. Joel Stave continues to be great, another 200-yard day on Saturday. And the Badgers’ running game managed 199 yards while once again without Corey Clement. The defense was strong against a weak opponent. There still seems to be much to learn about this team, though. The Badgers have beat up on teams they should have beat up on, but they were crushed by the Tide. Can Wisconsin still storm through a Big Ten schedule? How does it compare to Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota? Those are difficult questions to answer considering the schedule thus far, and next week’s game against Hawaii shouldn’t be much help in figuring that out. The Badgers open Big Ten play with the Hawkeyes and Huskers, two games that should give us a far better indication of what these guys are actually like.
[MORE BIG TEN: Who's the quarterback? Buckeyes don't seem to know]
7. Michigan Wolverines (2-1, 0-0)
Last week: 9
Crushing UNLV was to be expected. But what has been surprising from these Wolverines has been the rushing attack, which seems to be completely reborn under Jim Harbaugh. That could be a result of facing Oregon State and UNLV in back-to-back weeks, but any sort of rushing success is reason for celebration after how the past few seasons have gone on the ground in Ann Arbor. Saturday, the team totaled 254 rush yards, led by the 114 of USC transfer Ty Isaac, most of which came on a 76-yard touchdown run, the longest rush by a Michigan running back since 2009. Offensive line struggles and talent not living up to expectations in the backfield have made Michigan’s run game almost non-existent in the recent past. But if the Wolverines can do this against Big Ten opponents on a regular basis, then look out.
[MORE BIG TEN: Ty Isaac breaks off 76-yard TD run as Michigan thumps UNLV]
8. Penn State NIttany Lions (2-1, 1-0)
Last week: 10
That loss to Temple might have just been a fluke. That is, if Saquon Barkley has anything to say about it. Forget about Christian Hackenberg and how NFL scouts like his tools. Barkley is producing actual results at Penn State right now, and in two games the true freshman has already elevated himself to be the Lions’ best offensive player. He got 21 carries Saturday in a rout of Rutgers, going for 195 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In the last two games, he’s totaled 310 yards and three touchdowns. Keep giving him the ball because it’s working, providing a big-time spark to a Penn State offense that just two weeks ago couldn’t do a thing against Temple. Maybe Buffalo and Rutgers have provided the competition to have such success, but Hackenberg has been lackluster against those defenses, too.
[MORE BIG TEN: Rise of Saquon Barkley continues as Penn State blasts Rutgers]
9. Indiana Hoosiers (3-0, 0-0)
Last week: 10
Indiana deserves a lot of credit for being undefeated to this point, but it doesn’t really seem like a sustainable success, what with the Hoosiers routinely competing in shootouts and winning those games simply by out-gunning the opponents. That’s worked against Southern Illinois, Florida International and now Western Kentucky — but it’s barely worked. Games against SIU and WKU were won by a combined four points. Kudos to the Indiana defense, though, which was thrashed by Southern Illinois, for having a better day against a very good Western Kentucky offense. But allowing 400 passing yards and 500 offensive yards a week doesn’t seem like a winning strategy in the long run. Especially with Ohio State and Michigan State on the schedule. We’ll see.
[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern jumps up to No. 17 in AP poll]
10. Nebraska Cornhuskers (1-2, 0-0)
Last week: 8
After what could be described as a fluke loss to a very good BYU team with that Hail Mary finish and a rout of South Alabama, Nebraska was beaten pretty bad by Miami … or was it? The Huskers were down 33-10 five minutes into the fourth quarter. But then came a ludicrous comeback, with Nebraska scoring three touchdowns in the final eight and a half minutes to send the game to overtime, where it lost on a field goal after throwing an interception on the extra period’s first play. So what can you say about this game? It was a terrific comeback, though kind of embarrassing to be in such a hole in the first place. Certainly outside of nine minutes, Nebraska was dominated. But those nine minutes count, too. A big measurable problem is the defense’s continued woes. It allowed 511 yards of offense to Miami, and that side of the ball can’t seem to allow the playmakers on offense enough room to do what they do. Fix the defense, and you’ll fix this Nebraska team.
[MORE BIG TEN: Spartans' Aaron Burbridge the frontrunner for catch of the year]
11. Illinois Fighting Illini (2-1, 0-0)
Last week: 7
Well, we wanted to find out what the Illini were really like. We never said the answer was going to make everyone happy. Illinois was absolutely throttled Saturday, crushed in a 48-14 loss at North Carolina. The torching was absolutely the opposite of Week 1 and 2 wins over Kent State and Western Illinois, illustrating that Illinois clearly benefitted from the weak competition. Saturday, the defense didn’t look anywhere near the dominant unit it was during those two wins, allowing North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams to pass for 203 yards and three touchdowns and rush for an additional 105 yards. The Illini passing game couldn’t do much of anything, dropped passes plaguing the attack as Wes Lunt passed for just 140 yards and threw an interception. And as the game went on, things got worse as the defense tired, with the Tar Heels scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns — including on an 85-yard punt return — in a five and a half minute span. Middle Tennessee State might provide a reprieve in Week 4.
[MORE BIG TEN: Illini fail first true test, crushed by North Carolina]
12. Maryland Terrapins (2-1, 0-0)
Last week: 14
For all the uproar over Caleb Rowe’s trio of interceptions Saturday — and it was deserved — the new No. 1 quarterback also led Maryland to a sizable win over USF and threw four touchdown passes in the process. That surely doesn’t excuse all those turnovers, but it’s not all gloom and doom for Rowe and the Terps. Perhaps against a better team than the visiting Bulls, those three picks would’ve buried the Terps. But Saturday, Rowe had a pretty good day in spite of those turnovers. He guided an offense that seemed to function far better than it did under Perry Hills, and the nearly 300 passing yards are a good indication of that, as are the terrific receiving contributions Levern and Taivon Jacobs, the two brothers having big days against USF. Things get much tougher with West Virginia, where those interceptions could actually be the difference.
[MORE BIG TEN: Touchdowns and turnovers: Mixed bag for Caleb Rowe in Terps' win]
13. Purdue Boilermakers (1-2, 0-0)
Last week: 11
So much for that Purdue winning streak. The Boilermakers brief moment of victory against an FCS opponent was quickly forgotten thanks to a Week 3 thrashing at the hands of Virginia Tech, the Hokies routing the Boilers by a 51-24 score. Austin Appleby struggled a week after throwing four touchdown passes against Indiana State, completing just nine passes and throwing a pair of interceptions to bring his season total to six picks in three games. Purdue was out-gained, 471-265. That’s a bad sign for this defense heading into a Week 4 game against Bowling Green, which has one of the hottest offenses in the country right now. The Falcons have scored 119 points in three games, and quarterback Matt Johnson has thrown for 1,358 yards and 12 touchdowns. That includes a 48-27 pounding of Big Ten team Maryland. It’s not looking promising for Purdue in Week 4.
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1-2, 0-1)
Last week: 13
Speaking of not looking promising, the off-field madness now matches the on-field ineptitude in Piscataway. The Knights were plastered, 28-3, in the Big Ten’s opening game of conference play, unable to do a thing against the Penn State defense. Now, the Lions’ defense is a good one, and struggling there wouldn’t have been that bad if not for defensive struggles as well, the Knights allowing Penn State to gain 471 yards of total offense, including 330 on the ground. Meanwhile, Rutgers couldn’t run at all, gaining just 43 rushing yards. Chris Laviano threw two picks and the Knights lost a fumble in the first game of Kyle Flood’s three-game suspension. From off-field issues to on-field struggles, nothing’s going right at Rutgers.