Big Ten

Football's best conference? Big wins help Big Ten make big statement

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Football's best conference? Big wins help Big Ten make big statement

Each season — and especially since the advent of the College Football Playoff — the non-conference portion of the schedule serves as an opportunity for teams and conferences to make a statement.

Well, consider the Big Ten’s statement made: It’s contenders can go toe-to-toe with and beat the contenders from any other conference in the country.

It’s a small sample size, sure, but the Big Ten passed all four of its major non-conference tests with flying colors this month, three huge wins over ranked teams Saturday teaming nicely with that season-opening win for Wisconsin over LSU to form quite the resume that any other conference has to be jealous of at this point in the season.

In past years — cough, cough, 2014, cough, cough — we’ve seen the supposedly adverse effects that lack of non-conference success can have on the nationwide perception of a league. When Ohio State fell to Virginia Tech, Michigan State fell to Oregon and Michigan fell to Notre Dame, the sky appeared to be falling, and only the Buckeyes turning into the country’s best team by season’s end changed the view of the conference.

So you see how hard that perception is to change. This season, the Big Ten could certainly benefit from a longstanding positive perception thanks to what it did Saturday night.

Let’s start with Ohio State, which looked once more like one of the best teams around with a 45-24 road beatdown of Oklahoma. The Sooners’ season-opening loss to Houston knocked a little bit of the glisten off this game coming in — it was supposed to be a matchup of Playoff contenders and still was, but not as flashy a game as it could’ve been — but the Buckeyes treated them like they were just another team.

Ohio State’s offense was incredible. Redshirt freshman receiver Noah Brown catching four touchdown passes, including one that might not be topped as the best highlight-reel snag of the season. Redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber had a huge game, rushing for 123 yards. And J.T. Barrett made everything look easy.

But that would be burying the lede a little on the Ohio State defense, which despite needing to replace a host of top players who departed for the NFL is playing on another level. Oklahoma’s two offensive touchdowns were the first let up this season by the group known affectionately as the “Silver Bullets.” Of course the Buckeyes got another pick six, their fourth of the season in just three games, and two interceptions brought their nation-leading total up to nine.

Certainly there are teams in the country with better resumes than Ohio State right now. But if the Buckeyes keep playing like this, it’ll be surprising to see a better team by season’s end. Seriously, they’ve been that good.

But Ohio State wasn’t the only one. Fellow Big Ten East Division power Michigan State scored the conference’s other huge road win Saturday, topping Notre Dame in South Bend. The Spartans looked dominant at times, bouncing out of an early 7-0 hole with 36 straight points in the second and third quarters. The offense shone with both grind-it-out drives and home run balls, and for the middle chunk of the game, the Michigan State defense completely shut down an offense led by one of the best quarterbacks in the country, forcing four punts, three turnovers and the end of the first half on eight consecutive drives.

It wasn’t perfect, with Notre Dame scoring touchdowns on three straight drives to make it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. But Mark Dantonio won yet another big game, and — if for some reason they weren’t there already after all they’ve done in the past few seasons — the Spartans established themselves as one of the country’s main Playoff contenders.

And then there’s Nebraska, which last season seemed so far from contention in Mike Riley’s first year. The Huskers welcomed the Oregon Ducks to Lincoln for a huge showdown, and the Huskers walked away the victors. Tommy Armstrong was terrific with four total touchdowns, including a mighty clutch go-ahead score on a 34-yard scamper late in the fourth quarter. The Ducks helped seal their own fate with four failed two-point conversion attempts, but give the Huskers the credit they deserve, vaulting themselves back into the spotlight that’s typically reserved for the sport’s biggest programs and in the process making themselves as much a contender as any other team in a now wide-open Big Ten West.

In college football, there are never any absolutes. And Week 3 — and the non-conference schedule in general — had some dark moments for the Big Ten.

Iowa’s loss Saturday to FCS power North Dakota State certainly wasn’t the monumental upset those who haven’t been paying attention made it out to be. The Bison have five straight FCS national titles and now five straight wins over teams from Power Five conferences. But for a team with Playoff aspirations, that was a game it couldn’t lose. The Hawkeyes aren’t knocked out yet by any means, but after reaping the benefits of a 12-0 regular-season record last season, the margin for error gets smaller now with a loss.

And the state of Illinois had a tough non-conference slate, with Illinois and Northwestern combining to post a 2-4 record. The Illini were hammered by Western Michigan on Saturday, gaining just three rushing yards to fall in back-to-back weeks after a 25-point beating from North Carolina — both those games coming in Champaign. And while the Wildcats’ win Saturday over Duke gave the conference another victory in Power Five vs. Power Five football, it comes on the heels of two brutal season-opening losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State.

But the three big games Saturday, along with Wisconsin’s still-so-impressive Week 1 win over a then-fifth-ranked LSU team boasting one of the most dangerous running backs in the country, have turned September into a glorious month for the Big Ten, particularly its teams at the top. (We haven’t even talked about Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines, 3-0 with a high ranking after beating Colorado in comeback fashion Saturday, outscoring the Buffs, 38-7, after the first quarter.) With the College Football Playoff selection committee already paying very close attention to what’s going on — even though an awful lot can and will change between now and when the first batch of rankings are released in November — the Big Ten’s big wins should cast the league in a very flattering light moving forward.

And moving forward, more colossal matchups await. Wisconsin and Michigan State play next weekend in East Lansing in a battle of what will surely be two top-10 teams. The following weekend, Michigan plays host to Wisconsin (another potential top-10 showdown). And then come the East headliners later in the fall with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan all battling one another for a ticket to the conference title game in Indianapolis.

But with most of the teams in the Big Ten completing their non-conference slates this weekend, the statement has been made. This might just be the best conference in the country.

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.