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.
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.
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.