Monday, September 24, 2012
Big Ten power rankings: Week 5
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
It was another rough Saturday around most of the Big Ten, and as a result, there's a lot of shuffling in the power rankings. Ohio State remains at the top, mainly because it hasn't lost a game, while Nebraska moves into the No. 2 hole. The high-powered Huskers could be the Big Ten's best team, although they've yet to prove it against quality competition. The Michigan schools both take a tumble, and while Michigan State won Saturday, we're not impressed with the Spartans right now. There's very little separating teams 3-6, and we expect more movement in the coming weeks.
Illinois and Iowa both imploded Saturday, and both teams pay the price this week.
Let's get to it …
1. Ohio State (4-0, last week: 1): Someone needs to be at the top of this weak conference, and the Buckeyes continue to win, albeit in unimpressive fashion. Ohio State overcame special-teams breakdowns, penalties and some more shaky defense to beat UAB on Saturday. The good news is quarterback Braxton Miller can take over games when he wants to, and he'll be the best player on the field in many Big Ten games. Ohio State's offense faces by far its toughest test this week as it opens Big Ten play on the road at Michigan State, which nearly held the Buckeyes scoreless last year in Columbus.
2. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 4): We didn't learn a whole lot about Nebraska against a completely overmatched Idaho State team. It's pretty clear, though, that the Huskers boast plenty of weapons on offense, perhaps more than any other Big Ten team. Rex Burkhead's return only strengthens an already dynamic backfield. The Huskers now prepare for the one they've been waiting for, a chance to avenge last year's blowout loss at Wisconsin. After beating up on inferior competition, Taylor Martinez and the Huskers take aim at the Badgers.
3. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 5): This is the only Big Ten team that truly aced its nonconference exam, and it gets rewarded. After recording wins against Big East, SEC and ACC foes, Northwestern took a step down in class and made quick work of FCS South Dakota. Pat Fitzgerald's team has built its identity on running the ball with Venric Mark and others, and stopping the run. Northwestern still needs more from its quarterbacks in the passing game, and its secondary will be tested in the coming weeks as Big Ten play begins, but you have to like where this team is right now.
4. Purdue (2-1, last week: 6): The Boilers are here mainly because they looked much better against Notre Dame than either Michigan State or Michigan did. Purdue's crew had an open week before rounding out the nonconference slate this coming Saturday against Marshall. Michigan and Purdue will be the last Big Ten teams to open league play Oct. 6, but we'll get a very good read on Danny Hope's squad as it starts off with the Wolverines, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Quarterback Robert Marve returned to practice last week despite a partially torn ACL. It will be interesting to see if the star-crossed quarterback can help Purdue make a run for the Leaders division title.
5. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 3): It has been a rough two weeks in Sparta. Saturday was supposed to be the get-well game for Andrew Maxwell, Le'Veon Bell and the Michigan State offense. Instead, the Spartans went more than three quarters without reaching the end zone against one of the worst defenses in the FBS. Coach Mark Dantonio clearly wasn't happy afterward. Although Bell continues to be a workhorse, Michigan State's offensive issues remain heading into the Big Ten season. Fortunately, the Spartans' defense still can take them a long way this fall.
6. Michigan (2-2, last week: 2): A four-spot drop might seem harsh, but as stated earlier, there's not much separating No. 3 from No. 6. And Michigan really hasn't proven much in the first four weeks, falling to two Top 10 teams, squeaking by Air Force and pounding UMass. The Wolverines showed some promising signs against Notre Dame, particularly on defense and the way the offensive line blocked in the second half. But Denard Robinson's extreme play -- very good or very bad -- caught up with Michigan, which still puts too much of its fate on No. 16.
7. Minnesota (4-0, last week: 7): We understand why Gophers fans might be ticked off their team didn't move up after improving to 4-0. We both were really impressed with Minnesota on Saturday night, especially the defense facing a dynamic quarterback in Ryan Nassib. The Gophers should have won by more than seven and enter Big Ten play with a ton of confidence. We're still looking to see how Minnesota performs against better competition, and while Iowa is struggling right now, the Gophers haven't won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999. If they do, they'll move up the power rankings (and maybe into the national rankings).
8. Wisconsin (3-1, last week: 11): Bret Bielema's team took a step on the field -- and up the power rankings -- Saturday against UTEP. It was far from a spotless performance, and Wisconsin must be better this week at Nebraska, but the Badgers can feel a bit better about themselves, especially on offense. Quarterback Joel Stave looked good in his first career start, and he certainly benefited from the return of star receiver Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers ran the ball well despite losing Montee Ball to a head injury. They'll need to take a much bigger step against the revenge-minded Huskers.
9. Penn State (2-2, last week: 10): While some Big Ten teams easily could have worse records, Penn State is a kick away from being 3-1 with its only loss to a very good Ohio team. Quarterback Matt McGloin continues to surge under the tutelage of new coach Bill O'Brien, passing for a career-high 318 yards in Saturday's win against Temple. The defense is keeping opponents out of the end zone, and linebacker Michael Mauti is playing at an All-Big Ten level. The run game remains a concern, but Penn State is a confident team entering Big Ten play and will be extremely fired up to face Illinois and poacher coach Tim Beckman this week.
10. Indiana (2-1, last week: 12): An open week seemed to come at a good time for the Hoosiers, who lost a heartbreaker to Ball State on Sept. 15 after a 2-0 start. The Ball State loss actually is looking better and better. The week also gave top quarterback Cameron Coffman some additional time to heal from a hip pointer that forced him out of the Ball State game. Indiana aims for its first Big Ten victory since 2010 as it visits Northwestern on Saturday. Coffman and his receivers should be able to move the ball against the Wildcats, but can IU stop anyone on defense?
11. Iowa (2-2, last week: 9): This is the punishment spot in the power rankings. Wisconsin found itself here after Week 3, and Iowa drops down to No. 11 after an inexplicable loss to a weak Central Michigan team at Kinnick Stadium. Thanks to Mark Weisman, the Hawkeyes seemingly have remedied their offense, but their defense looked terrible Saturday, and they couldn't avoid the penalty flag. They also need to work on defending the onside kick. A very rough start for Kirk Ferentz's crew as Minnesota comes to town looking to keep Floyd for the third straight year.
12. Illinois (2-2, last week: 8): It's a close call between Illinois and Iowa for the cellar, but at least Iowa's losses have been competitive. Beckman's Illini were blown out for the second time in three weeks by an up-tempo, spread-offense team. While the Arizona State debacle could be somewhat excused after a long trip, Illinois' performance Saturday night against Louisiana Tech on its home field is downright embarrassing. Illinois' defensive struggles are almost as surprising as Wisconsin's offensive struggles, and the Illini still don't have an identity on offense.