Chicago Colleges: David Fales

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
Remember two weeks ago when we were debating Ohio State versus Michigan as the Big Ten's top team? Well, the Buckeyes have created some separation from Michigan and the rest of the league with two dominant offensive performances. Michigan, meanwhile, either has a massive hangover from beating Notre Dame or a lot of issues to sort out.

We gave the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt after the Akron game and kept them at No. 2. After Saturday night's slopfest at Connecticut, we can no longer keep Michigan in the second slot. Northwestern looked lackluster for the second straight week but avoided the major scare Michigan has endured. Wisconsin, meanwhile, might be the league's second-best squad. We'll find out a lot about the Badgers this week in Columbus.

Minnesota and Iowa make nice moves this week, while Indiana takes a tumble.

As a reminder, we keep these rankings consistent with how we vote in the Top 25. Here's one final look at last week's power poll.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (4-0, last week: 1): We'll finally get a gauge on these Buckeyes as they open Big Ten play Saturday night against Wisconsin, but the recent results have been encouraging. Braxton Miller's absence once again didn't faze Ohio State, which scored 34 points in the first quarter and received a nice boost from running back Carlos Hyde in his season debut. Backup signal-caller Kenny Guiton continued his surge with a school-record six touchdown passes. Miller likely returns this week, but the Buckeyes' offense clearly is more than just one man this season.

2. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 3): For whatever reason, Northwestern looks worse against weaker nonleague foes than seemingly stronger ones. The Wildcats had more positives against Cal and Syracuse than Western Michigan and Maine, although they were never in serious danger of losing in the past two weeks. Linebacker Damien Proby sparked a takeaway-driven defense Saturday. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian struggled but have two weeks to prepare for Ohio State, when running back Venric Mark is expected back.

3. Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten; last week: 4): Credit Gary Andersen's players for not letting last week's unfortunate ending linger as they opened Big Ten play against Purdue. Wisconsin went back to what it does best, overpowering opponents with the run game, as Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 292 rush yards and four touchdowns. The Badgers' defense bottled up Purdue, surrendering only 12 first downs, 45 rush yards and 180 total yards. You have to like how Wisconsin is performing before this week's showdown in Columbus.

4. Michigan (4-0, last week: 2): The Akron game could be forgivingly dismissed as a letdown. But when many of the same issues surface for the second straight week against a poor opponent, it's reason to be concerned. Michigan won't stay perfect much longer if quarterback Devin Gardner keeps turning over the ball (he leads the nation with 10 turnovers) and the offensive line endures periods of inconsistent play. Coach Brady Hoke and his staff have plenty of items to address this week before the Jug game against potentially undefeated Minnesota.

5. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 6): After a turbulent eight days, Bo Pelini wanted his players to have some fun in their final nonleague tuneup. The offense had plenty despite playing without top quarterback Taylor Martinez, eclipsing 300 pass yards and 300 rush yards. Reserve quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III both performed well. The defense had a lot less fun, however, surrendering 465 yards in a performance that Pelini labeled its worst of the season. Nebraska has to get a handle on its defense this week before opening Big Ten play against Illinois.

6. Minnesota (4-0, last week: 7): Knock San Jose State if you must, but the Spartans provided the biggest test for Minnesota to date, and the Gophers passed it with flying colors. Minnesota showed the physical dominance coach Jerry Kill has been waiting for, piling up 353 rush yards and six touchdowns behind quarterback Mitch Leidner and running back David Cobb. Although San Jose State's David Fales showed why he's an NFL prospect, the Gophers continued to force turnovers. Minnesota hosts Iowa this week in a game that has more than bacon on the line.

7. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 5): The Spartans looked like the better team for much of Saturday's game at Notre Dame. But many of the same issues that surfaced in close losses last season -- stalled drives, dropped passes, not enough takeaways and missed field goals -- surfaced in a 17-13 setback. Coach Mark Dantonio and his players say this feels different, and that they can overcome their errors to make some noise in a wide-open Legends Division. The defense remains championship-level, but there are other issues to sort out, namely quarterback.

8. Penn State (3-1, last week: 8): Kent State's woeful offense turned out to be the perfect cure for a Nittany Lions defense that struggled mightily in a Week 3 loss to Central Florida. Safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback Jordan Lucas helped trigger Penn State's first shutout since 2010, as the Lions allowed only nine first downs and 190 total yards. The run game once again surged behind Akeel Lynch (123 rush yards) and others. Penn State's defense will face much greater tests when Big Ten play begins in two weeks.

9. Iowa (3-1, last week: 11): Kirk Ferentz's crew is clearly on the rise after its most complete performance in recent memory. Iowa received numerous contributions on offense, two punt return touchdowns from Kevonte Martin-Manley and a pick-six from B.J. Lowery -- all during a 38-point first half against Western Michigan. Lowery added another pick-six in the second half and stomped the Broncos. After a rough start to the season, Iowa has the momentum it needs heading into a pivotal Big Ten opener against Minnesota.

10. Illinois (2-1, last week: 10): The Illini sat back and watched the rest of the Big Ten in Week 4, enjoying the first of two open weeks. They'll have an excellent chance to improve to 3-1 this week against an 0-3 Miami (Ohio) squad that was shut out Saturday against Cincinnati and has scored just 21 points in its first three games. This is the perfect opportunity for Illinois' defense to rebound after getting gashed by Washington in Week 3. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tries to bounce back after completing just 9 of 25 pass attempts.

11. Indiana (2-2, last week: 9): Just when Indiana appears ready to turn a corner, it becomes Indiana again. For the second time in three games, Indiana limped out of the gate and fell behind, never finding a good offensive rhythm and struggling to stop Missouri's balanced attack. Missouri piled up 623 yards, a Memorial Stadium record for an Indiana opponent. The Hoosiers' defense remains far too vulnerable, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld struggled, throwing three interceptions. There's a lot to fix in the open week before Penn State comes to town.

12. Purdue (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten; last week: 12): Trips to Madison haven't been kind to the Boilers, and Saturday's proved to be no exception as Darrell Hazell's team took a step back after an encouraging performance against Notre Dame. When you can't run the ball or stop the run, you have no chance, and Purdue struggled mightily in both areas. Hazell admits Purdue must do some "soul searching" following a rough start, and things don't get any easier this week against Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois.

Perception-making games in the Big Ten

July, 29, 2013
Iowa's season opener against Northern Illinois could be just a blip on the Week 1 national radar, but the game's impact for the Hawkeyes can't be minimized.

Kirk Ferentz's crew comes off of its first losing regular season since 2000 and enters the fall with several glaring question marks, including quarterback. A win against a Northern Illinois program that reached the Orange Bowl last season, has won 23 games the past two seasons and is led by fringe Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch would boost confidence in Iowa, both inside and outside the program. A loss to the Huskies -- especially in blowout fashion -- could set the course for another lost season.

As The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette's Mike Hlas writes, the Northern Illinois opener is a perception-maker for Iowa.
For the Hawkeyes to restore some luster to their national image, beating Northern Illinois on Aug. 31 would be a good first step. A loss, though, would bring out a lot of sharp verbal and written pitchforks.

NIU is undoubtedly the perception-making game for Iowa this season. What about the other Big Ten teams? I took a look at potential perception-makers around the conference.

I'm a firm believer that perception is shaped early on, so for the purpose of this post, I only considered games in the first six weeks of the season (weekend of Aug. 31-weekend of Oct. 5).

Here are the perception-makers around the Big Ten …

ILLINOIS: Sept. 7 vs. Cincinnati

Tim Beckman's Illini have to show obvious improvement early on to avoid a here-we-go-again mentality in Champaign. Although Illinois must be careful with FCS Southern Illinois in the opener, it has a great opportunity to show things will be different as it hosts Cincinnati, a 10-win squad last season, in Week 2. Poor performances against Cincinnati and the following week against Washington in Chicago would brand Illinois a lost cause once again.

INDIANA: Sept. 21 vs. Missouri

It's a close call between the Missouri game and a Week 3 home contest against Bowling Green, which was a better team than the Tigers last season. But beating Bowling Green likely won't boost Indiana's perception, especially if the Hoosiers fall short the following week against an SEC foe. If Indiana completes non-league play at 4-0, ending with a victory against Missouri, it will be viewed as a potential surprise team entering Big Ten play.

IOWA: Aug. 31 vs. Northern Illinois

See above.

MICHIGAN: Sept. 7 vs. Notre Dame

The Wolverines have beaten Notre Dame in recent years without getting much of a perception boost, but the Irish are coming off of a perfect regular season and a national runner-up finish. This is a big moment for Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, who looks for a signature win early in his first full season as a starter. Michigan remains a talented but young team that will need to grow up in a hurry to contend for big things in 2013. The Notre Dame game provides a great chance to do so.

MICHIGAN STATE: Sept. 21 at Notre Dame

The Spartans look for a bounce-back season and need a validating win early on to boost their perception after falling short of expectations in 2012. Notre Dame provides by far the biggest challenge for Michigan State in non-league play, and Mark Dantonio's team tries to end a two-game slide against the Irish after winning three of the previous four under Dantonio. It's a huge opportunity for quarterback [fill in the blank] and a Spartans offense that managed only three points and 237 yards against Notre Dame last season.

MINNESOTA: Sept. 21 vs. San Jose State

The Gophers' non-league schedule is mostly uninspiring, but keep an eye on this Week 4 showdown with San Jose State. The Spartans won 11 games last season under Mike MacIntyre, now Colorado's coach, and boast one of the nation's top quarterbacks in David Fales, who finished third in the FBS in passing efficiency (170.8 rating). Although an Oct. 5 win at Michigan would transform Minnesota's perception, the Gophers must first get past San Jose State.

NEBRASKA: Sept. 14 vs. UCLA

This is one of the easiest picks on the list. Not only is UCLA by far Nebraska's biggest non-league test, but the Bruins appear to be the Huskers' most formidable challenge in the first two months of the season. A Nebraska win would help validate the impressive record the Huskers likely will have when the calendar flips to November. Another loss to the Bruins, who edged Nebraska last September at the Rose Bowl, would raise doubts about the Huskers' legitimacy even if they go on to pile up wins.

NORTHWESTERN: Oct. 5 vs. Ohio State

The Wildcats play two major-conference foes (Cal, Syracuse) in non-league play, but neither game has real perception-making potential. Besides, Northwestern has handled itself well in non-league play in recent years. The Ohio State game likely will be the most-anticipated home game for Northwestern in the Pat Fitzgerald era. Northwestern can transform its perception with a win, while a loss would reinforce the Wildcats as a good program that can't really beat the Big Ten's elite.

OHIO STATE: Sept. 28 vs. Wisconsin

The Buckeyes' non-league slate is pretty uninspiring, and while San Diego State (Week 2, home) or Cal (Week 3, road) could provide a few clues about Urban Meyer's squad, Ohio State will be heavy favorites in both contests. If Ohio State meets its preseason perception, it will handle Wisconsin at home fairly easily in Week 5. A shaky showing or a loss certainly would change the way people feel about the Buckeyes' chances to get to Pasadena, both for the Rose Bowl and for the BCS title game.

PENN STATE: Aug. 31 vs. Syracuse (at East Rutherford, N.J.)

It's a little dangerous to pick the opener for Penn State, which changed its perception during the course of last season after stumbling in its debut against Ohio. But there are new questions about Bill O'Brien's team, particularly at the quarterback spot as Christian Hackenberg or Tyler Ferguson takes control. Penn State faces another transitioning team in Syracuse at a neutral site. A strong performance could propel Penn State to a 5-0 start before Michigan visits Happy Valley on Oct. 12.

PURDUE: Aug. 31 at Cincinnati

The Boilers are one of the Big Ten's mystery teams as a new staff takes control. Purdue faces one of the nation's tougher non-league slates, going up against two BCS bowl teams from 2012 (Notre Dame, Northern Illinois) and another that won 10 games (Cincinnati). A victory at Nippert Stadium in Darrell Hazell's Boiler debut would give Purdue a nice confidence boost and force folks to take notice of the Boilers heading into their Week 3 home showdown against the rival Irish.

WISCONSIN: Sept. 14 at Arizona State

We'll learn a lot about Gary Andersen's Badgers in the first month of the season as they play two extremely challenging road games against Arizona State and Ohio State. Big Ten teams struggle mightily in Pac-12 venues, and Wisconsin's shaky secondary will be tested by quarterback Taylor Kelly and the high-powered Sun Devils offense. A win would give Wisconsin some confidence as it faces untested Ohio State in Week 5, while a loss could signal trouble ahead.