Raise your hand if you had the Big Ten with four teams in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings on the final Tuesday of November, twice the representation of any other conference and four times as many as the SEC. Anyone? Thought so. Boy, the playoff committee sure does love some Big Ten football. Iowa rose one spot this week to the coveted fourth spot, Michigan State jumped four positions and Michigan rose two. Wins this week by the Hawkeyes and Spartans would all but assure that the conference has a spot in the playoff semifinals.
Record: 11-0 overall, 7-0 Big Ten
Rank: No. 4
Next big obstacle: Friday at Nebraska.
Reason for optimism: The Hawkeyes don’t beat themselves. They’re efficient, ranking second in the Big Ten in converting third downs and fifth nationally in cashing goal-to-go opportunities. They’re solid on special teams and they don’t commit turnovers. Nebraska has struggled mightily with efficiency this season, especially late in games, and Iowa is surprisingly healthier than at midseason.
Cause for concern: Iowa’s defense has allowed 27.3 points per game to its last three opponents: Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana -- none of which have a winning record. In fact, the Hawkeyes have beaten just three teams that sit above. 500. Nebraska is better than its five wins indicate, evidenced by its most recent home game, a 39-38 win over Michigan State on Nov. 7.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: No need to root. If Iowa beats the Cornhuskers and wins the Big Ten title next week, it’s in the playoff. Lose either game and it’s out.
Record: 10-1, 6-1
Next big obstacle: Saturday at home against Penn State.
Reason for optimism: The Spartans are bursting at the seams with optimism after jumping Notre Dame on Tuesday in the wake of their seismic 17-14 victory at Ohio State. At No. 5, Michigan State appears to control its destiny, with Iowa up next in Indianapolis if the Spartans win their regular-season finale. Oregon continuing to rebound from a midseason slump makes the Spartans’ best nonconference win look better, too.
Cause for concern: Primarily, there’s the health of Connor Cook's right shoulder. The senior remains questionable for Saturday after missing the win over the Buckeyes. Surely, MSU can’t duplicate its monumental effort to support backup Tyler O'Connor. And Penn State is good enough to take advantage of any MSU letdown.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Oklahoma State to beat Oklahoma, Auburn to beat Alabama, Stanford to beat Notre Dame, TCU to beat Baylor and Oregon to beat Oregon State. Nebraska-Iowa is tricky for Michigan State, though it’s probably better if the Hawkeyes make it to 12-0.
Record: 10-1, 6-1
Next big obstacle: Saturday at Michigan.
Reason for optimism: The Buckeyes still possess the best collection of talent in the Big Ten, even if they’ve officially underachieved now that Michigan State ended their 23-game winning streak after a few close calls this season. Ohio State remains ahead of one-loss contenders Oklahoma State, Florida and North Carolina, and Urban Meyer’s team never lacks motivation against the Wolverines.
Cause for concern: Well, they’re mortal. Before Saturday, the Buckeyes had not lost a Big Ten regular-season game since 2011. How about two in a row? Michigan looks equipped for the job with its stout defense against the Buckeyes’ disjointed passing game. The season-long QB shuffle exploded in Ohio State’s face last week. The Big House is a tough place to find solutions to those types of problems.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Start with Penn State, so the Buckeyes can get back to Indy. Next up are South Carolina, Auburn, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Stanford and TCU. That ought to put Ohio State back in the playoff mix.
Record: 9-2, 6-1
Next big obstacle: Saturday against Ohio State
Reason for optimism: The Wolverines are suddenly a juggernaut offensively. posting their top yardage figures of the season in Weeks 10 and 11 before a solid performance at Penn State with 343 yards -- the most by an opponent at Beaver Stadium this season. Jake Rudock is firing on all cylinders and Michigan has won four straight, with a chance to make it six by beating Ohio State and -- if the Nittany Lions win at Michigan State -- Iowa in the Big Ten title game.
Cause for concern: Michigan has allowed 16 points or more in five straight games after its opponents reached that total just once in the first six weeks. The long season is taking its toll. Beyond that, the Wolverines have lost twice and face a long climb back to playoff contention.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: The same teams as Ohio State, plus Utah over Colorado. And even that might not be enough to bump Michigan into the top four at 11-2.