- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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For the first time in a while, there are clearly defined tiers in the Big Ten. The bottom of the league no longer looks messy, as it's obvious who belongs there.
Ohio State sits atop the league standings once again, and until someone decides to dethrone the Buckeyes, they will be the league's signature program. Iowa is a clear No. 2, while Penn State and Wisconsin share the third spot.
Heading into the final week of conference play, here's where things stand.
1. Ohio State (9-2, 6-1): The Buckeyes got all they could handle from Iowa on Saturday, but clutch defensive play and a powerful run game proved to be the difference. It wasn't Ohio State's best defensive performance of the season, but the unit stepped up in overtime to silence James Vandenberg. The running backs and offensive linemen have taken heat throughout the season, but they stepped up in a big way. As a result, Ohio State is Pasadena-bound.
2. Iowa (9-2, 6-2): Wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos said Iowa didn't make a statement Saturday because it lost. I'd argue the Hawkeyes made a stronger statement in defeat than they have in several of their victories this season. No one gave Iowa much chance with Vandenberg making his first career start, but the Hawkeyes paced Ohio State for 60 minutes and beyond. If the Big Ten receives a BCS at-large berth, Iowa deserves it.
T-3. Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2): The Badgers torched Michigan in the second half en route to a 45-24 victory. Head coach Bret Bielema has this program reflecting its core values once again, and Wisconsin will be even better in 2010. The Badgers should be playing in a Jan. 1 bowl, and they can notch 10 or more victories for the third time in five years by beating Northwestern and Hawaii.
T-3. Penn State (9-2, 5-2): Thanks to linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee, Penn State rallied past Indiana after coming out completely flat on Senior Day. The Lions were fortunate not to be in a much bigger hole after committing four first-half turnovers. Penn State are still in the BCS at-large mix, but the Lions need a much more impressive showing next week at Michigan State, where they lost in 2007.
5. Northwestern (7-4, 4-3): It hasn't been an easy road for the Wildcats this year, but they've established the type of consistency the program needs. Northwestern will be going to back-to-back bowls for just the second time in team history. The Wildcats also went 3-1 in Big Ten road games for the second consecutive season. A win this week against Wisconsin would cap a strong finish and continue the momentum generated last year.
6. Michigan State (6-5, 4-3): Purdue dominated many parts of Saturday's game, but Michigan State made the big plays when it mattered. As a result, the Spartans are bowl eligible and can end up in a pretty nice spot if they knock off Penn State this week in East Lansing. Special teams and big plays from Keshawn Martin, B.J. Cunningham, Charlie Gantt and others helped Michigan State win the shootout at Ross-Ade Stadium.
7. Minnesota (6-5, 3-4): An odd season for the Gophers continued Saturday with a strange victory against South Dakota State. But strong defensive play helped Minnesota get bowl eligible heading into next week's showdown at Iowa. It seems like Minnesota hasn't won a trophy game in forever, and an upset of the Hawkeyes would in many ways validate the season. A loss would increase the grumbling about the direction the program is headed.
8. Purdue (4-7, 3-4): I wouldn't blame Danny Hope for burning the game tapes of Purdue's losses as soon as the season ends. The Boilers once again let one slip away against Michigan State, allowing too many big plays and squandering great performances from Joey Elliott, Keith Smith and Ralph Bolden. Hope should have a good team coming back in 2010, but he needs to figure out ways to get over the hump.
9. Indiana (4-7, 1-6): Bill Lynch might want to join Hope and create a bonfire of game tapes before this week's Old Oaken Bucket game. Indiana's four road losses in Big Ten play have been especially painful because the Hoosiers could have won each game. When a team commits four first-half turnovers like Penn State did Saturday, you have to score more than 10 points. Indiana has made progress this season, even though the record doesn't show it.
10. Illinois (3-7, 2-6): Illinois didn't look like a team fighting for its bowl life until it was far too late in Saturday's loss to Northwestern. The Illini shouldn't have been trailing at halftime, and their third-quarter strategy left many shaking their heads. It's another lost season for head coach Ron Zook, who still must prove he can get the best out of the talented players he recruits.
11. Michigan (5-6, 1-6): Tate Forcier played well and Brandon Graham had another huge performance on defense, but Michigan once again unraveled in the second half to drop its sixth consecutive Big Ten game. The defense needs serious work in the offseason, which could start on Sunday. Michigan needs to beat Ohio State to avoid missing the postseason for the second straight year and finishing last in the Big Ten for the first time since 1962.
15hTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney
2dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough
3dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman