|ESPN.com: NCF Nation||[Print without images]|
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Big Ten hierarchy is beginning to clear up. It wouldn't surprise me if the rundown below remains more or less the same at the end of the season. Then again, college football wouldn't be so great without surprises, so things could change.
1. Penn State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) -- The Nittany Lions cleared their biggest hurdle to date and won in Ohio Stadium for the first time as a member of the Big Ten. Adversity arrived and Penn State found a different way to win, relying on a dominant defensive performance and poised play from backup quarterback Pat Devlin in the fourth quarter. The Lions are in prime position for a national title run heading into the bye week.
2. Ohio State (7-2, 4-1) -- Head coach Jim Tressel got beat at his own game, as a tightly contested contest characterized by hard-hitting defense, field position and special teams went to Penn State following Terrelle Pryor's fourth-quarter fumble. Ohio State's defense continues to play well, but an underachieving offensive line has held back this team.
3. Minnesota (7-1, 3-1) -- Opportunistic defense continues to spark Minnesota's renaissance under Tim Brewster. The Gophers forced four turnovers and held Purdue to 109 passing yards in Saturday's victory. They enter a manageable closing stretch with a chance to reach a New Year's Day bowl game after going 1-11 last season.
4. Michigan State (7-2, 4-1) -- Little brother no more, the Spartans traveled to Ann Arbor and won in Michigan Stadium for the first time since 1990. They overcame a disappointing effort last week and a bad call that gave Michigan a first-quarter touchdown, and they rallied to score the game's final 21 points. A New Year's Day bowl remains possible entering the final three games.
5. Iowa (5-3, 2-2) -- The idle Hawkeyes move up a spot and can continue to climb with a road win against Illinois this week. Shonn Greene faces a vulnerable run defense and can fuel his long-shot Heisman Trophy campaign. Iowa needs a win to become bowl eligible and two to secure a postseason spot. With Penn State and Minnesota left on the schedule, Saturday's game is huge.
6. Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) -- Disaster struck for the Wildcats at Indiana, as they lost an extremely winnable game and saw their starting offensive backfield go down with injuries. Running back Tyrell Sutton will undergo wrist surgery this week and likely miss the rest of the season. Quarterback C.J. Bacher also could miss time with a hamstring injury. The defense needs to step up to avoid a major slide.
7. Wisconsin (4-4, 1-4) -- The bleeding finally stopped in Madison as Wisconsin ended its four-game losing streak with an impressive performance against Illinois. Quarterback Dustin Sherer stepped up in his second career start, and the defense intercepted Juice Williams three times. The season-ending loss of star tight end/H-back Travis Beckum puts a damper on things, but Wisconsin should be able to get bowl eligible.
8. Illinois (4-4, 2-3) -- Head coach Ron Zook would certainly take consistency over talent right now. Despite playmakers on both sides of the ball, Illinois has become the Big Ten's biggest mystery: great one week, terrible the next. To be fair, the Illini were facing a desperate Wisconsin team Saturday, but turnovers and spotty run defense led to a loss. Saturday's game against Iowa is critical.
9. Michigan (2-6, 1-3) -- This is an atypical year for Michigan, but the team keeps delivering typical performances: solid for a half or three quarters, but never for an entire game. The Wolverines squandered a second-half lead and saw their hope for a winning season fade away. Another loss will ensure a losing season and no bowl for the first time since 1974.
10. Indiana (3-5, 1-4) -- Credit the Hoosiers for being opportunistic against Northwestern and pulling out a nice upset. Backup quarterback Ben Chappell avoided major mistakes and the defense prevented big plays. Northwestern gift-wrapped this one to a certain extent, but Indiana had a solid game plan on both sides of the ball and picked up its first league win.
11. Purdue (2-6, 0-4) -- You have to feel for Joe Tiller, who could endure his worst season at Purdue in his final year as Boilermakers coach. More disturbing is the fact that Tiller's trademark offense has been the primary reason for the team's struggles. Purdue had its lowest passing total (109) yards in Tiller's 12 seasons as coach and dropped its fifth straight game.