Monday, December 5, 2011
Big Ten power rankings: Week 15
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
A Big Ten champion has been crowned and the league's bowl lineup is set. There was only one game on the docket in Week 14, but what a game it turned out to be as Wisconsin and Michigan State provided great theater in Indianapolis.
The Badgers move into the top spot by virtue of their 42-39 win, but as we saw Saturday night, there's not much separating the league's top two teams.
The final 10 spots in the rankings remain the same.
Let's get to it.
1. Wisconsin (11-2, 6-2): Outplayed for long stretches in Indy, Wisconsin found a way to win as senior quarterback Russell Wilson stepped up in the fourth quarter and unlikely heroes like receiver Jeff Duckworth and, yes, punter Brad Nortman made key plays. The Badgers will need a better defensive performance in Pasadena to slow down Oregon, but they get a chance to redeem themselves at the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.
2. Michigan State (10-3, 7-1): The Spartans looked like the Big Ten's best team for much of the championship game, holding edges in almost every key statistical category except points. But a few critical mistakes cost Michigan State and prevented the team from reaching the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 seasons. While the disappointment will sting, the Spartans need to shake it off and beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl to secure their first postseason win under coach Mark Dantonio.
3. Michigan (10-2, 6-2): Unlike Michigan teams of recent years, Brady Hoke's crew ended the season on a roll, winning the final three games. Quarterback Denard Robinson bounced back nicely against both Nebraska and Ohio State and will need another strong performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech.
4. Nebraska (9-3, 5-3): The Huskers will play a Florida bowl game for just the second time since facing Tennessee in the 1998 Orange Bowl. They have a chance to win 10 games for the third consecutive season, which hasn't been done since 1999-2001 and build some momentum for the 2012 campaign. Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense will be tested against a very good South Carolina defense.
5. Penn State (9-3, 5-3): Passed over by several bowl games, the Lions have a chance to show those groups what they missed with a strong performance against high-powered Houston in the TicketCity Bowl. The defense must rebound from its worst performance of the season, and RB Silas Redd should be well rested and able to reclaim his midseason form in the bowl game. A Lions bowl win gives them 10 or more wins for third time in the past four years.
6. Iowa (7-5, 4-4): It was a rocky season for Kirk Ferentz's team, which never won more than two games in a row. Fortunately, the Hawkeyes are going bowling, where they've thrived under Ferentz, going 6-3 with wins in each of the past three contests. After a lousy performance at Nebraska, Iowa will look to finish strong against Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl.
7. Ohio State (6-6, 3-5): While Urban Meyer won't coach the Buckeyes in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, he'll be a central figure as Ohio State takes on his former team in Florida. It should be an interesting atmosphere to say the least. Luke Fickell tries to go out with a win as a head coach before returning to an assistant role, and it will be interesting to see how Braxton Miller performs on his first bowl stage.
8. Northwestern (6-6, 3-5): The Wildcats endured a disappointing regular season after returning a veteran-laden team, but they can still make history by winning their first bowl game since the 1949 Rose. Quarterback Dan Persa has another month to rest up before his final game. Northwestern will need a stronger effort from its defense to end its bowl losing streak against Texas A&M.
9. Purdue (6-6, 4-4): The bowl wait will end for Purdue on Dec. 27 when it faces Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl. It's an important opportunity to finish with a winning record and finish the season with some momentum before what should be a pivotal 2012 season for coach Danny Hope.
10. Minnesota (3-9, 2-6): The Gophers ended a rough season on a high note for the second straight year. It's now about recruiting for Jerry Kill and his staff, and offseason development for the players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Minnesota will be an improved team in 2012 but must build on the mini defensive surge we saw late in the season.
11. Illinois (6-6, 2-6): There was some talk early in the week that the Illini players might not want to play a bowl game after their second-half collapse, but the Orange and Blue are headed to San Francisco, where they'll face UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. It provides one final opportunity for a talented team to do something positive before beginning a new chapter under a coach yet to be named.
12. Indiana (1-11, 0-8): A vital recruiting period is under way for Kevin Wilson and his staff, who have to upgrade their talent on the defensive side of the ball. Indiana has a nice foundation in quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Stephen Houston, but the Hoosiers need to build depth and hope all the young players thrown to the fire this fall take steps in the winter months.