Big Ten Football Tower of Power: The Bottom Rises

Last week’s Big Ten action featured a lot of class warfare, with the dregs of the conference doing battle with the upper echelon. Despite the cream of 2012’s Big Ten crop being decidedly less creamier than in previous seasons, a couple of top teams managed to dispatch their opponents with relative ease. However, not every conference peasant went down without the threat of an uprising…

12. Illinois
Poor Illinois could only manage 134 yards of total offense while getting run over by Michigan 45-0 last week. Nate Scheelhaase hit his head on the turf and was diagnosed with a concussion, but it’s not as though there’s a huge drop-off between him and backup Reilly O’Toole anyway. O’Toole came in and threw an interception, but it didn’t matter much anyway because the Illini had no answer for Denard Robinson. Illinois gets a much needed week off, and then they’ll take on Indiana at home in what could be a very embarrassing result for the Orange and Blue.

11. Purdue
Purdue was once the scary dark horse that was ready to take the Big Ten by storm, but after back-to-back home defeats, it is looking more like a cute white pony that won’t hurt anybody. In a 38-14 loss to Wisconsin last week, the Boilers allowed Montee Ball to run for 247 yards, which was all too reminiscent of Denard Robinson’s outbreak the week before. On the game’s first possession, Caleb TerBush connected with Antavian Edison on a 52-yard bomb that led to a 7-0 Purdue advantage, but it was all Badgers after that and the Boilers didn’t score again until Akeem Hunt scampered 81 yards in garbage time.

10. Minnesota
It was nice for the Minnesota defense to show up at home after taking a week off in their 31-13 loss to Iowa the week before. Last week versus Northwestern, the Gophers were shredded by Venric Mark in the first half en route to a 21-10 halftime deficit. However, Minnesota shut down Northwestern’s running game in the second half and came just a few yards short of what would have been an inspiring comeback. It didn’t help that MarQueis Gray got hurt and had to leave the game in the third quarter, but either way, Minnesota is no longer the worst team in the conference thanks to a resurgent defensive effort.

9. Indiana
The Hoosiers continued to light up the scoreboard in Saturday night’s shockingly exciting 52-49 loss to Ohio State. Sure, Indiana showed no signs of being able to stop Braxton Miller and the Buckeye running game, but at least we can be somewhat sure that the IU offense is for real. Chase Coffman and Nate Sudfeld combined for 54 passing attempts without throwing an interception and Stephen Houston gained 91 yards on just 11 carries in the close defeat. Indiana is going to upset somebody this season, but at this rate, it’s not going to be much of a surprise.

8. Michigan State
Sparty led by a touchdown for practically the entire game last week, but Iowa’s Mark Weisman found the endzone with less than a minute left in regulation to force overtime. Then, down by a field goal in double OT, Andrew Maxwell threw an interception to give Iowa the upset victory. It was a tough loss for Michigan State, for whom the game was grinding along as predicted until Iowa put together a gutsy game-tying drive in the last five minutes. At home with a 10-3 halftime lead and Le’Veon Bell rushing for 4.8 yards per carry, you’d figure MSU would find a way to put the game away, but it couldn’t. That probably had something to do with Maxwell completing just 12 of 31 passes. Ouch.

7. Iowa
Well, Iowa didn’t play much better than Michigan State, but they got the win on the road so here are the Hawkeyes. Last week I doubted that Weisman would be able to do much against the Spartan front line, but he pounded his way to 116 yards on 4.5 yards per carry, which included a game-breaking 37-yard run on Iowa’s only touchdown drive. The defense was also very good for Iowa, but quarterback James Vandenberg averaged just 3.7 yards per attempt. Vandenberg should have an easier time throwing the ball in a matchup with Penn State this weekend, but the Iowa defense will be tested.

6. Northwestern
I was surprised how ineffective Northwestern’s passing game was in Minnesota, and Kain Colter didn’t have the impact I thought he would have, but Northwestern’s defense was just tough enough to preserve the 21-13 win over the Gophers. The Minnesota defense may have keyed a bit too hard on Colter, because Venric Mark had over 100 yards by halftime. However, the Cats were forced to hang on until the clock expired because of how badly their offense slowed down in the second half. This week, Northwestern hosts Nebraska, who is out for revenge after falling to the Cats last season. The Huskers have yielded a lot of points so far this season, but it’s hard to picture the Northwestern defense getting enough stops to win.

5. Penn State
Despite not playing last week, Penn State moves up in the rankings because of Michigan State’s humbling loss to Iowa and because I don’t trust Vandenberg to keep up with Penn State’s offense this weekend. It’s true that Penn State hasn’t exactly faced defensive juggernauts this season, but its newfound running game led by Zach Zwinak has given balance to an attack that was way too dependent on Matt McGloin at the start of the season. Plus, Bill O’Brien’s risk prone approach won’t allow Iowa to hang around like it did against Michigan State last week.

4. Wisconsin
After a tough loss to Nebraska to kick off Big Ten play, Wisconsin has taken care of business against division foes Illinois and Purdue. With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for postseason play, the Badgers are already a near lock to play in the conference title game. The good news is that they’re actually starting to look like a team that deserves that honor. Against Purdue, Montee Ball finally looked like the Heisman Trophy candidate he was supposed to be, and Joel Stave has created big plays with play action passing. After a slow start to the season, Wisconsin is right back on track for a third straight Rose Bowl birth.

3. Nebraska
Unfortunately for teams in the Legends Division, making it to the conference title game won’t come so easily. The Huskers might be the best team in their division, but they already find themselves behind Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan thanks to the pounding they took in Columbus two weeks ago. Fortunately, there is plenty of time for Nebraska to make up ground, and it starts with a tough game at Northwestern this weekend. The Huskers must show that their defense is improved, or Kain Colter may do a Braxton Miller impression and send them packing. Yes, Northwestern will put up points in this game, but I expect Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska rushing attack to more than make up for it and put Big Red back into the Legends hunt.

2. Michigan
After coming up short in South Bend three weeks ago, Denard Robinson ran circles around Purdue and Illinois to set the stage for what should be the highest scoring Michigan vs. Ohio State game of all time. However, there is plenty of football to be played before then. For example, this weekend the Wolverines take on their in-state rivals from East Lansing. The Spartans have slowed down Michigan’s Denard-centric offense in the past, but this year the Green and White are missing the proper offensive components to triumph. Expect Michigan to churn out enough points to win, but if Robinson turns the ball over a couple of times and the Spartans get Le’Veon Bell going, it could be upset city.

1. Ohio State
Yeah, Ohio State is still number one, even after they were nearly upended by Indiana. The Hoosiers needed an onside kick just to get within three of Ohio State, and I think they’ll roll up a bunch of points on any Big Ten team they play anyway. The whooping of Nebraska from two weeks ago still stands up as the most impressive win of any team in the conference this season, and Braxton Miller has already become one of the best players in the country. There’s still plenty of challenges ahead for Urban Meyer’s squad, but this weekend’s home date versus Purdue shouldn’t be one of them. The Boilers struggled to do much offensively against Michigan and Wisconsin, so it will be interesting to see how Ohio State’s defense stands up, as the unit looks to be significantly weaker than it’s been in recent years.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s rankings. Follow me on Twitter @apy5000.

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