Now that the non-conference portion of the schedule is mercifully over, we know a little bit more about the Big Ten than we did a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the script reads the same for most Big Ten teams: "Team X struggled with [really critical part of the game] and wound up suffering [insert embarrassing loss here]." Of the Big Ten teams, only Ohio State, Minnesota, and Northwestern are undefeated, and between them, they've only beaten one FBS (1-A) team with a winning record thus far: UCF, who Ohio State beat 31-16. There was more than our fair share of embarrassing upset losses at home -- Iowa lost to Central Michigan, Illinois was routed by Louisiana Tech, Indiana lost at to Ball State, and Penn State fell to Ohio. The PAC-12 went 3-0 in one week against the Big Ten -- Oregon State upset Wisconsin, Illinois was blown out by Arizona State, and Nebraska fell to UCLA. Notre Dame defeated Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan to finish 3-0 against the conference. Michigan was simply outclassed in the league's one matchup against an elite national foe, Alabama. Even the Big Ten's only semblance of a marquee win -- Michigan State's season-opening win over Boise State -- looks much worse than it did a few weeks ago, considering how the Broncos have struggled on offense since then.
Simply put, it's been a horrifically bad showing from the Big Ten in the non-conference season, and everyone knows it. Until the bowl season comes along, there's no chance to rectify the perception that the Big Ten is a very bad conference this, which it very well may be. The conference season will proceed with derision from our contemporaries from around the country, and rightfully so. Since every team has looked vulnerable and each could be on varying levels of mediocrity, we could be in for a very exciting -- if not aesthetically pleasant -- Big Ten season this year. When Northwestern and Purdue are seriously discussed as favorites to make it to the championship game, it's going to be crazy. Onto the rankings:
- Ohio State (4-0)
- Purdue (2-1)
- Northwestern (4-0)
- Nebraska (3-1)
- Michigan (2-2)
- Michigan State 3-1)
- Minnesota (4-0)
- Wisconsin (3-1)
- Penn State (2-2)
- Indiana (2-1)
- Iowa (2-2)
- Illinois (2-2)
Ohio State is the consensus "best" team in the conference and it's pretty hard to argue that at this point, although the Buckeyes do appear to have some serious weaknesses. Their defense -- and the secondary, in particular -- is inconsistent, and their offense needs to generate some production from someone other than Braxton Miller. Still, we're nitpicking when we consider where the rest of the conference is with their respective issues, so Ohio State gets the nod as the top team despite looking less-than-stellar against an unimpressive slate of opponents.
Yes, Purdue is number two. I essentially ranked Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State based on how they did against their one common opponent (Notre Dame), and Purdue easily did the best. The Boilermakers have some playmakers on defense, enough weapons on offense to keep the defense honest, and they didn't blow it against either cupcake on their schedule. I know that Purdue seems a bit high, but considering that Notre Dame dominated Michigan and MSU, I think that almost beating the Irish on the road might be the Big Ten's best showing in the non-conference (which I know is terrible. It's been a terrible year). Michigan slides ahead of Michigan State because the Wolverines didn't have problems with UMass and Michigan State really struggled with an Eastern Michigan team that's only marginally better. There's a reason why Mark Dantonio was so irritated during his post-game presser: his offense struggled against one of the worst defenses in the country.
Northwestern and Minnesota are both undefeated, but neither team has been tested. Minnesota is pretty low for an undefeated team -- they barely skated by an atrocious UNLV team and narrowly avoided an upset bid from Western Michigan. Northwestern may have beaten three BCS opponents, but none of those teams have beaten an FBS team yet -- Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Boston College may be among the worst BCS teams in the country. Still, Northwestern is undefeated, which is more than almost anyone else in the conference can say.
Nebraska is number four by default. Their offense looks good, they beat the daylights out of some horrible teams at home, and they lost to UCLA. No one has any idea what to think of them just yet, but having the best offense in the conference is probably good enough to be ahead of teams like Michigan and Michigan State who have really struggled on offense. The Husker defense is still a huge concern though.
Wisconsin somehow made it into Big Ten play at 3-1, but has looked extremely unimpressive in doing so. They stalled a would-be go-ahead drive by Northern Iowa, barely escaped Utah State, didn't look very good in a win over UTEP, and only put up three points on an Oregon State team that might actually be better than we thought it was. Bad quarterback play, a graduate assistant as the offensive line coach, and injuries to their star tailback, and it looks like Wisconsin's offensive issues will persist throughout the season. Even with all of those problems, they still have a very good chance of making it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title. Penn State might be better than people think, but they -- unlike Wisconsin, for the most part -- didn't manage to avoid those bad losses, dropping a home contest to an underrated MAC team, Ohio, and losing on the road to Virginia.
Take your pick between Indiana, Iowa, and Illinois: they've each suffered a devastating loss at home and each of them are on the outside looking in to get to six wins and bowl eligibility.