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Big Ten power rankings: Are Penn State and Minnesota serious contenders?

MLive Ann Arbor 9/29/2022 Andrew Kahn, mlive.com

It’s finally here: A full slate of Big Ten action. All 14 teams have now played at least one Big Ten game, and the entire league will play conference matchups this Saturday (Oct. 1).

At this point in the season, the Big Ten has a hierarchy. There’s Ohio State and Michigan, ranked third and fourth, respectively, in the major polls. There’s Penn State and Minnesota, also ranked, but a notch below elite. There’s a muddled middle of mediocrity, though the likes of Iowa, Indiana, and others will get a chance to pull off some upsets, starting this week. And then there’s Northwestern and Nebraska, floundering at the bottom.

The exact order, according to this writer, is below.

14. Nebraska

Last week’s ranking: 14; Overall record (Big Ten): 1-3 (0-1); Up next: Indiana

Interim head coach Mickey Joseph will try for his first win as rumors swirl about who Nebraska might target for the job full time. Judging Joseph on the Oklahoma game was totally unfair. He’s had a bye week to prepare for Indiana.

13. Northwestern

Last week: 13; Record: 1-3 (1-0); Up next: at Penn State

Yikes. The Wildcats are technically tied atop the Big Ten West but have now lost three straight against Duke, Southern Illinois, and Miami Ohio (17-14 on Saturday). Ben Roethlisberger was Miami’s quarterback the last time that program beat a Big Ten team.

12. Purdue

Last week: 12; Record: 2-2 (0-1); Up next: at Minnesota

Austin Burton made his first start since his 2019, when he was at UCLA, and threw three touchdowns in place of the injured Aidan O’Connell in a 28-26 win over Florida Atlantic. Forget the opponent; the Boilermakers needed it after two close losses earlier this season.

11. Rutgers

Last week: 9; Record: 3-1 (0-1); Up next: at Ohio State

These rankings thought this could be the year Rutgers made some noise in the Big Ten. Alas, the Scarlet Knights fell flat at home against Iowa on Saturday night, losing 27-10. They are now a combined 2-37 against the Big Ten’s best — Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin — since joining the conference.

10. Michigan State

Last week: 5; Record: 2-2 (0-1); Up next: at Maryland

Here’s MLive’s Matt Wenzel on the situation in East Lansing after a 34-7 home loss to Minnesota: “Aside from having one of the nation’s top punters, almost nothing else is working for the Spartans. They can’t get stops and the pass defense looks just as bad, if not somehow possibly worse, than it did a year ago while finishing last in the nation in yards allowed through the air. The offense can’t run the ball against good competition and, a third of the way through the season, (quarterback Payton) Thorne’s overall play has regressed and is far off the level that was expected for the offense to take another step from last year.”

9. Illinois

Last week: 11; Record: 3-1 (0-1); Up next: at Wisconsin

After a 31-0 win over visiting Chattanooga on Thursday night, Illinois is off to its best start since 2015. That was also the last time the Illini pitched a shutout. Illinois is fifth in the country in total defense and is one late stop away from a perfect record. Bret Beilema gets his former school on Saturday.

8. Wisconsin

Last week: 6; Record: 2-2 (0-1); Up next: Illinois

Even being ranked here might be generous for a team that has defeated New Mexico State and Illinois State and nobody else this season. On Saturday night in Columbus, the Badgers trailed 21-0 after the first quarter and never got closer, losing 52-21. If you want another example of the gap between the Big Ten’s divisions, a look at the top team in each says a lot: Wisconsin has now lost nine straight to Ohio State, with two 31-point losses in addition to a 59-point defeat.

7. Indiana

Last week: 7; Record: 3-1 (1-0); Up next: at Nebraska

The Hoosiers couldn’t hang with a good Cincinnati team on the road, falling 45-24. Three turnovers didn’t help. They get a chance to right the ship against the Big Ten’s worst team on Saturday.

6. Maryland

Last week: 8; Record: 3-1 (0-1); Up next: Michigan State

The Terrapins aren’t penalized — and are actually rewarded, given other teams’ failures — for losing a close one at Michigan, 34-27. Mike Locksley was not happy about how his team gave Michigan a few “cheap” touchdowns.

5. Iowa

Last week: 10; Record: 3-1 (1-0); Up next: Michigan

These rankings weren’t sold on Iowa, but a dominant road win, even at Rutgers, was enough for a big surge. The Hawkeyes’ defense scored two touchdowns, meaning the defense outscored both the Iowa offense and the Rutgers offense. Spencer Petras and the offense will have to elevate their play on Saturday in a rematch of last season’s Big Ten championship, won by Michigan 42-3.

4. Minnesota

Last week: 4; Record: 4-0 (1-0); Up next: Purdue

The Golden Gophers absolutely dominated Michigan State in East Lansing, outgaining the hosts 508 yards to 240 while intercepting two passes and recovering a fumble. Minnesota is third in the country in total offense, third in rush defense, and hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown.

3. Penn State

Last week: 3; Record: 4-0 (1-0); Up next: Northwestern

The Nittany Lions were never seriously challenged by Central Michigan, winning 33-14. Expect a similar situation against Northwestern. It means that Penn State will likely be undefeated going into Ann Arbor for a potential top-10 matchup on Oct. 15.

2. Michigan

Last week: 2; Record: 4-0 (1-0); Up next: at Iowa

Like the Big Ten opener against Rutgers last year, Michigan wasn’t perfectly crisp but still won. Maryland botched the game’s opening kickoff, leading to a Michigan touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, and yet the Wolverines could never pull away. Now they go to Kinnick Stadium, where they’ve lost four straight, not winning since 2005.

1. Ohio State

Last week: 1; Record: 4-0 (1-0); Up next: Rutgers

The last time Ohio State lost more than one Big Ten game in a season was 2011, Luke Fickell’s interim year. The Buckeyes got off to a great start in 2022 on Saturday, stomping Wisconsin. This offense is second in the country in total yards despite Jaxon Smith-Njigba barely playing due to an injury.

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