The non-conference season is finally (mostly) over. Besides a game each for Penn State and Rutgers, which both have matchups left against Army, the rest of the season will pit Big Ten against Big Ten as the road to Indianapolis officially begins.
So where does the Big Ten rank, now that the judgement period has come and gone? As a conference, the Big Ten finished just 7-8 against other power five teams, losing two of three to the Big 12, splitting 3-3 with the ACC, beating the Pac-12 3-2 and falling in the only Big Ten-SEC battle.
But the difference in the conference this season is the strength of a middle class that’s lagged behind the rest of the country in recent seasons. Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin still bear the flag for the Big Ten, but now they have company on the national stage. Five Big Ten teams went a perfect 4-0 through the non-conference schedule and two of the one-loss teams are ranked in the top 25. It looks like as many as six teams have a chance to win nine games this season.
Unfortunately, the Big Ten’s bottom-feeders are still very, very bad. Purdue managed just one win in the non-conference season after losing to Marshall and Bowling Green and getting bombed at home by Virginia Tech. Maryland has been an embarrassment, falling to Bowling Green and West Virginia by a combined 60 points. Illinois and Rutgers are a combined 5-2 in the non-conference, but neither team played anyone better than Washington State.
The East Division certainly emerged as the stronger half of the Big Ten, despite the presence of Maryland and Rutgers in the cellar. Ohio State and Michigan State hold the top spots in the national rankings and Michigan has morphed into a potential threat under Jim Harbaugh. East teams finished 5-3 against power five teams and 22-6 overall during the non-conference schedule, while the West went just 2-5 against power five teams and 20-8 overall.
In the national landscape, the Big Ten is right there with the Pac-12 and the SEC for top conference in the FBS. The preseason rankings gave the SEC an unearned head start, but that couldn’t save pretenders like Auburn and Arkansas from quickly falling out of contention. Teams like South Carolina, Missouri and Tennessee aren’t where they were expected to be. Without that depth below juggernauts like Alabama and LSU, the SEC’s rein atop college football is vulnerable.
The PAC-12 is headed in the other direction. UCLA and Utah are legitimate top 10 teams, which helps lessen the blow of Oregon’s fall from grace. If Stanford, USC and Arizona can bounce back from early losses, the conference might be the deepest in the nation.
But over the next eight weeks, each conference will turn its attention inward as the battle for conference championships begins. Here’s how the Big Ten stacks up heading into conference play.
|1. Ohio State (4-0, 0-0) – Up 1
|Last Week: Beat W. Michigan 38-12
||This Week: Sat at Indiana (4-0), 3:30pm, ABC
Surprise! Ohio State regained the top spot this week with an easy victory over Western Michigan. The 38-12 win was less important to the Buckeyes than Cardale Jones’ bounce back from a two-interception effort against Northern Illinois. Jones threw for 288 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on Saturday to solidify his grip on the starting job. The Broncos couldn’t handle Ezekiel Elliott either, watching him run for 124 yards on just 16 carries. Ohio State gained over 500 yards of offense, but interceptions are still a problem. OSU has thrown the 10th-most picks in college football through Week 4, a surprising number from a team expected to field two All-Big Ten quality quarterbacks. The Buckeyes have an insanely easy path to Indy, with no tough games on the schedule until Nov. 21. But teams like Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois hung around against the Buckeyes, so the top team in the country is certainly beatable.
|2. Michigan State (4-0, 0-0) – Down 1
|Last Week: Beat C. Michigan 30-10
||This Week: Sat vs Purdue (1-3), 12pm, ESPN2
The Spartans didn’t fall from the top of the East because of Oregon’s performance; they fell because they struggled to close out another MAC foe. Central Michigan trailed by only a touchdown midway through the 4th quarter before a pair of late Spartan touchdowns sealed the deal. Michigan State struggled to put Western Michigan, Oregon and Central Michigan away during the non-conference season, despite the combined 4-8 record of those opponents. Unfortunately, Oregon’s rapid demise erased the only quality win on MSU’s resume, sapping the luster from its non-conference resume. Connor Cook was solid again in the 30-10 victory Saturday, completing 11 of 19 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown. Madre London continued to impress, averaging 4.9 yards on 15 carries. Defensively, Michigan state allowed CMU to complete 26 of 39 passes and gain 340 total yards. The Spartans have allowed 396 yards per game and rank just 77th in the country in total defense.
|3. Michigan (3-1, 0-0) – Even
|Last Week: Beat BYU 31-0
||This Week: Sat at Maryland (2-2), 8pm, BTN
Don’t look now, but there’s a buzz coming from Ann Arbor. Michigan was the Big Ten’s biggest winner on Saturday, crushing then –No. 22 BYU, 31-0, in the Big House. Jake Rudock led the show on offense, throwing for 194 yards, rushing for 33 more and scoring three total touchdowns. What caused his sudden turnaround? The offensive line. Rudock had more time than he knew what to do with on Saturday and even had time to scramble for positive yards after going through his progressions. Tim Drevno has turned the line into a strength and everybody on the offense – especially De’Veon Smith – is benefiting. Smith turned in his second 100-yard game Saturday, rumbling his way to 125 yards on 16 carries. Smith’s best run came in the second quarter, when he disappeared into the pile only to reappear, spin out of a tackle and dash into the end zone 60 yards later. Amara Darboh was the other offensive hero, making an Odell Beckham-like grab to set up Michigan’s first touchdown and finishing with four catches, 57 yards and a touchdown.
The Wolverines’ defense was even better, holding BYU to 105 yards and picking up that elusive first shutout. Players were frustrated last week when UNLV scored in the 4th quarter to end a shutout bid, but this week they finished the job against a much better offense. Tanner Mangum passed for only 55 yards, while the team’s leading rusher, Adam Hine, got only eight carries for 33 yards. Harbaugh insists the team is still a work in progress, but the improvement since Week 1 has been incredible. If this defense keeps it up, and Rudock takes care of the football, Michigan will have something to say in the East race.
|4. Indiana (4-0, 1-0) – Up 1
|Last Week: Beat Wake Forest 31-24
||This Week: Sat vs #1 OSU (4-0), 3:30pm, ABC
In the first three weeks of the season, Indiana knocked off an FCS school and a pair of Conference USA schools by an average of six points to jump out to a fluky 3-0 start. The Hoosiers finally picked up a solid victory Saturday when they went to Wake Forest and earned a road win over a power five team. Jordan Howard put the Indiana offense on his back, running for 168 yards and a score on 33 carries. Nate Sudfeld was steady in the passing game, passing for 205 yards and two touchdowns. In the upset of the week, Indiana’s defense held a team under 400 yards, allowing Wake Forest to rush for only 99 on the ground. The Hoosiers are undefeated to begin conference play, but don’t expect that to last long. The defense allows 499 yards per game, which ranks 117th in the nation. That’ll never hold up against a schedule with offenses like Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa on the horizon.
|5. Penn State (3-1, 1-0) – Down 1
|Last Week: Beat SDSU 37-21
||This Week: Sat vs Army (1-3), 12pm, ESPNU
Christian Hackenberg played his best game since freshman year Saturday when he completed 60 percent of his passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns. Penn State’s offense, which scored just 21.67 points per game over the first three weeks, exploded for 37 points as the Nittany Lions rolled over San Diego State. Penn State dominated on both sides of the ball, outgaining SDSU 400-242 and recovering three fumbles. Is Penn State a contender or a pretender in the East this season? After an embarrassing loss at Temple to start the year, James Franklin’s team bounced back with three fairly easy wins. The defense, which allowed the second fewest yards per game in the FBS last season, will pace the Nittany Lions as Hackenberg and the offense battle to keep up. If freshman running back Saquon Barkley, who’s already rushed for 373 yards on 42 carries (8.9 yards per carry), can take the reins of the offense away from the passing game, Penn State will be a tough team to play.
|6. Rutgers (2-2, 0-1) – Up 1
|Last Week: Beat Kansas 27-14
||This Week: Bye (10/10 vs #2 MSU)
Do I have to rank the last two teams? Yes? Fine, I’ll go with Rutgers at No. 6. The Scarlett Knights are an embarrassment off the field, but they did manage to beat one of the worst power five teams in the country Saturday. Josh Hicks ran all over the Kansas defense, picking up 113 yards and two touchdowns. Rutgers gained over 500 yards of total offense despite turning the ball over three times to the Jayhawks. Kyle Flood’s team already got blown out in their Big Ten opener in Week 3 and probably won’t be favored to win a game until it hosts Maryland in the final game of the season.
|7. Maryland (2-2, 0-0) – Down 1
|Last Week: Lost to W. Virginia 6-45
||This Week: Sat vs Michigan (3-1), 8pm, BTN
If you thought Michigan’s shutout win over BYU was a massacre, just wait until you hear about Maryland’s trip to West Virginia. Week 4 was a total disaster for the Terrapins. A painful, turnover-riddled disaster that, of course, ended with Maryland failing to convert a two-point conversion that would have pulled it within 37. Yes, it was as ugly as it sounds. West Virginia scored touchdowns on its first three drives, none of which lasted more than three minutes. The Mountaineers scored 45 unanswered points to start the game, picking up 601 yards and 37 first downs. The Terrapins only held the ball for about 23 minutes, but that was enough time to throw five interceptions and turn the ball over six times. Caleb Rowe, who took over as starting quarterback after the team’s disastrous Week 2 loss to Bowling Green, threw four picks and completed just 10 of 27 passes. Only Brandon Ross, who gained 130 rushing yards on 15 carries, came to play for the Terps. Maryland needs to get the turnovers under control soon as two strong defensive teams (Michigan and Ohio State) come next on the schedule.
|1. Northwestern (4-0, 0-0) – Even
|Last Week: Beat Ball State 24-19
||This Week: Sat vs Minnesota (3-1), 12pm, BTN
Things got a little hairy for the Wildcats Saturday when Ball State hung around until the final drive of a 24-19 Northwestern win. For the first time this season, Pat Fitzgerald’s defense showed a chink in the armor, allowing 359 yards to the Cardinals offense. Riley Neal completed only 14 of 35 passes against Northwestern, but a handful of big plays allowed him to rack up 178 yards and two touchdowns. Ball State also averaged more than five yards per carry against a front seven that was rock solid against Stanford and Duke earlier in the month. But Justin Jackson wouldn’t let the Wildcats’ perfect record go up in flames, leading the team with 184 rushing yards. Clayton Thorson bounced back from a terrible performance at Duke to throw for 256 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. The Big Ten opener will be a big one for Northwestern as Minnesota visits Evanston to set up a heavy defensive battle.
|2. Iowa (4-0, 0-0) – Even
|Last Week: Beat N. Texas 62-14
||This Week: Sat @ #19 Wisconsin (3-1), 12pm, ESPN
Iowa coasted through a much-needed break Saturday after two straight wins over power five opponents. The offense erupted against North Texas, scoring 48 points on 488 yards. Iowa also returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the second half, polishing off a 62-16 masterpiece. C.J. Beathard continued to dominate under center, completing an incredible 18 of 21 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns. Jordan Canzeri bullied a weak North Texas front seven for 115 yards and four touchdowns, giving him eight scores on the year. There’s no way Beathard will complete over 68 percent of his passes in Big Ten play, but he looks like a definite upgrade at quarterback and an excellent complement to Canzeri. With a strong defense and an offense that’s averaging 37.75 points per game, Iowa is a real threat in the West. But all three games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska are on the road, so the Hawkeyes will have to be just as good away from Kinnick to compete. Perhaps the greatest hurdle comes Saturday in Madison.
|3. Wisconsin (3-1, 0-0) – Even
|Last Week: Beat Hawaii 28-0
||This Week: Sat vs Iowa (3-1), 12pm, ESPN
Wisconsin rolled over its third straight cupcake opponent Saturday, shutting out Hawaii 28-0. Freshman running back Taiwan Deal built on his 84-yard performance in Week 3 with 147 rushing yards on 25 carries. He’s scored four touchdowns for the Badgers this season and looks like the best option in the backfield heading into Big Ten season. Joel Stave enjoyed a typical, steady non-conference season, completing over 66 percent of his passes for 830 yards, seven touchdowns and two picks. Thanks to an efficient offense and a defense that allowed just three points in the last three games, the road to the West Division title still runs through Wisconsin.
|4. Nebraska (2-2, 0-0) – Up 1
|Last Week: Beat Southern Miss 36-28
||This Week: Sat at Illinois (3-1), 3:30pm, BTN
Nebraska’s rise to No. 4 in the West is more of an indictment on the rest of the division than an endorsement of the Cornhuskers’ body of work. Tommy Armstrong moved past his devastating overtime interception that doomed Nebraska in Week 3 to throw for 368 yards. He also rushed seven times for 63 yards and scored three total touchdowns in the game. Jordan Westerkamp is one of the conference’s toughest matchups at wide receiver, heading into conference play with 26 catches for 351 yards and four touchdowns in four games. Nebraska is looking to score its way through the Big Ten this season after allowing 12 touchdowns over the four games. Turnovers and penalties have also been a major issue during the rocky start. Poor defense, poor ball security and poor discipline is a dangerous recipe against a defensive-minded division.
|5. Minnesota (3-1, 0-0) – Down 1
|Last Week: Beat Ohio 27-24
||This Week: Sat at #16 Northwestern (4-0), 12pm, BTN
Since coming within a play of knocking off No. 2 TCU in the opener, Minnesota has beaten three weak opponents by a field goal each. This week, the Ohio Bobcats fell victim to the Gophers’ late heroics as a Shannon Brooks touchdown run gave Minnesota the lead with 30 seconds left on the clock. For the first time all season the Gophers got into a rhythm on offense, gaining 268 yards, picking up 24 first downs and scoring three touchdowns. Mitch Leidner threw for 264 yards, but all three Minnesota scores can on the ground – One by Leidner and two by Brooks. Ohio set a new high against Minnesota’s vaunted defense, scoring 24 points but falling short on a Hail Mary pass from the 41-yard line. A delay of game penalty after a time out pushed a potential 53-yard field goal attempt out of range and erased the Bobcats’ chance to tie the game. If the Golden Gophers can only beat Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio by three points, it’s hard to see them competing in the Big Ten.
|6. Illinois (3-1, 0-0) – Even
|Last Week: Beat Middle Tenn. 27-25
||This Week: Sat vs Nebraska (2-2), 12pm, BTN
In the wake of Illinois’ beat down at the hands of North Carolina, Middle Tennessee State nearly went into Champaign and poured salt in the still-festering wound. Illinois needed a 51-yard field goal from Taylor Zalewski with 2:09 left on the clock to escape the Blue Raiders, thanks to a missed 43-yarder that would have flipped the script with eight seconds to go. The Fighting Illini won their first two games by a combined 93 points, but a 34-point loss to UNC exposed them as frauds. Conference wins will be tough to come by for Illinois this season.
|7. Purdue (1-3, 0-0) – Even
|Last Week: Lost to Bowling Green 28-35
||This Week: Sat vs at #2 MSU (4-0), 12pm, ESPN2
Ah, yes. The only Big Ten team with a losing record. Purdue capped off a terrible non-conference season with a home loss to Bowling Green, giving up over 30 points for the third time. The Big Ten slaying Falcons passed for over 400 yards and converted 11 of 16 first downs to outlast Purdue in the final seconds of the game. Travis Greene’s 11th carry of the game went for a 12-yard touchdown that capped an 80-yard drive and sealed Purdue’s fate. New starting quarterback David Blough played a solid game, completing 29 of 39 passes for 340 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. The freshman got no help from his running backs, who averaged just 2.4 yards per carry. When it boils down to it, the Boilermakers don’t have much firepower heading into a difficult month of October. The beat down begins Saturday in East Lansing.