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Big Ten Football Power Rankings: Penn State, having survived a scare from Iowa, takes top spot

Inside NU’s first Power Rankings of 2017 are here.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

With four full Saturdays of football in the books, we’re beginning to get a sense of what the Big Ten will look like this season.

Of course, plenty will change over the next two months as conference play gets into full swing. Teams that have looked shaky thus far will surprise, and teams that have been dominant will slip up. It happens every year in the Big Ten.

But nearly a month of data is also not insignificant. There is, finally, a moderate sample size to go off of as we assess where the conference’s 14 teams stand right now.

Without further ado, here are Inside NU’s first Big Ten power rankings of the 2017 football season, from the worst of the worst to the group of College Football Playoff contenders. 2017 results are important, but it hasn’t been long enough to make those the only factor; preseason expectations and overall talent levels are still weighed.

14. Rutgers

Your record: 1-3 (0-1 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Rutgers’ campaign began with an impressive performance against No. 8 Washington, trailing by just 3 points at halftime against a team that was in the 2016 Playoff before eventually falling 30-14. Three weeks later, it’s pretty apparent that that first half had more to do with the Huskies’ own lethargy than any improvements in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights lost to Eastern Michigan the following week, irrelevantly blew out an FCS program, then dropped their Big Ten opener to Nebraska. The defense appears to be somewhat more competent than recent years, but QB Kyle Bolin has already thrown 4 picks at the helm of a weak offense.

One image that sums up your start:

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Rutgers
Chris Ash has made this face a lot already this season.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The next big test: 9/30 vs. OSU. Every Big Ten game is going to be a big test for Rutgers, but especially this Saturday’s matchup against Ohio State. Just...try to get on the scoreboard, fellas.

13. Nebraska

Your record: 2-2 (1-0 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Times are tough in Lincoln right now. Although a 1-1 start — a narrow win over Arkansas State and a tough road loss to Oregon — created some concern, at least the offense was able to put up some points. Then came disaster: a 21-17 home loss to Northern Illinois that led to the firing of AD Shawn Eichorst. A 10-point victory over Rutgers in the Big Ten opener didn’t inspire much confidence, and QB Tanner Lee, who was heavily hyped in the offseason, has already thrown NINE interceptions.

One image that sums up your start:

Oh my god. The tie and sleeves are corn too.

The next big test: 10/7 vs. Wisconsin. In a game that Huskers fans hoped would have major West implications coming into the season, the Badgers’ defense will have a field day with Lee — if he’s still starting.

12. Illinois

Your record: 2-1 (0-0 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Illinois has been about what we expected so far, and that’s a mediocre football team in the Big Ten cellar. After barely surviving Ball State and managing just 20 points against Western Kentucky for a 2-0 start, the Illini were shredded by quarterback Quinton Flowers and an admittedly really good USF team, 47-23. Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. have combined for a 52 percent completion rate and a 2-5 TD-INT ratio for the Big Ten’s lowest scoring team.

One image that sums up your start:

NCAA Football: Illinois at South Florida
USF just had way too many athletes for the Illini.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The next big test: 10/7 @ Iowa. Illinois will have a shot to beat a struggling Nebraska team next week, but a trip to Kinnick Stadium looms as a better indicator of whether or not Lovie Smith’s squad has any chance to stay afloat in the West.

11. Maryland

Your record: 2-1 (0-0 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Maryland represents a perfect example of why post-Week 1 rankings don’t mean much. The Terrapins made a statement in knocking off No. 23 Texas 51-41 to start the year, but due to some tough injury luck, that victory will likely be Maryland’s best of the season. Starting QB Tyrrell Pigrome was lost for the year in that win, and freshman backup Kasim Hill, who played well in the Terps’ Week 2 win over Towson, was also hurt in a 38-10 loss to UCF. The positives: Ty Johnson and DJ Moore are a fun playmaking duo on offense, and you’ve got this going for you:

One image that sums up your start:

NCAA Football: Maryland at Texas
Injuries suck. Get well soon, Tyrell Pigrome.
John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

The next big test: 9/30 @ Minnesota. If Hill can’t return, this is going to be a mighty tough road game for third-stringer Max Bortenschlager.

UPDATE: Hill is out for the season with a torn ACL. This is not good.

10. Michigan State

Your record: 2-1 (0-0 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Sparty looked like a different team than last year’s 3-9 disaster in handling Bowling Green and and Western Michigan to open the season 2-0. But then Notre Dame came to East Lansing and rang up 38 points on Mark Dantonio’s squad in a blowout victory. Dual-threat quarterback Brian Lewerke has been much better as a sophomore, but it remains to be seen if Michigan State’s run defense will hold up in Big Ten play.

One image that sums up your start:

Notre Dame v Michigan State
We’re gonna lose to a team that went 4-8?
Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The next big test: 9/30 vs. Iowa. Stopping Akrum Wadley and the Hawkeyes will be a tough task for the Spartans, although they do get to open conference play at home.

9. Northwestern

Your record: 2-1 (0-0 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Northwestern survived a scare against Nevada, but it turned out that slow start was a sign of things to come, as the Wildcats were absolutely throttled by Duke in Durham. They bounced back with a convincing win over an awful Bowling Green team, but the line play on both sides of the ball will need to improve for this preseason sleeper to contend in the West. There is still plenty of talent at the offensive skill positions and in the secondary, but can NU even hang with the likes of Wisconsin and Penn State?

One image that sums up your start:

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke
Can we get Godwin some help, defense?
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The next big test: 9/30 @ Wisconsin. With two weeks to prepare, Northwestern will give the Badgers its best shot. Can the Wildcats stop the run and move the ball against a stout defense?

8. Indiana

Your record: 2-1 (0-1 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Indiana and its revamped defense hung with then-No. 2 Ohio State for two quarters, leading 14-13 at half back on Thursday, August 31. Then the Buckeyes pulled away and eventually romped. The Hoosiers bounced back and only allowed 17 points in each of their last two games, wins over Virginia and Georgia Southern. The defense, led by LB Tegray Scales, is legit, as are RB Morgan Ellison and WR Simmie Cobbs Jr. The question is if the offensive line can hold up, and if Tom Allen can find a capable quarterback in Richard Lagow or Peyton Ramsey.

One image that sums up your start:

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Indiana
So close, Indiana.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The next big test: 9/30 @ Penn State. Actually...Indiana’s not gonna come close in that one. Let’s go with 10/14 vs. Michigan, a more winnable game at home and a chance to hang around in the East race.

7. Purdue

Your record: 2-2 (0-1 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Despite failing to capitalize on either of its opportunities for a season-defining win, Purdue is still one of the better stories in the country in Jeff Brohm’s first year. The Boilermakers had halftime leads against No. 16 Louisville and No. 8 Michigan, but couldn’t close the deal either time. In between, they easily handled Ohio and dominated Missouri 35-3 on the road. For a team that won just nine games over Darrell Hazell’s last four seasons (3-30 in conference play!!), this season has already offered unbelievable improvement. Going forward, Purdue could conceivably win 4 or 5 Big Ten games with a soft schedule. Brohm was such a good hire.

One image that sums up your start:

Michigan v Purdue
I could’ve used a mean pic from one of the two losses, but Brohm has re-energized the fan base and let’s focus on that.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The next big test: 10/7 vs. Minnesota. The new-coach bowl should be an interesting one. This is the type of home game Purdue could seriously win this year.

6. Minnesota

Your record: 3-0 (0-0 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Row the Boat. Under new coach PJ Fleck, the Gophers weren’t really challenged during a weak non-conference schedule. None of their three opponents (Buffalo, Oregon State, Middle Tenn) are currently in the top 90 in S&P+. Still, this team looks like it can compete in the Big Ten this year. After looking rusty in a 17-7 win over Buffalo, Minnesota has won its last two by a combined score of 82-17. QB Connor Rhoda has been serviceable, the run game is still strong with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, and the defense might be really good. We’ll see if conference play exposes the Gophers as a year or two away or confirms that they are here to stay under Fleck.

One image that sums up your start:

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Oregon State
ELITE.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The next big test: 10/7 @ Purdue. The Gophers should go to 4-0 when Maryland visits Minneapolis, but this road game will tell us more about them.

5. Iowa

Your record: 3-1 (0-1 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Iowa was one play away from taking down Penn State last Saturday in what was an incredible game, especially the fourth quarter. Ultimately, Trace McSorley made a heck of a throw and the Hawkeyes’ streak of beating top-5 teams at Kinnick ended at 3. In the non-conference, Iowa easily handled Josh Allen and Wyoming, won a thriller in Ames, and took care of North Texas. Unfortunately, Iowa doesn’t get to play every game at home in prime time, but this team can still absolutely compete for the West title. Akrum Wadley and Josey Jewell are stars and QB Nathan Stanley has been great.

One image that sums up your start:

Penn State v Iowa
For a few glorious minutes, Iowa had Penn State beat.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The next big test: 11/4 vs. Ohio State. Iowa could very plausibly win four straight (@MSU, Illinois, @NU, Minnesota) heading into this game and another chance for a marquee win at Kinnick.

4. No. 8 Michigan

Your record: 4-0 (1-0 Big Ten)

Early season summary: We’re now into the upper tier of the conference. In the latest AP Poll, all four of these teams are in the Top 11. Michigan has done everything it’s been asked to, but I still can’t put it over any of the next three squads. The Wolverines opened the season with a big second half performance in a win over No. 17 Florida, and did the same against Purdue. Wilton Speight got hurt against the Boilermakers and may have been Wally Pipped by John O’Korn. Ty Isaac is an excellent RB, the defense is loaded with talent, and Quinn Nordin may be the best kicker in the country.

One image that sums up your start:

Michigan v Purdue
Too good for Purdue. Bigger tests await.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The next big test: 10/21 @ Penn State. I think it’s a safe bet to say Michigan isn’t going to win this matchup by 39 again. This one is going to be a whole lotta fun under the Beaver Stadium lights.

3. No. 11 Ohio State

Your record: 3-1 (1-0 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Ranking Ohio State over Michigan might be controversial, but I can’t put the second-best team in the country (according to S&P+) at No. 4 in its own conference. As mentioned earlier, the Buckeyes pulled away from Indiana in the opener, but then...Oklahoma came to Columbus. In a highly-anticipated top-5 matchup, Baker Mayfield shredded the OSU secondary and JT Barrett struggled mightily in a 31-16 loss that ended with Mayfield driving an OU flag into midfield at Ohio Stadium. Blowout wins over cupcakes Army and UNLV haven’t proven much, but the talent on this roster warrants the third spot. JK Dobbins and Parris Campbell are an awesome RB-WR tandem and Nick Bosa leads a menacing front seven, but Barrett needs to play better against top competition.

One image that sums up your start:

OSU can still make the Playoff, but this is going to hurt for a while.
KYLE ROBERTSON, THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

The next big test: 10/28 vs. Penn State. OSU won’t be tested until Saquon Barkley and Co. come to town in a game that could determine the East champion.

2. No. 10 Wisconsin

Your record: 3-0 (0-0 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Wisconsin hasn’t played a top-70 S&P+ team yet this season, but has done exactly what elite teams playing bad teams should do — rout everyone. Alex Hornibrook and a talented group of RBs led by freshman Jonathan Taylor get to play behind an incredible offensive line, Troy Fumagalli is an elite tight end, and the defense has plenty of pieces. The runaway favorites in the West, Wisconsin avoids Penn State and Ohio State and gets Michigan at home. Playoff sleeper?

One image that sums up your start:

Florida Atlantic v Wisconsin
This freshman is legit.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The next big test: 9/30 vs. Northwestern. YUP. THAT’S RIGHT. THIS IS A BIG GAME. NORTHWESTERN COULD MAYBE WIN. STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED. THE ROAD TEAM HAS WON TWO STRAIGHT IN THIS SERIE— *gets hit with frying pan*

1. No. 4 Penn State

Your record: 4-0 (1-0 Big Ten)

Early season summary: Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma are the only teams ranked above Penn State, and I’m not sure the latter two are better than the Nittany Lions. This is a complete team that features the best player in the country, a gunslinging QB, and a filthy defense. It was a little unfair to make Akron (lost 52-0) and Georgia State (lost 56-0) play this team. Penn State also comfortably beat in-state rivals Pitt and of course, Saquon Barkley’s superhuman 305 scrimmage yards helped it survive Iowa.

One image that sums up your start:

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa
See lead image of this article. Here’s another Barkley picture though.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The next big test(s): 10/21 vs. Michigan, 10/28 @ Ohio State. It would be a major upset if Penn State lost any of the other six remaining games on its schedule. Assuming that doesn’t happen, splitting this two-game stretch (and winning the B1G championship game) could be enough to reach the Playoff.