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Big Ten Football Power Rankings, Week 6: COVID cancelations complicate the conference

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Who could’ve seen this coming?

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

With two games canceled last week due to COVID-19 outbreaks and another two cancelations on the way for this week’s slate of games, the Big Ten has fallen into pandemic-induced mayhem. Here’s a look at this week’s power rankings as multiple programs fight to keep the season afloat in the face of the virus.

14. Nebraska (1-4)

Last ranking: 12

Last result: L @ Iowa (20-26)

Next: @ Purdue

There were some bright spots in the Cornhuskers’ play in Iowa City on Friday. Their run defense — ranked 13th in the conference in yards against heading into the game — allowed only 123 yards on the ground to Iowa, which was the Hawkeyes’ second poorest rushing performance of the season. That said, when the Huskers were prompted with a chance to put together a game-winning drive down six with two minutes to go, they once again failed to capitalize, literally fumbling away their chance at their first road win in the season they so desperately needed.

13. Purdue (2-3)

Last ranking: 8

Last result: L vs. Rutgers (30-37)

Next: vs. Nebraska

After losing to Minnesota on a controversial offensive pass interference call a week earlier, the Boilermakers earned some sympathy and only fell to eighth in these rankings. They get no such treatment this week, as they made Rutgers’ second and third-string quarterbacks look like superstars en route to a seven-point defeat at home to the Scarlet Knights.

12. Michigan (2-4)

Last ranking: 7

Last result: L vs. Penn State (17-27)

Next: Game vs. Maryland canceled due to COVID-19

Heading into Saturday’s game with previously-winless Penn State, Michigan hadn’t lost to the Nittany Lions in Ann Arbor since 2009. The 11-year-long streak came to an end in an ugly battle between the two big-name programs, each in the midst of down years. No area was a more glaring issue than the pass game, which has been a cause of concern for the Wolverines all season long, as Cade McNamara and Joe Milton combined for only 112 yards passing. To make matters worse, a recent COVID-19 outbreak within the program forced a cancelation of their next contest against Maryland and may deny them the opportunity to play spoiler against arch rival Ohio State.

11. Penn State (1-5)

Last ranking: 14

Last result: W @ Michigan (27-17)

Next: @ Rutgers

Perhaps the most unbelievable story in the Big Ten this season has been Penn State’s absolutely atrocious play after entering the season ranked eighth nationally. Luckily for Nittany Lion fans and James Franklin, who was fire for the team’s performance this season after signing a massive extension in the offseason, their winless ways came to an end at the Big House on Saturday behind a 254 yard team rushing performance. This week, they’ll have an opportunity to build on whatever momentum their victory over Michigan generated and potentially get another road win against a lower-tier Big Ten team as they head into New Brunswick to face Rutgers.

10. Rutgers (2-4)

Last ranking: 11

Last result: W vs. Purdue (37-30)

Next: vs. Penn State

One might’ve thought that losing starting quarterback Noah Vedral would’ve significantly hurt the Scarlet Knights’ chances against Purdue, but Johnny Langan and Artur Sitkowski provided more than sufficient replacement. The two backups completed 22 of their 31 passes for a total of 236 yards and three touchdowns, as Rutgers secured their second win of the season. Greg Schiano’s team has shown significant improvement in his first year in New Jersey, but a win against Penn State would provide them with a victory against a big-name Big Ten program that they’ve failed to attain for years.

9. Illinois (2-3)

Last ranking: 10

Last result: Game vs. Ohio State canceled due to COVID-19

Next: vs. Iowa

The fall of Michigan and Purdue has prompted Illinois to jump a slot in the rankings this week despite the fact that the battle for the Illibuck Trophy was canceled at the last-minute due to Ohio State’s COVID-19 outbreak. The Illini could bolster or improve their stature, however, by ending Iowa’s four game winning streak this week in Urbana-Champaign.

8. Michigan State (2-3)

Last ranking: 13

Last result: W vs. Northwestern (29-20)

Next: vs. Ohio State

In a season filled with ups and downs for the Spartans, Saturday’s upset of Northwestern may wind up being the most impressive victory of Mel Tucker’s first season in East Lansing. Putting up 29 points against a team with a defense as nationally well-regarded as Northwestern’s is no small task, even if six of those points came on a last-second fumble recovery in the end zone. It wasn’t always pretty, but Rocky Lombardi avoided one of the mistake-laden outings that have plagued his season thus far. As a reward for its efforts, MSU will now get the great pleasure of facing Ohio State if the Buckeyes are eligible to play as they try and contain their COVID-19 outbreak.

7. Minnesota (2-3)

Last ranking: 9

Last result: Game @ Wisconsin canceled due to COVID-19

Next: Game vs. Northwestern canceled due to COVID-19

Like Illinois, the Golden Gophers move up this week in this rankings due to movement around them, but their focus continues to be on trying to contain their COVID-19 outbreak, which has become the conference’s largest this season with 21 players and 26 staff members testing positive, according to UMN’s latest update.

6. Maryland (2-2)

Last ranking: 6

Last result: L @ Indiana (11-27)

Next: Game @ Michigan canceled due to COVID-19

Maryland’s season started in Evanston with a lethargic offensive performance, but the Terrapins turned it around with high-scoring appearances against Minnesota and Penn State. After taking a two-week COVID-induced break, though, the Terps once again failed to get anything going offensively, scoring only three points outside of the final two minutes of their game against Indiana behind a three-interception performance from Taulia Tagovailoa. Luckily for them, the conference is enough of a mess for it not to impact their ranking. Now, they’ll miss another game due to COVID problems, this time on account of an outbreak at their scheduled opponent, Michigan.

5. No. 19 Iowa (4-2)

Last ranking: 5

Last result: W vs. Nebraska (26-20)

Next: @ Illinois

No aspect of Iowa’s performance against Nebraska was particularly impressive. Spencer Petras had under 200 yards passing and as many interceptions as touchdowns. The rushing attack fell flat against a usually porous Cornhusker defensive front, and the defense was less than dominant, allowing 20 points to UNL’s dual-quarterback-led offensive attack. That said, the Hawkeyes did on Friday what they could not in the first two weeks of the season: finish the job in a close game. As a result, they extended their winning streak to four games and moved into the top 20 in the College Football Playoff Rankings ahead of a road trip east to take on Illinois.

4. No. 16 Wisconsin (2-1)

Last ranking: 4

Last result: Game vs. Minnesota canceled due to COVID-19

Next: vs. Indiana

Minnesota’s COVID-19 outbreak caused the Badgers’ biggest rivalry game of the season, the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, to be canceled. As a result, the Badgers became the first team to become ineligible for the Big Ten Championship Game, as they will not be able to play the requisite six games.

3. No. 14 Northwestern (5-1)

Last ranking: 2

Last result: L @ Michigan State (20-29)

Next: Game @ Minnesota canceled due to COVID-19

After a week of immense hype following an upset win over Wisconsin, the Wildcats killed their College Football Playoff hopes by laying an egg in East Lansing. The defense looked less sharp than they had all year, allowing the Spartans more points than any previous opponent, while the offense turned the ball over twice at key moments in the fourth quarter. The good news for the ‘Cats is that, as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in the Minnesota program, they’ll receive a much needed break. Additionally, barring the cancelation of 12 of the Big Ten’s final 14 games of the season and a loss at Illinois, or a change in Big Ten policy regarding title game eligibility, the cancelation of the Wildcats’ battle with the Gophers means they’ve clinched the Big Ten West title and are headed back to the Big Ten Championship for the second time in three years.

2. No. 12 Indiana (5-1)

Last ranking: 3

Last result: W vs Maryland (27-11)

Next: @ Wisconsin

A week after falling just short of a comeback in Columbus, the Hoosiers got the win against Maryland without ever trailing. That said, in the process, they lost their lifeblood, star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. for the remainder of the season. While Northwestern’s loss to Michigan State prompts a one spot jump in this week’s rankings, it’s hard to see Indiana accomplishing much more this season without Penix or the safety net that Peyton Ramsey provided in his absence last season.

1. No. 4 Ohio State (4-0)

Last ranking: 1

Last result: Game @ Illinois canceled due to COVID-19

Next: @ Michigan State

Following the cancelation of their game against Illinois, the Buckeyes’ margin for further missed matchups has fallen to zero. By rule, they must play six games to be eligible for the Big Ten Championship Game, meaning that they must play both of their remaining games in order to qualify. Without a title game appearance, the Buckeyes, who are the Big Ten’s only remaining playoff contenders, may have a hard time making their case to the College Football Playoff committee, which has placed value in conference championships in prior years.