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Big Ten Football Power Rankings, Week Nine: Embarking on a historic fight for the East

Those guys from Champaign had a big win this week, I guess.

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NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

If you were a ranked team in the Top 25 whose name started with the letter “P,” you probably didn’t have a good Saturday. With the former AP No. 7 and No. 25, Penn State and Purdue respectively, losing in Week Eight, that now marks six of the eight weeks of the season in which a ranked team in this conference has lost. That trend is guaranteed to continue this week, with two ranked showdowns in the East, and after this Saturday passes, there will only be one undefeated team left in the Big Ten. Without further ado, let’s get into the final power rankings of the month of October.

1. No. 5 Ohio State (6-1, 4-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 1

Last Result: W at Indiana (54-7)

Next: vs. No. 20 Penn State

I’m going to try something a little different this week by highlighting one number that encapsulates the identity of each team. For Ryan Day and co., that number is 49.3, the number of points this high-octane offense is averaging per game this season, which puts them first across the entire college football landscape in that regard. QB CJ Stroud is playing his position better than almost anyone else in the country and has a greater arsenal of weapons available to him than the Commander-in-Chief of the United States military. To put it simply in the days leading up to Halloween, this offense is scary, folks.

2. No. 6 Michigan (7-0, 4-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 3

Last Result: W vs Northwestern (33-7)

Next: at No. 8 Michigan State

I’m only one plus teams into this list and I’m already going to cheat, sort of, and use two numbers for the Ann Arbor-based school: 0.389 and 0.282. Those are the Expected Points Added/play (EPA/play) numbers for Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins, respectively. Of all running backs with 100 countable plays, Corum ranks fourth and Haskins ranks 15th in this metric. That not only speaks to how effective the Wolverines’ rushing attack is, but it’s also remarkable that Michigan has two extremely talented guys at that position when most teams struggle to find one guy at that level. Along with their stout defense, the Wolverines have ridden their backfield tandem to a 7-0 start, and if they want to compete for a conference title, this is the blueprint that will get them there.

3. No. 9 Iowa (6-1, 3-1 B1G)

Last Ranking: 4

Last Result: L vs. Purdue (24-7) (Oct. 16)

Next: at Wisconsin

3. Coincidentally, the Hawkeyes’ number is the same as their ranking in this list, and it’s the number of takeaways their defense is averaging per game. Unsurprisingly, it’s the best in the country, and Iowa’s ability to create turnovers has been the lifeblood of their success this season. Not only have the takeaways taken possessions away from the opposing offense, but they’ve given the Hawkeyes’ own offense a shorter field to work with, and that’s been the difference against Iowa State and Penn State. Additionally, Kirk Ferentz and co. have lost the turnover battle just once this season, and it was in their disastrous loss to Purdue. What’s the moral of the story? If Iowa doesn’t make mistakes and their opponent does, they win.

4. No. 8 Michigan State (7-0, 4-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 5

Last Result: W at Indiana (20-15, Oct. 16)

Next: vs. No. 6 Michigan

Colton Pouncey went much more in depth on this topic in an excellent article for The Athletic, but the Spartans added 15 scholarship transfers last offseason, almost all of whom are now contributing. Those transfers have played a major role in MSU’s turnaround under Mel Tucker, going from 2-5 in their seven game season in 2020 to 7-0 in their first seven games in 2021. The most notable name of those 15? Now Heisman-hopeful Kenneth Walker II, who switched allegiances from Wake Forest and has been one of the best RB’s in the country. Sparty faces Michigan this Saturday in one of the most important showdowns in the rivalry’s 103-year history, with an unblemished record and conference title hopes also on the line in this year’s clash.

5. No. 20 Penn State (5-2, 2-2 B1G)

Last Ranking: 2

Last Result: L vs. Illinois (20-18)

Next: at No. 5 Ohio State

5. Boy, if you thought the number choice for Iowa was coincidental, try this one on for size! Penn State is ranked fifth on this list, their top WR Jahan Dotson wears the number five, Dotson has caught a TD in five of their seven games games, and the Nittany Lions have won every game he’s caught a TD in and lost every game he hasn’t. While there may be some massive conspiracy at play here, it’s also a signal to how important the pass game and QB Sean Clifford and Dotson’s connection have been this season. In their losses to Iowa and Illinois, with injuries playing a role, the Nittany Lions averaged just over 170 yards through the air, scoring one TD in the two games combined. Compare that to averaging 286 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns in the pass game in its five wins, and it’s clear that if Penn State wants to stop their slide down these rankings, they have to get back to their offensive identity, which means throwing the ball.

6. Wisconsin (4-3, 2-2 B1G)

Last Ranking: 6

Last Result: W at No. 25 Purdue (30-13)

Next: vs. No. 9 Iowa

20.5. Despite being 4-3, that is Wisconsin’s SP+ rating entering Week Nine, which comes out to be sixth best in the country. Additionally, the Badgers have the top rated defense by the metric, and in more common stats, they’re by far and away the best rush defense in the country in terms of yards allowed per game. Outside of some special teams blunders and bad turnovers in its losses to Notre Dame, Michigan, and Penn State, all of which have been great teams this year, Wisconsin has been extremely efficient and competitive on both sides of the ball. The Badgers will give Iowa a very good game, and if their underlying numbers start translating into on the field results, they might sneak their way into conference title contention.

7. Minnesota (5-2, 3-1 B1G)

Last Ranking: 8

Last Result: W vs. Maryland (34-16)

Next: at Northwestern

After RB Mohamed Ibrahim went down against Ohio State, I thought Minnesota was done. It turned out they weren’t, because Treyson Potts was able to fill in, but then he got injured as well, and so I thought Minnesota was done again. Well, as it turns out, I was wrong again, because, like a hydra, two more capable backups have appeared in Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas. The Gophers’ number is 4, which is the number of players who have rushed for 100 yards in a game for them this season. Their effectiveness with the run on both sides of the ball has been a big ingredient in their recipe for success, as they rank 25th in rushing yards per game and fifth in rushing yards against in the country.

8. Purdue (4-3, 2-2 B1G)

Last Ranking: 7

Last Result: L vs. Wisconsin (30-13)

Next: at Nebraska

2.4. After discussing such a deep running backs room in Minneapolis, we now travel to West Lafayette, where Purdue ranks dead last in the country in yards per carry at 2.4. With that little success running the ball, it’s pretty easy to see why the Boilermakers attempt the seventh most passes per game in the nation. Seemingly, they have no other option, although, given their weapons, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you have David Bell and Milton Wright as options out wide, you’d want to get them the ball as much as possible, regardless of who is in the backfield. When that fails, though, as we saw against Wisconsin, this offense will completely fall apart. Purdue could still have its best season in Jeff Brohm’s tenure, but the one-dimensionality of this offense will make that a struggle.

9. Nebraska (3-5, 1-4 B1G)

Last Ranking: 10

Last Result: L at Minnesota (30-23, Oct. 16)

Next: vs. Purdue

I’m going to somewhat cheat again here by referencing a number that I brought up in last week’s edition of these rankings, but that number is 28, the total margin of defeat over the Huskers’ five losses, which comes out to be an average of a score per game. Nebraska has yet to win a one-score game, as they have been incapable of coming out on top in the decisive moments. For a team that’s shown flashes of greatness at times this year, if half of those games went their way, we might be looking at the Huskers as West Division title contenders and not a team fighting for bowl eligibility.

10. Maryland (4-3, 1-3 B1G)

Last Ranking: 9

Last Result: L at Minnesota (34-16)

Next: vs. Maryland

3.3. In their three losses, the Terps have turned the ball over ten times, which averages out to 3.3 per game, while in their wins, they’ve averaged only one turnover per game. Ball security has always been a struggle for Taulia Tagovailoa, and that was on full display against Iowa, as he just hasn’t developed the ability to make good decisions against elite defenses. Additionally, even when he’s taking care of the ball, he hasn’t done enough to push the ball down the field, and that lack of explosiveness has hurt Maryland, like it did last Saturday in its loss to Minnesota.

11. Northwestern (3-4, 1-3 B1G)

Last Ranking: 11

Last Result: L at No. 6 Michigan (33-7)

Next: vs. Minnesota

220.4. The ‘Cats have given up an average of 220.4 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks dead last in the conference and ninth worst across the FBS. When the Wildcats allow more than that average, they’re 0-4, and when they allow less, they’re 3-0, so stopping the opponent’s rushing game has become — and will continue to be — a big key to success this year. They didn’t stay under that number on Saturday against Michigan, and they face a very good rushing team in Minnesota this week, so it will be interesting to see if this trend continues.

12. Illinois (3-5, 2-3 B1G)

Last Ranking: 14

Last Result: W at No. 7 Penn State (20-18)

Next: vs. Rutgers

395. Penn State was averaging 110.7 rushing yards against coming into Saturday, and the Fighting Illini proceeded to scorch that defense for 395 yards on the ground, a statistical anomaly by the relatively high standards the Nittany Lions had set for themselves. In a game which lasted nine overtimes and still finished well below the under of 46, the strangest, most unique event that occurred was Illinois consistently lining up in one RB, two TE personnel, but substituting two WR’s for offensive linemen. Bret Bielema, in what should be a surprise to absolutely no one, has placed an emphasis on being able to run the football in Champaign, and if they continue to be this effective, the Fighting Illini will continue to work their way up these rankings.

13. Rutgers (3-4, 0-4 B1G)

Last Ranking: 12

Last Result: L at Northwestern (21-7) (Oct. 16)

Next: at Illinois

Just look at their conference record: 0-4. After the Scarlet Knights jumped out to a 3-0 start, many people, myself included, thought this might be the year that we finally see this program take the next step. But, they’ve shown that their true level this season has been well below the standard needed to win games in the Big Ten, and that’s due to a variety of factors. They’ve been undisciplined at points, they’ve lacked consistent good QB play and they’ve struggled to create chunk plays on offense and prevent them on defense. There’s still a plausible chance Rutgers could become bowl eligible, but given what we’ve seen from them in these last four games, I don’t anticipate that happening.

14. Indiana (2-5, 0-4 B1G)

Last Ranking: 13

Last Result: L vs. No. 5 Ohio State (54-7)

Next: at Maryland

0.022. That is the EPA/play for this Hoosier offense over the course of the season. Not only is it the worst in the Big Ten, but it is fifth worst in the FBS, and based on the fact that three different QB’s saw the field against Ohio State — with none of them having much success — improvement doesn’t seem likely. However, Indiana has faced five teams currently ranked in the Top 20 and its schedule gets significantly easier starting this week, so maybe there’s a chance of a late season resurgence. Still, I’m not counting on it.