In last week’s edition of these rankings, the headline read “Ohio State and Michigan State emerge as the cream of the crop.” Well, the Spartans don’t look as invincible now as they did a week ago, and the Buckeyes aren’t exactly blowing away the rest of their competition. Both division races remain wide-open, with seven teams still very much in conference championship contention and many burning questions yet to be answered. Can Purdue stay hot? Is this the year Jim Harbaugh finally has a successful November? Will Nebraska ever win a close game again? Keep reading to see how things stand with three weeks left to play.
1. No. 4 Ohio State (8-1, 6-0 B1G)
Last Ranking: 1
Last Result: W at Nebraska (26-17)
Next: vs. No. 19 Purdue
The only statement I can make with anywhere near full confidence is that the Buckeyes are the best team in the conference. No matter what metric you use, whether it’s eye test, resume or whatever, Ohio State ranks first. The offense is dynamic (most of the time), the defense is getting better each week and they have the “best” loss — against No. 3 Oregon — of any one-loss team in the conference. OSU does have a tough schedule the rest of the way, with games against Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan, so we might not get the full picture of where this team is truly until they go through that gauntlet.
2. No. 7 Michigan State (8-1, 5-1 B1G)
Last Ranking: 2
Last Result: L at Purdue (40-29)
Next: vs. Maryland
Michigan State’s biggest weakness — their secondary — was finally exploited last weekend. College football fans really should’ve known something was up with that position group when Hunter Johnson had the game of his life against it, and the blueprint to beating Sparty couldn’t be any more out in the open than it is now. Despite the fact that they may have benefitted from a couple of fumble rulings against Michigan, MSU still won the game, and with the two teams having the same record, head-to-head determines who should be above who. Does it really have to be that difficult, playoff committee?
3. No. 6 Michigan (8-1, 5-1 B1G)
Last Ranking: 3
Last Result: W vs. Indiana (29-7)
Next: at Penn State
Once again, Jim Harbaugh has Michigan in a great spot entering the month of November. Yes, they could’ve been undefeated, but everything is still within reach for UM, including his first win against Ohio State. The Wolverines are really the same team they’ve been every year since 2015, and the difference maker will be whether QB Cade McNamara can get the job done when the rushing attack isn’t working. He was unable to do that down the stretch against Michigan State, but he’ll almost certainly be called upon again at some point, and if he rises to that challenge, this team will succeed.
4. No. 18 Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2 B1G)
Last Ranking: 4
Last Result: W at Rutgers (52-3)
Next: vs. Northwestern
This might just become the “What’s Wisconsin’s SP+ ranking this week?” section of the article. After a beatdown of Rutgers, the Badgers have moved up into fourth in the country and are now ahead of Michigan, who they lost to earlier in the year. After Minnesota’s poor showing against Illinois, the Badgers are now the favorites for the West, and with their outstanding defense and great running game, they’ll give whoever they face in a potential conference championship a tough matchup, provided QB Graham Mertz doesn’t have to take a lot of offensive responsibility.
5. Penn State (6-3, 3-3 B1G)
Last Ranking: 5
Last Result: W at Maryland (31-14)
Next: vs. No. 6 Michigan
Even though the next three teams below the Nittany Lions have all been, or currently are ranked in the Playoff rankings, I still have them in fifth because of their potential. Ohio State aside, Penn State’s other two losses have been very weird, and they could easily be 8-1 had things gone their way. Their offense is still capable of putting up a lot of points, and their defense is one of the best units in the country when fully healthy, but it just hasn’t all come together this season like it probably should have.
6. No. 19 Purdue (6-3, 4-2 B1G)
Last Ranking: 7
Last Result: W vs. No. 3 Michigan State (40-29)
Next: at No. 4 Ohio State
There must be something wrong with Purdue’s official sports webpage because QB Aidan O’Connell’s major is listed as “M.S. Technology, Leadership & Innovation,” and not “Pre-Med, Neuroscience,” because he picked apart the Michigan State defense with the expertise of a brain surgeon on Saturday. Now, putting that bad joke aside, this Boilermaker team is solid. They have playmakers on both sides of the ball, and when I say playmakers, I mean absolute game-breakers. George Karlaftis is a menace off the edge, and David Bell is electric when he gets the ball in his hands. Jeff Brohm has built a very solid program in West Lafayette, and he’ll be reaping the rewards of that this season with a team that could push for nine wins.
7. Minnesota (6-3, 4-2 B1G)
Last Ranking: 6
Last Result: L vs. Illinois (14-6)
Next: at No. 20 Iowa
The Golden Gophers are just a strange team this season. They’ve shown they have the talent to beat Purdue and be competitive with Ohio State, but then they fall apart against Bowling Green and Illinois. Injuries are one of the reasons that this is happening, but the most important factor is quarterback Tanner Morgan. After an All-American caliber year as a sophomore in 2019, Morgan hasn’t been able to get back to that level of play, and it’s costing Minnesota games when they can’t run the ball. Despite beating Purdue when they played, their losses have been too bad to ignore, so they drop below the Boilermakers for the time-being.
8. No. 20 Iowa (7-2, 4-2 B1G)
Last Ranking: 8
Last Result: W at Northwestern (17-12)
Next: vs. Minnesota
So, let me get this straight. After barely beating a very poor Northwestern team, the Hawkeyes move up two spots in the Playoff rankings? Has anyone on that committee actually watched this team play since week six? The offense got slightly better when QB Spencer Petras was benched on Saturday, but “slightly better” isn’t that big of an accomplishment when you look at where they were before. Iowa might end up winning nine games this season, but their record will tell a completely different story than the information the film and stats provide.
9. Maryland (5-4, 2-4 B1G)
Last Ranking: 9
Last Result: L vs. Penn State (31-14)
Next: at No. 7 Michigan State
Between the Terrapins and the team right below them in 10th, this is the part of the rankings where it’s known that these teams aren’t good, but they aren’t that bad either. The Terps have really struggled in conference competition, as they’ve beaten all of the teams below them in these rankings that they’ve played, and lost to all of the teams above them that they’ve played. Regardless, six wins is a very real possibility for Maryland, and being bowl eligible in such a tough division would be a big boost for Mike Locksley.
10. Nebraska (3-7, 1-6 B1G)
Last Ranking: 10
Last Result: L vs. No. 5 Ohio State (26-17)
Next: at No. 18 Wisconsin (11/20)
I know I grouped Maryland and Nebraska together in a way, but to be honest, the Huskers deserve their own tier of just absolute absurdity. They are most definitely the best 3-7 team in the country, and once again, they were competitive with a very good team in Ohio State. Clearly, the Athletic Department in Lincoln must share a similar view as they announced this past week that Scott Frost will be back in 2022, albeit with a restructured salary. Frost has shown he can get talent on the roster and compete, but he has to actually start winning at some point. A good start would be a win against Wisconsin or Iowa to end the year, which would build some confidence and momentum heading into next season.
11. Illinois (4-6, 3-4 B1G)
Last Ranking: 13
Last Result: W at No. 20 Minnesota (14-6)
Next: at No. 20 Iowa (11/20)
Every week, you can see the makings of a Bret Bielema team become clearer and more apparent in Champaign. They run the ball a lot, and do it well, and they play good defense, especially against the run. Illinois has picked up a couple of impressive wins this season against Penn State and Minnesota with their physical style, but there are still kinks to be ironed out, as seen in their losses to Maryland and Rutgers. That inconsistency is what’s keeping them at 11 instead of approaching the top half, but I’m sure it’ll be fixed next year, and if not next year, definitely the year after that.
12. Northwestern (3-6, 1-5 B1G)
Last Ranking: 11
Last Result: L vs. No. 22 Iowa (17-12)
Next: at No. 18 Wisconsin
The ‘Cats are improving, at least. They used to give up over 220 yards on the ground and lose, now they give up 180 yards on the ground and lose. This defense just can’t handle Big Ten competition, and the offense can’t make those one or two decisive plays. There’s a very real possibility that Northwestern finishes 3-9, because if they can’t stop the run, Wisconsin and Illinois are automatic losses, and Purdue’s pass rush will give whoever is under center nightmares. I have zero optimism for the fourth quarter of the season, and would very much like to just sim to the end and move on to 2022.
13. Rutgers (4-5, 1-5 B1G)
Last Ranking: 12
Last Result: L vs. No. 21 Wisconsin (52-3)
Next: at Indiana
The Scarlet Knights really went from being able to compete with Michigan in week four to being nothing more than tackling dummies against Wisconsin last Saturday. While this season has been a step in the right direction for Greg Schiano, there’s still a lot of work to be done if this program is to be competing for a conference title at some point. Having said that, the year isn’t totally lost, as Rutgers is at four wins with Indiana and Maryland still left to play, so bowl eligibility is still in the realm of possibility.
14. Indiana (2-7, 0-6 B1G)
Last Ranking: 14
Last Result: L at No. 7 Michigan (29-7)
Next: vs. Rutgers
There’s really nothing good that can be said about Indiana. They lack consistency on both sides of the ball, with each unit looking somewhat promising one week before taking multiple steps back the next. The Hoosiers have faced one of the toughest schedules in the country, but even if it was easier, the record wouldn’t improve that much. Looking at their last three games, the best case scenario is finishing 3-9, and that would still be a massive disappointment for Tom Allen given what they accomplished in 2020.