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Big Ten Football Power Rankings, Week Four: East wide open as PSU, MSU, Michigan continue to impress

Rutgers truthers rise!

NCAA Football: Auburn at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

While the season is just a few weeks young, there’s already a major trend appearing in the conference: a clear gulf in quality between the East and West once again. Allow me to display a few figures which support that notion:

  • The Big Ten has six teams who are still undefeated. Five are from the East.
  • Four of the top five, and five of the top seven teams in these rankings are from the East, while the bottom three are all from the West.
  • Teams from the East have played teams from the West five times, the East has won four of those games.

Regardless of how bleak things may look for the West, it still has the team holding the top spot on this list, which is worth something, I guess. Here’s how the full rankings panned out:

1. No. 5 Io_a (3-0, 1-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 1

Last Result: W vs. Kent State (30-7)

Next: vs. Colorado State

Kirk Ferentz and co. are in this position because of their accomplishments to this point, not due to the nature of those accomplishments or how sustainable their winning methods are. Their defense has been their calling card, as they aren’t giving up points and are forcing turnovers, and those traits powered them to victories against Indiana and Iowa State, but at some point, the offense has to do its job as well. There were signs of that against Kent State, where Io_a recorded 418 total yards of offense, which was a vast improvement over the 173 it put up against Iowa State. If the Hawkeyes want to maintain their spot atop these rankings, the offense must produce, or when the defense’s takeaways dry up, things could get ugly for them.

2. No. 6 Penn State (3-0, 1-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 3

Last Result: W vs. No. 22 Auburn (28-20)

Next: vs. Villanova

In my opinion, the Nittany Lions have been the most impressive team in the conference, and they have just as strong of a claim for the top spot as Io_a. Much like the Hawkeyes, Penn State has leaned on its defense, but it has had a more productive offense to supplement the defense’s efforts. Sean Clifford has looked good at quarterback, and wide receiver Jahan Dotson has been one of the best at his position in the nation. That duo was one of the big reasons PSU was able to overcome Auburn, and if their connection continues to be as lethal as it has been, it spells trouble for the rest of the conference and country.

3. No. 10 Ohio State (2-1, 1-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 2

Last Result: W vs. Tulsa (41-20)

Next: vs. Akron

Unlike the Top 2 teams on this list, Ohio State’s offense has not been its main problem. The Buckeyes rank 11th in the country in yards per game, and while some untimely turnovers and mistakes have limited their scoring potential, if QB CJ Stroud cleans up his game a bit, this offense will put up 40 with ease every week. Stroud certainly has receivers to depend on, including Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Oh, and he has an absolute demon alongside him in the backfield: TreVeyon Henderson. The true freshman RB produced one of the best single game performances in the school’s history with 277 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries against Tulsa. Bottom line: the Buckeyes have a great offense, and if the defense, a unit which has given up the 13th most yards per game in the country, can improve, this team will be virtually unstoppable in the near future. For now though, they sit in 3rd.

4. No. 19 Michigan (3-0, 0-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 4

Last Result: W vs. Northern Illinois (63-10)

Next: vs. Rutgers

For once in the Jim Harbaugh era, there hasn’t been a ton of expectations placed on the Wolverines from outside of the program, and they’ve responded by casually sweeping aside their three non-conference opponents. Now on the national radar, they sport an offense currently fourth in the country in points per game, which is largely thanks to the “thunder and lightning” rushing attack of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. Their defense has been equally impressive — new DC Mike MacDonald has his group eighth in the country in points allowed per game — and DE Aidan Hutchinson has been big part of that, as he’s left his mark on opposing QB’s, already recording 3.5 sacks. Anticipate Michigan having some issues in conference play when more is asked of QB Cade McNamara and the passing game, especially with star wideout Ronnie Bell lost for the year, but as of now, they’ve found a winning formula.

5. No. 20 Michigan State (3-0, 1-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 6

Last Result: W at No. 24 Miami (38-17)

Next: vs. Nebraska

Like their maize and blue rivals, Michigan State has also exceeded expectations so far this season. A dominant win against Miami last week further affirms the Spartans’ status as a good football team, and they aren’t just good, they’re complete. QB Payton Thorne has looked solid, and has been a massive upgrade over Rocky Lombardi. RB Kenneth Walker II has, well, you know. The defense has kept every opponent under 20 points, and, as a result of all those factors, Sparty has won convincingly in all three of their contests. Mel Tucker has done a remarkable job turning this program around in just two offseasons, and he has MSU trending in the right direction for the rest of the season.

6. No. 18 Wisconsin (1-1, 0-1 B1G)

Last Ranking: 5

Last Result: W vs. Eastern Michigan (34-7)

Next: vs. No. 12 Notre Dame

Since 2002, the Badgers have finished with a winning record every season and have reached double digit wins in 11 of the 19 years. In other words, it’s essentially a coin flip whether they’ll be a good or great team, and the coin looks to have landed good side up. Given how Penn State has played since Week 1, Wisconsin’s loss doesn’t look so bad, but its placement at this spot in the power rankings has more to do with how the Badgers lost that game than anything else. QB Graham Mertz struggled heavily, turning the ball over multiple times, and the offense as a whole only put up 10 points, which, unless you’re Georgia, won’t be enough to win a football game. UW’s showdown this week against Notre Dame and former Badger QB Jack Coan will reveal a lot about this group.

7. Maryland (3-0, 1-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 7

Last Result: W at Illinois (20-17)

Next: vs. Kent State

While they are undefeated, the Terrapins have had two one-score victories already this season. Although that might be unsustainable, especially against better competition when full conference play begins, there’s been a lot to like from this Maryland group so far. Junior signal-caller Taulia Tagovailoa looks miles ahead of where he was just a year ago, as he’s thrown for 332, 347 and 350 yards in his three starts this year, respectively, with total seven total touchdowns and no interceptions. Additionally, the Terrapin defense must be benefitting from facing a high-level passing game in practice, because opposing QBs have gone a combined 46-97 for four touchdowns and four interceptions against them. Maryland could spring a surprise for any of the East division title hopefuls listed above later in the year, and the Terps are definitely trending in the right direction to go bowling for the first time since 2016.

8. Purdue (2-1, 0-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 8

Last Result: L at No. 12 Notre Dame (27-13)

Next: vs. Illinois

The Boilermakers have had a very similar start to the Terrapins above, and had they also started 3-0, an argument could be made for Purdue to be ranked ahead of Maryland. However, they clearly aren’t undefeated, and, although they put up a good display against the Fighting Irish, the Boilermakers were lacking in a couple of areas that are preventing them from reaching the next level. As many Northwestern fans may know, if a team has two quarterbacks, they essentially have zero quarterbacks. Both Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell are still receiving considerable playing time at quarterback, and, as a result, the Purdue offense has and will continue to suffer. The Boilermakers also struggled with a lack of scoring production against ND, and combining such inefficiency with a loss in the turnover battle usually results in a defeat. Purdue must protect the ball and then be more effective with it in possession.

9. Minnesota (2-1, 0-1 B1G)

Last Ranking: 9

Last Result: W at Colorado (30-0)

Next: vs. Bowling Green

One team that indirectly lost as a result of Oregon’s triumph over Ohio State was this Gophers team. What looked like an extremely promising display of potency from the Minnesota offense may have had more to do with Ohio State’s defense being poor than anything. But, after a very close and somewhat nervy affair with Miami (OH), the Gophers looked like a force to be reckoned with against Colorado last week. The Week 1 injury to star RB Mohamed Ibrahim was a tough pill for Minnesota fans to swallow, but Treyson Potts is showing that he is a capable replacement after churning out 126 yards and three touchdowns against the Buffaloes. The defense was also unbelievable in that game, allowing just 63 total yards on 45 plays and pitching a shutout. It’s clear there are two versions of this Minnesota team: the one that faced Miami (OH) and the one that faced Colorado, and that inconsistency is something that will have to be addressed by PJ Fleck.

10. Indiana (1-2, 0-1 B1G)

Last Ranking: 10

Last Result: L vs. No. 8 Cincinnati (38-24)

Next: at Western Kentucky

To put it simply, the Hoosiers have been extremely unlucky to start the year. They’ve faced two current Top 10 teams, picking up losses in both outings. While this 2021 team isn’t at the same level as the 2020 squad was, Indiana fans should still have hope for what lies ahead through the remainder of the year, as the 1-2 record doesn’t paint the full picture of their team’s ability. Those two losses, while mostly irrelevant in evaluating this team, do illustrate one of Indiana’s biggest problems: turnovers. The Hoosiers turned the ball over three and four times against Iowa and Cincinnati, respectively, including six interceptions total from QB Michael Penix Jr. If IU wants any chance to survive in Big Ten East play, it’ll have to clean up its ball security immediately.

11. Rutgers (3-0, 0-0 B1G)

Last Ranking: 12

Last Result: W vs. Delaware (45-13)

Next: at No. 19 Michigan

If I had to pick one team from this list and say, “They will be ranked higher at the end of the season than they are currently,” my pick would be Rutgers. Greg Schiano’s work with this program is going under the radar and, so far this season, RU’s defense has been suffocating and its offense has been effective. While some might say the Scarlet Knights have played an easy schedule and just done what any decent team would’ve, I’d like to encourage a different way of thinking, and so would ESPN’s Bill Connelly.

Although SP+, like any other predictive metric, does have its issues, and it’s a small sample, this is still extremely impressive company for the Scarlet Knights to find themselves in, and I think they’ll give a very good Michigan team (incidentally, also in the above tweet) a run for its money this week, shocking some people in the process.

12. Northwestern (1-2, 0-1 B1G)

Last Ranking: 11

Last Result: L at Duke (30-23)

Next: vs. Ohio

Northwestern’s problems have been extensively documented on this site, so I won’t go into any of them, but there is a semblance of a trend emerging: In the two games the ‘Cats have lost, they haven’t scored first, and in the one they won, they did. While it’s only been three games, it seems like Northwestern sees better results when they get off to a fast start. There’s a lot of other issues with this team currently, and some of those are fixable, but this group just doesn’t seem like it’s capable of playing from behind. With QB Andrew Marty healthy and playing, maybe that changes, but it would still be beneficial for them to establish the run, control the game from the outset and not wait after they’ve gone down by multiple scores to turn on the jets.

13. Illinois (1-3, 1-1 B1G)

Last Ranking: 13

Last Result: L vs. Maryland (20-17)

Next: at Purdue

As each week passes by, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Illinois’ Week 0 win over Nebraska was due to the Huskers’ ineptitude, not the Fighting Illini actually being a good team. Bret Bielema’s squad has an okay offense, but it’s on the defense, especially in the secondary, where a lot of Illinois’ issues reside. Taulia Tagovailoa of Maryland and Brennan Armstrong of Virginia are talented QB’s, but, having said that, letting both carve up your defense with completion percentages above 70 is a recipe for disaster. This is only Bielema’s first season in Urbana-Champaign, and hopes are high among U of I faithful that he will eventually right the ship, but he has a long way to go before he gets to that point.

14. Nebraska (2-2, 0-1 B1G)

Last Ranking: 14

Last Result: L at No. 3 Oklahoma (23-16)

Next: at No. 20 Michigan State

Given they were 14th in last week’s rankings and were preparing to face a top three team in the nation, the Cornhuskers really couldn’t do any damage to themselves (at least, no more than they already had). And, to be fair to them, they played extremely well by the standards they’ve set under Scott Frost, slowing down one of the best quarterbacks in the country and holding an electric offense to just 23 points. Although they couldn’t ultimately pull out the win, there is some optimism to be had for Nebraska as it enters conference play and faces a good Michigan State team this week, provided the Huskers can build off the good they did against the Sooners.