1. Ohio State (last week: 1) – With Michigan’s recent loss, the Buckeyes (6-0, 2-0) are now the lone unbeaten team in the Big Ten. The tough part of their schedule is over, and their only remaining real test comes in the last week of the regular season on the road against the Wolverines (who, as of now, look awful). Whether you want to admit it or not, the Buckeyes are the best team in the conference, and it’s likely that they will go into the Big Ten championship game undefeated.
2. Wisconsin (last week: 3) – The performance against the Wildcats on Saturday should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that this team is legit. This game wasn’t a sudden aberration either. Entering Saturday’s game, Wisconsin was in the top 20 of almost every major offensive and defensive category and currently is fifth in the nation in total defense. The Badgers (4-2, 2-1), are in a tough position moving forward, though. In order for them to play in the Big Ten championship game, they will need the Buckeyes to lose a couple of times, which isn’t likely to happen. Regardless, even if the season doesn't end at the Rose Bowl, they should find themselves in a solid game like the Capital One Bowl or the Outback Bowl.
3. Michigan State (last week: 5) – The Spartans (5-1, 2-0) are well on their way to a very good season, which many people didn’t see coming. The biggest concern for MSU going into Big Ten play revolved around the offense, which was almost nonexistent in the Spartans' first two games against Western Michigan and South Florida. Replacing star running back Le'Veon Bell and choosing between four potential starting quarterbacks was no easy task. Based on the last several weeks, however, it’s evident that they have addressed this weakness. On Saturday, they put up 42 points on Indiana after having scored 26 at Iowa the week before. Their defense is stellar and remains number one in total defense nationally, even after allowing 28 points to the Hoosiers.
4. Northwestern (last week: 2) – Was last week a fluke or a haunting sign of things to come? Wildcat fans hope it’s the former, as the Wildcats (4-2, 0-2) were torched on the road Saturday at Wisconsin, 35-6. Their offense looked anemic, and the injury bug continues to plague key players. The ‘Cats will likely have to win out in order to guarantee them a spot in the Big Ten championship game, which won’t be easy. They still have Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska on their schedule. In order for them to reach that goal, they must continually play like they did two weeks ago against OSU.
5. Nebraska (last week: 6) – The Huskers (5-1, 2-0) have the opportunity to move up on this list, but it all depends on how they perform as they enter the toughest part of their schedule. They must get by a potential trap game next week on the road against Minnesota before tests against Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State. For them to compete in these games, they will likely need senior quarterback Taylor Martinez to return to the lineup and perform like he’s in midseason form. That might be quite a lot to ask of their star QB, who’s been sidelined with turf toe since their home loss to UCLA four weeks ago.
6. Michigan (last week: 4) – After a 43-40, four-ovetime loss at Penn State, the Wolverines (5-1, 0-1) are no longer able to avoid critical bashing just because they were undefeated. Legendary coach Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are,” but in the case of the Wolverines, I will have to emphatically disagree. Saturday marked the 3rd straight nail-biter the Wolverines have been involved in, even if this was the only loss. Just think about the conversation we’d be having about the Wolverines if Akron had converted on 4th down in the red zone against them, or if UConn hadn’t blown a 14-point lead. We’d be talking about one of the biggest disappointments in college football.
7. Iowa (last week: 7) – So why didn’t I put the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-1) above the Wolverines? It’s because they have nothing to brag about, either. They have no impressive wins to speak of, and both of their losses came at home. Even with the loss to Michigan State, Iowa has still consistently improved since falling in its opener to Northern Illinois. Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, they have the toughest remaining schedule of any school in the Big Ten, with Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska still to go. If they were to win just one of those games, I’d be quietly surprised.
8. Penn State (last week: 10) – The Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-1) moved up two spots from last week, based on their win at home against the Wolverines. I want to give them more credit, but with the way Michigan has been playing lately, I’m not sure how much weight this victory should carry. Still, it was a big win for this program, and it might give them the confidence they need moving forward.
9. Indiana (last week: 9) – Their offense is still capable of putting up points (they are currently No. 17 in total offense, which is second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin), but until their defense steps up, it will be difficult for the Hoosiers (3-3, 1-1) to compete in conference play. Last week, they played Michigan State to a 21-14 halftime deficit, but midway through the third quarter, the Spartans started dominating en route to a 42-28 win. If they can get a few stops next week against Michigan, don’t be surprised if the Hoosiers give the Wolverines their second straight loss.
10. Illinois (last week: 8) – A bye last week was a chance to recover from a 20-point loss to Nebraska on the road. Like Indiana, the Fighting Illini (3-2, 0-1) have a porous defense, but unlike the Hoosiers, their offense isn’t dominant enough to make up for it. They still have a brutal remaining home slate (Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Northwestern). So becoming bowl-eligible will be a tall task.
11. Minnesota (last week: 11) – The Gophers (4-2, 0-2) also had a bye last week, which will give them extra time to prepare for their road test against Northwestern this Saturday. It will take a heck of a performance for them to pull off that upset (unless, of course, the ‘Cats play like they did last weekend). As I mentioned last week, all four of Minnesota’s wins came against opponents that are mediocre at best, so the Gophers have yet to prove anything. Another major reason they are so low on this list is due to their rotten offense, which is second-worst in the Big Ten, and it’s just slightly better than the team that’s next on this list.
12. Purdue (last week: 12) – Same old, same old for the Boilermakers (1-5, 0-2), who were lit up by Nebraska at home, 44-7. They look terrible on both sides of the ball (their total offense and defense are both outside of the top 80), and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of hope for this football program. The next time you see a highlight of this team, it will likely be on SportsCenter’s edition of "The Not Top Ten Plays."