Big Ten power poll: Illini No. 8
The fun stuff is over. Mostly.
With two nonconference games left (Arkansas State at Indiana and Illinois at Fresno State), the Big Ten is 34-8. There were some good wins (Ohio State over Miami, Michigan State over Notre Dame), some close calls (Wisconsin over Arizona State, Michigan over UMass) and some bad losses (South Dakota over Minnesota, Toledo over Purdue).
The Big Ten went 11-2 against the MAC. It was 7-5 against the other BCS leagues and Notre Dame.
Now, it's time to beat each other up. There are six ranked Big Ten teams going into the start of conference play Saturday. By the end of the season, with brother facing brother, that number figures to dwindle.
For the last time, the Big Ten won't decide its champion with a conference title game. Whoever does the best in the next nine weeks will earn the league's automatic BCS berth. With nine weeks left of the league as we know it, here is my Big Ten power poll. Next year, it will have to be broken down into divisions.
1. Ohio State – What, you expected Minnesota? Like they have for years, the Buckeyes are once again the class of the league. They've got a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, a boatload of talent on defense and enough receivers and running backs to make it go. Oh, yeah, the best coach in the conference lives in Columbus. Jim Tressel doesn't get as much national attention as he should, probably because he doesn't come across as either an A) comedian or B) big jerk. Welcome to the Buckeye fans in town this weekend. Remember, red wearers, to play nice. You're coming back again in 2011 (weird scheduling quirk).
2. Michigan State – Nothing we like to do better than predict games. And the guess here is that the Spartans, driven by the return of coach Mark Dantonio, will beat Wisconsin on Saturday in East Lansing. If I'm wrong (often the case), then drop Michigan State down to No. 5 and move everybody else up a spot. Kirk Cousins is solid at quarterback and the running back tandem of Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell is the best in the Big Ten. Unlike every other top contender in the Big Ten, the Spartans don't have to play Michigan State. That's a good thing.
3. Iowa – Ignore the loss at Arizona if you please. The Hawkeyes got way behind and still almost won the game. They will drill Penn State at home Saturday night and scare Ohio State when the Buckeyes visit Nov. 20. We were wrong about Ricky Stanzi, who would be the All-Big Ten quarterback if not for Terrelle Pryor. Kirk Ferentz is the best coach this side of Tressel.
4. Wisconsin – The Badgers were lucky to avoid overtime against Arizona State and didn't overwhelm San Jose State either. Running back John Clay has done his job, but he needs help from the passing game. The defense has been solid and the Badger are well coached. After a shaky phase, Bret Bielema seems to have the program in good shape. Playing Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State in the first month of the conference season means a likely rough start.
5. Michigan – One week, they are ready to run Rich Rodriguez out of town. The next, he can run for mayor. As long as he keeps winning, all that NCAA stuff stays on the backburner. But lose a game to Indiana or Michigan State and the heat turns back up. Denard Robinson has been a hit at quarterback, playing well beyond expectations. But the defense is still a mess, ranking last in the Big Ten in yards allowed. And the Wolverines almost lost another game to an FCS school.
6. Northwestern – Important safety tip: the 4-0 start is a product mostly of scheduling. Sure, the Wildcats beat a BCS school, but Vanderbilt isn't exactly Alabama. Sure, they knocked off the best of the MAC, but it was a 30-25 final against Central Michigan. Northwestern hasn't skipped a beat at quarterback, with Dan Persa ranking among the nation's best. Northwestern should improve to 6-0 before a final stretch that includes Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin. But Ohio State and Michigan are off the schedule.
7. Penn State – This isn't Joe Paterno's best team. Not even close. And the 3-1 start could turn into a 6-6 finish. But for now, the Nittany Lions are capable of finishing in the upper half of the Big Ten. And the only loss is against No. 1 Alabama.
8. Illinois – Ron Zook's team played better than expected against Missouri, but still blew a halftime lead. The Illini were supposed to beat Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois and they did. The next three games could be brutal.
9. Indiana – Counting on a win against Arkansas State in two weeks, the Hoosiers need to win just two more games to earn a bowl bid and take some of the heat off of Bill Lynch. The guess here is that they make it.
10. Purdue – You can't lose at home to Toledo. And you have to beat FCS school Western Illinois by more than 10. Somewhere, Joe Tiller is shaking his head.
11. Minnesota – After consecutive bowl trips, a comeback looks impossible for former Illini Tim Brewster. At least the stadium's nice.
Bob Asmussen covers college football for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5233 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.