The Big Ten continues to be unpredictable. Penn State can’t win a game, Michigan and Michigan State look terrible, Northwestern may have proven itself, Wisconsin is officially good, and Indiana has a measuring stick game upcoming. The middle to bottom of the Big Ten is terrible, and it’s going to be really hard to rank them. Fair warning, I think anyone from 10-14 could be ranked last, and might deserve to be ranked last.
With that said, here are my rankings heading into week five of Big Ten play.
14. Michigan State (1-3)
Last week: 0-24 LOSS vs No. 10 Indiana
Previous ranking: 11
All you have to do is look at the zero in the points column for Michigan State to see how poorly the Spartans played Saturday. They have been dominated in all three of their losses, nowhere close to being competitive.
Rocky Lombardi went 3-for-7 with two interceptions before being pulled for Payton Thorne, who also threw an interception. They can’t throw, they can’t run, and besides Indiana shooting itself in the foot in the second half, they can’t defend either.
Next up: at Maryland (2-1); Saturday, Noon ET on BTN
13. Rutgers (1-3)
Last week: 20-23 LOSS vs Illinois
Previous ranking: 13
Rutgers was that close to getting back to .500 and creating a route to a possible 4-4 season. Now, with this loss, they’re in some trouble and may struggle to win more than one more game this season. Noah Vedral was good (21-for-34, 256 yards, two touchdowns) and bad (three interceptions). They have a really good back in Isaih Pacheco, but if Vedral can’t be more consistent, this offense will continue to struggle.
The defense is good enough to win a game or two against Penn State or Michigan, but if the offense can’t hold onto the football, Rutgers may be back to being the doormat of the Big Ten.
Next up: Michigan (1-3); Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on BTN
12. Illinois (1-3)
Last week: 23-20 WIN at Rutgers
Previous ranking: 14
Illinois is off the doormat, but still in the basement in the Big Ten. But a win is a win, and it’s something Lovie Smith and Illinois really needed after a tough first three weeks. How about that run game? Isaiah Williams ran for 192 yards and Chase Brown ran for 131 yards. Add that to the potential return of Brandon Peters this week and Illinois might have a formidable offense to deal with.
Illinois has certainly taken a step back from last season, but that’s not all their fault. COVID-19 has hurt their roster and their schedule, and I would imagine this team will finish the season stronger.
Next up: at Nebraska (1-2); Saturday, Noon ET on BTN
11. Penn State (0-4)
Last week: 23-30 LOSS at Nebraska
Previous ranking: 12
Penn State has played a difficult schedule, kind of. They’ve lost to Indiana and Ohio State, plus a Maryland team that might not be too bad, and a talented but underperforming Nebraska team. After an early interception, Penn State made the switch to Will Levis, who wasn’t great (14-for-31), but did almost lead a late comeback effort.
The recipe for Penn State will be running the ball. The Nittany Lions ran for 245 yards among five players. If they can continue that, with Levis continuing to get comfortable, they should be able to win a couple games down the stretch. But for now, their results have them in 13th place in the Big Ten.
Next up: Iowa (2-2); Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET on BTN
10. Michigan (1-3)
Last week: 11-49 LOSS vs No. 11 Wisconsin
Previous ranking: 8
Like I said at the top, everyone from 10-14 deserves to be in last in the conference based on the way they’ve played. Michigan has lost three straight, and for the most part, hasn’t been competitive. I think Michigan has a quarterback, but for the first time in a long time, Michigan’s defense can’t stop anyone and they can’t win the battle in the trenches. Quarterback Joe Milton struggled, and was eventually benched, but I don’t think this season is his fault.
When you can’t play defense, that puts even more pressure on the offense to deliver. In his first season as the starter, that’s a lot of pressure on the QB to deliver, and so far, he hasn’t delivered consistently. But again, the problem is the defense, not offense.
Next up: at Rutgers; Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on BTN
9. Minnesota (1-3)
Last week: 7-35 LOSS vs Iowa
Previous ranking: 9
So, Minnesota is back to being really bad. If it weren’t for a last-minute touchdown, they would have been shut out. I thought Minnesota’s offense was supposed to be one of the best in the Big Ten? Mohamed Ibrahim ran for over 100 yards, again, but Tanner Morgan threw two picks. The defense wasn’t terrible, but gave up points at poor times, mainly hurt by offensive turnovers.
Minnesota was one of the many Big Ten teams with high expectations that is nowhere close to living up to them. You have to wonder how long P.J. Fleck will be able to row the boat if this season continues to sink for Minnesota.
Next up: Purdue (2-1); Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET on BTN
8. Nebraska (1-2)
Last week: 30-23 WIN vs Penn State
Previous ranking: 10
Nebraska isn’t good, but it appears they’re a little bit better than the bottom tier of the Big Ten. Just a little bit. Apparently Luke McCaffrey is their guy. He threw for 152 yards and ran for 67, both team highs. They didn’t even have 300 total yards of offense, but the defense was good enough (or Penn State’s offense was bad enough) to mask that.
Nebraska is a long way from “returning” to the status in college football they had decades ago. They’re firmly positioned in the middle of the Big Ten and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Next up: Illinois (1-3); Saturday, Noon ET on BTN
7. Maryland (2-1)
Last week: OFF
Previous ranking: 6
I was looking forward to seeing what Maryland had against a talented team like Ohio State. Nonetheless, I think they’re much improved from last season and with a down year in the Big Ten, they should be one of the beneficiaries.
Next up: Michigan State (1-3); Saturday, Noon ET on BTN
6. Purdue (2-1)
Last week: 20-27 LOSS vs No. 23 Northwestern
Previous ranking: 5
I know Purdue fans won’t like this ranking, simply because the Boilermakers beat Iowa. But that was week one, and since then they squeaked out a win over Illinois and lost to Northwestern at home. Iowa has crushed Michigan State and Minnesota. This is a ranking simply off of “what have you done for me lately?”
They are putting way too much pressure on Aidan O’Connell. He was forced to throw 51 times, while the team accumulated 2 yards of net rushing. Without O’Connell’s sacks, it was still just 26 yards. Zander Horvath led the team with 10 carries for 21 yards. That’s an issue, and if Purdue is going to win games, the offense has to be more balanced.
Purdue will likely be fine because of its schedule. Purdue’s next three opponents are Minnesota, Rutgers and Nebraska. They could certainly be 5-1, move up these rankings, and be set up for a showdown with Indiana at the end of the season.
Next up: At Minnesota (1-3); Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET on BTN
5. Iowa (2-2)
Last week: 35-7 WIN at Minnesota
Previous ranking: 7
Iowa looks like a completely different team the past two weeks. Two tough, close losses at Purdue and Northwestern, but they’ve blown out the two teams they were better than, and I wasn’t even sure they were better than Minnesota. They’re not throwing the ball like they have in the past with quarterbacks like C.J. Beathard and Nate Stanley, but they can still run the ball and they can still defend.
Let’s be honest, who actually expected this team to struggle under Kirk Ferentz? They’re never incredible, but they’re never terrible. To me, it’s not a surprising turnaround for Iowa. Now they have to be careful to not fall victim to Penn State’s desperation this weekend.
Next up: at Penn State (0-4); Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET on BTN
4. Northwestern (4-0)
Last week: 27-20 WIN at Purdue
Previous ranking: 4
Saturday was a very impressive win for Northwestern. There wasn’t really a doubt that Northwestern was the better team in this game. They shut down Purdue’s run game, turned them into a one-dimensional team that couldn’t compete with the Wildcat defense. Peyton Ramsey has been efficient, throwing for 212 yards and three touchdowns. It’s not surprising to see one of the most experienced Big Ten quarterbacks becoming a proven leader on Northwestern.
Much like Indiana, Northwestern has a chance this weekend to take that next step. Right now, they’re definitively better than most teams under them in these rankings. A loss this week keeps them here likely for the rest of the season, but a win puts them in the Big Ten Championship conversation.
Next up: vs No. 10 Wisconsin (2-0); Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
3. Indiana (4-0)
Last week: 24-0 WIN at Michigan State
Previous ranking: 2
Indiana didn’t really do anything wrong to drop a spot. However, they weren’t incredibly sharp and left a lot of points out there in the second half against the Spartans. Indiana will need to be a lot sharper this week against Ohio State. Michael Penix Jr. continues to improve and look like the quarterback we expect him to be. The receiving corps is one of the best in the country. The defense is playing with a noticeable edge.
However, if Indiana is going to pull off the upset in Columbus, the team will need to step up in nearly every area. Indiana is good. We’ll find out Saturday if they’re great.
Next up: at No. 3 Ohio State (3-0); Noon ET on FOX
2. Wisconsin (2-0)
Last week: 49-11 WIN at Michigan
Previous ranking: 3
Wisconsin looked really good. Like, really good. I know they’ve played Illinois and Michigan, two bottom-tier Big Ten teams, but they haven’t left any doubt in either game. Graham Mertz didn’t have to do as much Saturday, throwing only 22 times for 127 yards and two touchdowns, because the run game collected 341 yards. That’s what we’ve come to expect from Wisconsin. They are a team that runs the ball down your throat and has a quarterback who can make plays when asked to.
This weekend is a big game for Wisconsin. With their game against Purdue being canceled, this feels like the game to decide the Big Ten West. If Wisconsin wins, they’re ready to compete with Ohio State (or Indiana) in the Big Ten. If they lose, there will be a lot of questions coming out of Madison.
Next up: at No. 19 Northwestern (4-0); 3:30 ET on ABC
1. Ohio State (3-0)
Last week: OFF
Previous ranking: 1
Saturday is Ohio State’s only “real” test remaining on its schedule. If Ohio State wins, the Buckeyes shouldn’t have any issues finishing out the season undefeated and are likely on a path to the College Football Playoff. But, if something crazy happens this weekend, everything will be thrown out of whack.
I think it hurts Indiana that this is Ohio State’s last chance to make a statement for the playoff committee, because I think they will be a mission to do so Saturday.