Throw out the records!
We made it. It’s the last week of the regular season, but there’s still plenty of storylines to write and trophies to win. Will a struggling Northwestern extend its six-game win streak over Illinois? Which of Rutgers or Maryland will vanquish the other and become bowl-eligible? And will this be the year that Jim Harbaugh get his first win over Ohio State and first East Division title? All of these questions and more will be answered this Saturday, so here’s how things currently stand in the Big Ten:
1. No. 2 Ohio State (10-1, 8-0 B1G)
Last Ranking: 1
Last Result: W vs. No. 7 Michigan State (56-7)
Next: at No. 5 Michigan
The Game could not be coming at a better time for the Buckeyes. They just trounced a very good Michigan State team, and both the offense and defense are playing some of their best football of the season. Ohio State won’t need much motivating either. There’s conference championship and potential College Football Playoff appearances on the line, which only add to the already hotly contested affair with That Team Up North.
2. No. 5 Michigan (10-1, 7-1 B1G)
Last Ranking: 3
Last Result: W at Maryland (59-18)
Next: vs. No. 2 Ohio State
Michigan has been here twice before under Jim Harbaugh. By here, I mean 10-1 with a chance at the division title entering its annual showdown with Ohio State. On both of those occasions — 2016 and 2018 — the Wolverines have fallen at the hands of their rivals and gone on to finish the season with a loss in their bowl game. It’s often said that the third time’s the charm, so maybe this is the year Michigan finally breaks through the glass ceiling it’s encountered in Harbaugh’s tenure.
3. No. 12 Michigan State (9-2, 6-2 B1G)
Last Ranking: 2
Last Result: L at No. 4 Ohio State (56-7)
Next: vs. Penn State
For the second time this season, Sparty’s secondary had nowhere to hide. The nation’s worst pass defense in yards allowed — a title many experts chalked up to a “bend, don’t break” philosophy — was completely broken against Ohio State. Michigan State clearly was never in the elite echelon of playoff-caliber outfits, and its matchup with Penn State this Saturday could prove problematic if it isn’t careful. That said, year two has still been a massive success for Mel Tucker, and a double-digit regular season win total would only reinforce that.
4. No. 14 Wisconsin (8-3, 6-2 B1G)
Last Ranking: 4
Last Result: W vs. Nebraska (35-28)
Next: at Minnesota
From a pure SP+ perspective, the Badgers had a bad week. After only winning by seven against a criminally underrated Nebraska team, they dropped two spots into sixth. No matter, they’re still an outstanding team, and their offense is really clicking with the introduction of Braelon Allen into their lead back role. However, they still haven’t booked their ticket to Indianapolis, and while they should beat Minnesota, an Iowa win on Friday could put some pressure on them. For the West Division’s sake, I hope the Badgers win, because they’ll put up a much better performance against Ohio State/Michigan in the conference title game than Iowa and its stagnant offense would.
5. Penn State (7-4, 4-4 B1G)
Last Ranking: 5
Last Result: W vs. Rutgers (28-0)
Next: at No. 12 Michigan State
While not spectacular, the Nittany Lions’ win over Rutgers was significant for two reasons. First, they completely shut down Rutgers’ offense, and secondly, Penn State fans got a glimpse into the future with Christian Veilleux taking over for an ill Sean Clifford and performing extremely well. Speaking of the future, James Franklin just signed a 10-year extension, and he might be able to instantly reward the university for its trust in him with a win against a potentially unmotivated Michigan State.
6. Purdue (7-4, 5-3 B1G)
Last Ranking: 6
Last Result: W vs. Northwestern (32-14)
Next: vs. Indiana
Although they aren’t an elite team, the Boilermakers have proven that they’re very good throughout the season. Their passing attack is one of the best in the country, and their defensive line can wreak havoc, as well. With a win over Indiana, Purdue will have had one of the best seasons in recent program history in terms of total wins, and that’s with a bowl game on the horizon to boot. Overall, this season’s success will pay dividends down the line with recruiting and potentially contribute to future growth.
7. No. 16 Iowa (9-2, 6-2 B1G)
Last Ranking: 7
Last Result: W vs. Illinois (33-23)
Next: at Nebraska
The Hawkeyes are somehow still in contention for the West Division title, but they don’t control their own destiny. Even if it ultimately doesn’t end up meaning anything from a conference standings perspective, a win over Nebraska would be nice for two reasons. First, it’s a rivalry win, and second, reaching 10 wins without playing a bowl game would be a feather in the cap for Kirk Ferentz in what has seemed like somewhat of an off year of sorts for his team.
8. Minnesota (7-4, 5-3 B1G)
Last Ranking: 8
Last Result: W at Indiana (35-14)
Next: vs. No. 14 Wisconsin
There’s a little more on the line than just Paul Bunyan’s Axe this year, as Minnesota is in a position to play spoiler to its neighbor and arch nemesis Wisconsin’s division and conference title hopes. While they might not win, PJ Fleck will make sure the Golden Gophers put out their best performance, and while a 7-5 record isn’t something that deserves heaps of praise on its own, with the injuries they have suffered, battling and reaching seven wins is a great achievement. Fleck has shown his program-building know-how once again, and don’t be surprised if Minnesota only gets better next year.
9. Maryland (5-6, 2-6 B1G)
Last Ranking: 9
Last Result: L vs. No. 6 Michigan (59-18)
Next: at Rutgers
Mike Locksley is now closing out his third season with the Terps, and there wouldn’t be a better way to finish the year off than a win to become bowl-eligible. The Terrapins have shown that they aren’t one of the worst teams in the conference, but beatdowns by every good team they’ve faced have also shown that there’s still a large gap between them and every team above them. If Locksley is the man for this job, it’s imperative that they get that sixth win so this rebuild doesn’t plateau.
10. Nebraska (3-8, 1-7 B1G)
Last Ranking: 10
Last Result: L at No. 15 Wisconsin (35-28)
Next: vs. No. 16 Iowa
We can now refer to the Huskers as the best 3-8 team in the country, as they rank 33rd in the most recent SP+ rankings, while no other 3-win or worse team is in the Top 80. And of course, they picked up their most recent loss by losing by only one score after having a chance to take the lead late. This team is in an endless loop of failure, but it’s failure that couldn’t be any closer to success. At some point, they have to regress to the mean and start seeing some close games, and with a rivalry game at home this Friday, that could happen very soon.
11. Illinois (4-7, 3-5 B1G)
Last Ranking: 11
Last Result: L at No. 17 Iowa (33-23)
The Fighting Illini’s loss to Iowa this weekend was just another weird game in a line of weird games for them this season. They uncharacteristically abandoned the run game, and while they outgained the Hawkeyes, they still lost by two scores. Bret Bielema will have a chance to end the year off on a high note, as beating Northwestern in his first season would already put him in better favor with most of the fanbase than Lovie Smith ever was.
12. Northwestern (3-8, 1-7 B1G)
Last Ranking: 12
Last Result: L vs. Purdue (32-14)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if not for their win against Rutgers, the ‘Cats would be in contention with Indiana for the title of worst team in the Big Ten. The same could’ve been said for the 2019 Wildcats as well, and they still managed to retain the HAT that year. Whether they win in Champaign this Saturday is practically irrelevant in my evaluation of this team. They’ve been outright horrible at points, and while a fourth win would look better than three does, this season has been a step back for the entire program. To make matters worse, there are problems — QB play and run defense, in particular — that don’t look like they’ll be easily fixed in time for 2022. I hope Fitz can prove me wrong, but it doesn’t look likely that he will.
13. Rutgers (5-6, 2-6 B1G)
Last Ranking: 13
Last Result: L at Penn State (28-0)
Next: vs. Maryland
While it is a low bar, it’s not an understatement to say this Saturday’s game is Greg Schiano’s most important contest in his second stint as the Scarlet Knight’s head coach. A win against the Terps would send Rutgers to its first bowl since 2014, and for Schiano, a bowl appearance in his second season would be a concrete example of progress being made in Piscataway. Even with a loss, the Scarlet Knights are heading in the right direction, and their 2022 recruiting class reflects that.
14. Indiana (2-9, 0-8 B1G)
Last Ranking: 14
Last Result: L vs. Minnesota (35-14)
Next: at Purdue
A win against in-state rivals Purdue would put a silver lining around what has been an otherwise disastrous season. To put it bluntly, the Hoosiers have been very bad this season, and to be honest, whether they finish 3-9 or 2-10 won’t change that fact. Tom Allen has a lot of work to do this offseason to right the ship, or else 2020 might end up being a fluke and not the start of sustained success in Bloomington.