s-bigtenpowerranks

The college football regular season has come to a close, and it was certainly a chaotic one in the Big Ten. Over the course of the year, we’ve seen a record number of overtimes, two top-5 teams lose to unranked Purdue and multiple rivalry games that lived up to the billing. 

Now that the regular season is complete, it’s time to both look ahead to next season and reflect on where things stood in August.

Included instead of the last week’s rankings within the conference are each Big Ten team’s preseason rankings to show how far each squad has come across the journey of the season. 

After an action-packed year of Big Ten action, here’s the final Big Ten power rankings of the 2021 season: 

1. Michigan Wolverines (11-1) Preseason rank: 7

Head coach Jim Harbaugh finally earned his signature win as Michigan’s head coach, defeating archrival Ohio State 42-27 last Saturday. Harbaugh in his tenure was previously 2-13 against top-10 teams, and 0-5 against the then-No. 2 Buckeyes. 

On a snowy morning in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Wolverines expertly attacked Ohio State’s weaknesses, winning the line of scrimmage and rushing for 7.2 yards per carry. Senior running back Hassan Haskins led the charge for the Michigan rushing cavalry, carrying 28 times for 169 yards and five touchdowns. 

Haskins’ five touchdowns tied a Michigan record for most touchdowns in a game against Ohio State, sharing the record with two players from the early 1900s. Haskins gashed the defense, particularly in the second half where four of his touchdowns occurred. He also single-handedly sealed the deal on a late fourth quarter drive. With Michigan holding on to an eight-point lead and 4:45 remaining, Haskins handled five straight carries, capping off the drive with a four-yard touchdown. 

The defense also excelled, holding Ohio State to its second-lowest point total of the season and its lowest point total against Michigan since 2012. The star of the defense was senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who had been the Wolverines’ best defensive player all year, having his signature performance when it mattered most.

Hutchinson tallied three sacks for the day, making life tough in the backfield for Ohio State freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud, who was sacked four times and hurried another four. Hutchinson’s three sacks gave him 13 on the year, a new all-time record for Michigan. 

No. 2 Michigan tops the power rankings for the first time and now finds itself in the thick of the College Football Playoff race. A victory over No. 13 Iowa in the program’s first-ever Big Ten Championship appearance would lock up the Wolverines’ first-ever playoff appearance and keep the dream season alive. 

2. Iowa Hawkeyes (10-2) Preseason rank: 3

Iowa fully rebounded after a rocky patch in the middle of its season, defeating Nebraska 28-21 last Friday and eventually capturing the Big Ten West crown a day later.

The Hawkeyes were not favored headed into the contest, marking the first time a team 9-3 or better was not favored to win against a three-win opponent. 

As the game started, it appeared as if the oddsmakers were right, with Nebraska’s offense humming to a 21-6 lead. All Iowa could muster in the first three quarters were field goals, with a turnover on downs and a fumble from junior running back Tyler Goodson on its only trips inside the Nebraska 10-yard line. The Hawkeyes needed something to flip the momentum fast, and they found it in one of its most reliable strengths all year long: special teams. 

Nebraska punted to open the fourth quarter, and junior defensive end Joe Evans broke through the lax Husker punt coverage unblocked to stonewall the punt away for an Iowa return touchdown. 

In typical Iowa fashion, a safety and another field goal tied the game up late in the fourth quarter. The Iowa defense remained stout, forcing a Husker three-and-out to give its offense a chance to take the lead. Goodson made the most of that chance, breaking off a 55-yard run to set up the go-ahead touchdown. 

Sophomore defensive back Jermari Harris put away the game for good with an interception in the final minute, and Iowa won its seventh straight Heroes Game trophy. The win, combined with a Wisconsin loss, vaulted Iowa into its second Big Ten Championship game and gave the Hawkeyes a chance at their first outright conference title since 1985. 

3. Ohio State Buckeyes (10-2) Preseason rank: 1

Ohio State experienced its high and low point of the season in back-to-back weeks to close out the year.

In Week 12, Ohio State swamped then-No. 7 Michigan State 56-7, behind Stroud’s 432-yard, six touchdown performance. The Buckeyes had three receivers break the century mark in the blowout. The win earned Ohio State gobs of national respect, launching them to No. 2 in the College Football Playoff poll. 

Riding high after its biggest conference win of the season, Ohio State fell 42-27 to then-No. 5 Michigan, snapping its eight-game winning streak in The Game

Ohio State kept it competitive in the first half, being down 14-13 at halftime, but fell into a hole in the third quarter, allowing 14 unanswered Michigan points. The Buckeyes picked up the scoring pace in the fourth quarter, but were unable to muster key defensive stops against Michigan, with the Wolverines matching their two-touchdown output. The loss was Ohio State’s first conference loss by double digits since its 49-20 defeat to Purdue in 2018. 

The win gave Michigan the Big Ten East, snapping Ohio State’s four-year division and conference winning streak. 

4. Michigan State Spartans (10-2) Preseason rank: 13

Michigan State held on in a raucous game against Penn State, winning 30-27 last Saturday to capture the glorious Land Grant Trophy

On a snow-covered field, the Spartan offense charged for 451 total yards, rebounding after their defeat against Ohio State.

Big Ten Running Back of the Year junior Kenneth Walker III finished his spectacular regular season in big fashion, rushing for 138 yards and a touchdown. Walker finished the season averaging a conference-high 136.3 rush yards per game, totaling 1636 rushing yards and tying for the conference lead with 18 rushing touchdowns. 

Michigan State hopped out to a 14-0 lead, but relinquished it in the second half, falling behind 20-17. Instantly, the Spartans would reclaim the lead on a mammoth 15-play, 75-yard drive that took up almost nine minutes of game time. Sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne punched it in from a yard out to finish the drive with a touchdown.

The Michigan State defense kept Penn State in check, forcing a turnover on downs and a fumble on its next possessions. The stops gave Michigan State the ball back, and it was soon faced with a 4th-and-15 from the Penn State 20-yard line. 

Not wanting to attempt a long field goal in the snowy conditions, the Spartan offense elected to go for the first down. Thorne floated a jump ball to the end zone, where junior wide receiver Jayden Reed high-pointed the ball and came down with the touchdown to put Michigan State up two possessions late. 

The Spartans held on to win, and Michigan State turned in its first 10-win season since 2017. For his efforts of flipping a 2-5 team into a 10-2 team, head coach Mel Tucker was named Big Ten Coach of the Year. 

5. Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4) Preseason rank: 8

Minnesota was eliminated from Big Ten Championship contention after Iowa’s win, but still found time to spoil its archrival’s season, beating Wisconsin 23-13 last Saturday. 

The rushing attack that willed Minnesota to most of its wins this season was rendered ineffective by the Wisconsin defense, holding the Golden Gophers to under 100 yards rushing. The Minnesota defense repaid the favor, though, snapping freshman running back phenom Braelon Allen’s seven-game 100-yard rushing streak. The Golden Gopher defense held Allen to a season low 2.8 yards per carry and just 47 rushing yards.

Senior quarterback Tanner Morgan stepped up in the ground game’s absence, bouncing back from a second quarter pick-six to lead three second-half scoring drives. Minnesota claimed its first lead of the second half on a 27-yard passing touchdown to senior wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell.

Senior kicker Matthew Trickett made an insurance field goal in the fourth quarter to go up 23-13, and Minnesota stopped Wisconsin on a turnover on downs on back-to-back drives. Minnesota won Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the second time in four years, after breaking its 14-year losing streak in 2018. 

6. Wisconsin Badgers (8-4) Preseason rank: 2

Wisconsin entered last Saturday’s game against Minnesota with a simple mission: win, and make an appearance in the Big Ten Championship. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, Minnesota emerged victorious. The loss snapped Wisconsin’s seven-game winning streak. 

Allen, fresh off his season-best performance against Nebraska, was stuffed by the Minnesota defense, adding pressure on the Wisconsin passing game. Sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz did not find much success in the passing game, completing 21-of-38 passes with no touchdowns and an interception. Mertz’s interception came in deep Wisconsin territory, setting up a Minnesota touchdown two plays later. 

The Badger offense did not score any points in the game, with the only Wisconsin touchdown coming on senior safety Scott Nelson’s interception return. 

The final three drives in particular were disastrous for Wisconsin. The first ended with senior kicker Collin Larsh doinking his 48-yard field goal attempt off the crossbar. The next drive ended on a missed 4th-and-4 conversion in Wisconsin territory. After forcing a three-and-out, Mertz’s run on a 4th-and-1 gained no yards, and Minnesota knelt out the clock for the win.

Wisconsin will return Mertz, Allen and a solid defense next season, so a run for the division in 2022 could easily be in the cards. 

7. Purdue Boilermakers (8-4) Preseason rank: 10

Purdue had its most successful season in years, winning eight games for the first time since 2007 and six conference games for the first time since 2003. The Boilermakers put the exclamation point on their season by demolishing rival Indiana 44-7 last Saturday to win the Old Oaken Bucket

Senior quarterback Aidan O’Connell had one of his most efficient performances yet in the season finale, completing 26-of-31 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns, tying his season high. Three of his passing touchdowns came in the second half, where Purdue was the only team that scored in the blowout. In the final four games of the season, O’Connell impressed with 15 touchdowns and no interceptions. 

The Purdue defense turned in a particularly nasty performance, notching four sacks and a spectacular 10 tackles for loss. Junior defensive tackle Branson Deen led the way with three tackles for loss, a new season-high. Star junior defensive end George Karlaftis added a sack of his own, ending his regular-season campaign on a high note. 

Purdue beat Indiana for the first time since 2018, and will make a bowl for the first time since then as well. The Boilermakers had a memorable season with two wins over then-top-5 teams, and despite the departure of O’Connell and the likely departures of Karlaftis and junior Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year David Bell, the foundation is there for future success. 

8. Penn State Nittany Lions (7-5) Preseason rank: 5

Penn State’s season of ups and downs ended on a down note, falling just short at Michigan State. 

Two long passing touchdowns from senior quarterback Sean Clifford to senior wide receiver Jahan Dotson pulled the Nittany Lions out of a 14-0 deficit, a fitting end for one of the program’s greatest quarterback-receiver duos. 

Penn State took the lead early in the third quarter on a pick-six by sophomore cornerback Daequan Hardy, who played Thorne’s inaccurate pass perfectly for Penn State’s third pick-six of the season.  

The Penn State offense flustered late, though, with turnovers on two key scoring chances. After Michigan State gained a 30-20 lead, senior running back John Lovett fumbled the kickoff, losing it to the Spartans. 

Michigan State got stopped on fourth down, but it cost Penn State a minute of game clock and two timeouts. The Nittany Lions’ next offensive drive got off to a rough start, with Clifford getting dropped in the backfield for a sack on third-and-10. The sack put Penn State at a fourth-and-24, where Clifford evaded multiple sack attempts to find sophomore tight end Brenton Strange, who ran ahead to just past the first down mark for the conversion. 

Penn State scored a touchdown on the drive, but took up too much time and had to attempt an onside kick, which Michigan State recovered. Penn State will have to make up for some key contributors leaving in 2022, with Clifford and Dotson graduating and defensive coordinator Brent Pry becoming head coach of Virginia Tech. 

9. Maryland Terrapins (6-6) Preseason rank: 12

Maryland earned its bowl eligibility last Saturday, handily defeating Rutgers 40-16 in a battle between five-win teams to earn its first bowl game berth since 2016. 

Senior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis led the charge on offense, rushing for a season-high 152 yards and two touchdowns. Also starring for the Terrapins was junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns, his first three-touchdown game since September. 

Rounding out the offensive explosion was sophomore wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, who caught seven passes for 111 yards. 

The Maryland pass defense had a spectacular performance, deflecting six passes and holding Rutgers to 173 passing yards between two quarterbacks. Senior defensive back Jakorian Bennett caught an interception, and sophomore defensive back Tarheeb Still tied with sophomore linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II for the team lead with seven tackles. 

While Maryland didn’t live up to its 4-0 start, it won two crucial games down the stretch to return the team to postseason play. 

10. Illinois Fighting Illini (5-7) Preseason rank: 14

Head coach Bret Bielema had a solid first year helming the Fighting Illini. Illinois earned four conference wins this year, including a nonuple overtime road upset over then-No. 7 Penn State. 

Illinois capped off its season in successful fashion, thrashing Northwestern 47-14 last Saturday. The win reclaimed the Land of Lincoln Trophy for Illinois, taking home the hardware for the first time since 2014. 

Illinois dominated the game from the get-go, surging to a 37-7 lead at halftime. The Fighting Illini outgained the Wildcats 459-241, split almost evenly between passing and rushing, a solid performance to end on for the improved rush offense. 

11. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (5-7) Preseason rank: 11

Rutgers finished 5-7, showing signs of progress this year in its best season since 2014. 

Reasons for optimism are afoot in the Rutgers program, with the Scarlet Knights having the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten for 2022. 

New faces emerged on the defense, with 12 freshmen and sophomores gaining significant playing time this year on the defensive end. Rutgers was one win away from bowl eligibility, something it hopes flips in 2022. 

12. Nebraska Huskers (3-9) Preseason rank: 9

Nebraska ended its season the exact same way it began, by losing a one-score game. Nebraska was a shocking 0-8 in one-score games this year, the first time that had ever happened in the FBS era.

Despite finishing the season 1-8 in Big Ten play, Nebraska finished with a point differential of zero.

The Huskers fired four offensive coaches, while retaining head coach Scott Frost, the second worst coach by record through four years in program history, on a pay cut. Nebraska will look for a new offensive coordinator and a consistent offensive identity upon the departure of key pieces like senior wide receiver Samori Toure and junior tight end Austin Allen. 

13. Northwestern Wildcats (3-9) Preseason rank: 6

For the second time in four years, Northwestern followed up a division title with finishing last in the division. Only notching one conference win over Rutgers, the Wildcats finished with a disastrous -149 point differential.

Northwestern never found a true answer at quarterback, and the defense regressed significantly from being one of the nation’s best units a year ago. 

A bounceback to another division title after finishing last again will be a tall task, as Northwestern will be faced with several questions about the roster and coaching staff for next season.

14. Indiana Hoosiers (2-10) Preseason rank: 4

Indiana fell short of all preseason expectations, emerging without a conference win for the first time since 2011. Most of the losses were not particularly close either, with only two coming by one possession. 

After the disappointing season where the Hoosier offense managed just 17.3 points per game, they fired offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan, with head coach Tom Allen agreeing to a salary cut as well. 

A main issue with the season was injuries, with 18 players suffering season-ending injuries. However, coaching was moreso a problem, with neither side of the ball doing well, and the team looking unmotivated in most of the season, landing them last in the power rankings. 

sports@dailynebraskan.com