Just as everyone expected, Indiana, Northwestern and Maryland have more combined wins than Minnesota, Michigan and Penn State through three weeks of Big Ten play.
There have been some incredible storylines that have emerged from the first few months of the 2020 season. Non-traditional powers like Cincinnati (who was on Nebraska’s original schedule) and BYU have steamrolled opponents en-route to undefeated starts. The Bearcats and Cougars are No. 7 and No. 8 in the AP Top 25, respectively, and both programs are having their best season in over a decade.
Another small school having a historic year is Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers are in just their fourth year of existence at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, but are ranked No. 15 in the country after racing out to a 7-0 start. The Marshall Thundering Herd (6-0) sit one spot below Coastal Carolina at No. 16 and Liberty (7-0) moved up to the No. 22 spot after a thrilling, last-second road victory over Virginia Tech.
The point of this exercise is to illustrate exactly how the balance of power has shifted in college football, and perhaps nowhere else more so than the Big Ten. The aforementioned Golden Gophers, Wolverines and Nittany Lions were all ranked within the top 20 at the end of the 2019 season. Those schools are a combined 2-7 to open 2020.
And truthfully, it doesn’t get any easier for these teams this week. Minnesota hosts an Iowa team coming off a 49-7 thrashing of Michigan State, Michigan hosts a No. 13 Wisconsin team coming off of two weeks of rest and Penn State visits Nebraska in a battle featuring two teams looking for their first win of the season.
With only five games remaining, some of the Big Ten’s more established powers may be running out of time to get their season turned around — and massive changes may be on the way if said programs fail to do so.
Let’s take a look at how things stand in the fourth installment of my weekly Big Ten power rankings.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (3-0)
It was never really in doubt for the Buckeyes last Saturday night against Rutgers, as Ohio State raced out to a 42-9 lead before the Scarlet Knights added 18 late points to make the scoreline more respectable.
Unsurprisingly, junior quarterback Justin Fields turned in another insane performance in Ohio State’s 49-27 victory. He completed 24-of-28 passes for 314 yards and five touchdowns, while adding another touchdown on the ground. Fields has accounted for 11 passing touchdowns this year, the exact same number of incomplete passes he’s thrown through three games.
Sophomore wide receiver Garrett Wilson had his third consecutive 100-yard receiving game against Rutgers, hauling in six passes for 104 yards and a touchdown. Graduate transfer running back Trey Sermon had 68 rushing yards, his most productive output of the season.
The Buckeye defense did what it needed to do in order to slow down Rutgers’ offense until garbage time in a game that Ohio State was expected to dominate. Head coach Ryan Day’s squad visits a surging Maryland squad this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network, but a matchup the following weekend with top-10 Indiana looms.
2. Indiana Hoosiers (3-0)
Speaking of Indiana, the Hoosiers check in at No. 2 in my rankings and No. 10 in the country after a 38-21 beatdown of Michigan last Saturday.
The win was the Hoosiers’ first over the Wolverines since 1987, snapping a 24-game losing streak. Sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. tossed three first-half touchdowns and 342 passing yards, junior running back Stevie Scott III had two rushing touchdowns and 110 total yards and senior wide receiver Ty Fryfogle had 142 receiving yards and a score.
Indiana quietly has assembled a nice assortment of skill position players, as senior wide receiver Whop Philyor and junior tight end Peyton Hendershot both had productive outings against the Wolverines and round out a talented Hoosier offense. Indiana’s offense looks to be one of the more dynamic units in the country.
The Hoosiers are no slouch defensively, either. Michigan ran for 13 total yards and Wolverine junior quarterback Joe Milton completed just over 50% of his passes and threw two interceptions. Indiana’s defense has held its opponents to 21 points in consecutive weeks.
With success comes expectation, and Indiana is now in a position where it will expect, and receive, every team’s best shot moving forward. After a couple of big victories, the Hoosiers could be heading for a let down, as head coach Tom Allen’s unit visits Michigan State for an 11 a.m. kickoff on ABC.
Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen, though, as the Hoosiers have been one of the best college football stories of 2020 and should hopefully enter a showdown with Ohio State undefeated two weekends from now.
3. Wisconsin Badgers (1-0)
Wisconsin football is back!
The Badgers began game-week preparations on Monday for their upcoming game with Michigan after their last two games were canceled due to a program-wide COVID-19 outbreak. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said that he’s “confident” that the program has a handle on the outbreak and that the Badgers haven’t had a positive case in the program for five out of the last six days.
At any rate, Wisconsin’s first road test at Michigan on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on ABC appears to be going ahead as scheduled. The Badgers will look to move to 2-0 in a surprisingly competitive Big Ten West.
4. Northwestern Wildcats (3-0)
Part of the reason why Wisconsin can’t afford to falter in its return to play is Northwestern’s undefeated start.
It wasn’t pretty, but the Wildcats held on to beat Nebraska 21-13 last Saturday in Evanston, Illinois. The Wildcat defense shutout Nebraska in the second half after two first-half interceptions from graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey allowed the Huskers to build a 13-7 lead going into the break.
Northwestern’s defense held its opponent scoreless in the second half for the third straight week, forcing an end zone interception from Husker junior quarterback Adrian Martinez and redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey. Ramsey led two touchdown drives in the second half to give Northwestern the lead, and the defense held on the game’s final drive to prevent Nebraska from scoring and having a two-point conversion attempt to tie the game.
The Wildcats will not overwhelm teams on the offensive side of the ball — Nebraska actually outgained Northwestern by over 100 yards. However, yards don’t mean anything unless they end in points, and Northwestern was able to prevent Nebraska from coming away with touchdowns in the red zone time and time again.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad will more than likely face back-to-back unbeaten Big Ten West opponents in the next two weeks, the first of which comes on Saturday when the Wildcats visit Purdue. Saturday’s contest kicks off at 6:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.
5. Purdue Boilermakers (2-0)
Purdue was the second casualty of Wisconsin’s program-wide coronavirus outbreak.
The Boilermakers are undefeated after victories over Iowa and Illinois, but the Illinois win looks far less impressive as Minnesota battered the Fighting Illini over the weekend. Purdue has the chance to make itself the frontrunner in the Big Ten West with a win, which would set up a fascinating discussion if both the Badgers and Boilermakers finish the regular season unbeaten.
Outside of this weekend’s matchup with Northwestern, a trip to No. 10 Indiana is the hardest remaining game on Purdue’s schedule. It’s certainly feasible, but the Boilermakers need to beat Northwestern this weekend first before such discussions really can get under way.
6. Maryland Terrapins (2-1)
If not for Indiana and Northwestern’s scintillating start, Maryland’s two-game winning streak would be the story of the Big Ten thus far.
The Terrapins thrashed Penn State 35-19 last Saturday in a game that was nowhere near as close as the final score suggests. Sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa tore up a defense for the second consecutive week, completing 18-of-26 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns.
Freshman wide receiver Rakim Jarrett had a career-high 144 yards on five receptions and the first two receiving touchdowns of his Terrapin career. Maryland’s defense forced three Penn State turnovers and had the Nittany Lion offense out of sync all night. Case in point, Nittany Lion junior quarterback Sean Clifford completed 27-of-57 passes for 340 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
It was a major step up from a defensive unit that forced no turnovers and gave up 44 points to Minnesota two weekends ago. The Terrapins looked very convincing against a reeling Penn State squad, proving that their season-opening blowout loss to Northwestern may be more of an illusion than reality.
Maryland has an excellent chance to prove just how far its come this weekend, when the Terrapins host No. 3 Ohio State.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes (1-2)
The Hawkeyes poured it on Michigan State in a 49-7 victory last Saturday, and they did so in all three phases of the game.
Sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras wasn’t asked to do much against the Spartans, completing 15-of-27 passes for 167 yards and one touchdown in a pedestrian outing. However fellow sophomore running back Tyler Goodson picked up the brunt of the offensive production, carrying the ball 14 times for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Senior running back Mekhi Sargent had two rushing touchdowns and 31 yards.
Iowa’s defense forced three interceptions from Michigan State junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi, one of which was returned by junior cornerback Riley Moss for a 54-yard touchdown to give the Hawkeyes a 35-0 lead before halftime. Prior to Moss’s pick-six, Iowa junior wide receiver Charlie Jones returned a Michigan State punt for a 54-yard touchdown.
The Hawkeyes appear to be back on track, but head coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad could be in a much better position in the Big Ten West race had they closed out close losses to Northwestern and Purdue. Iowa has several winnable games left on the schedule, though, the first of which is this Friday at Minnesota at 6:00 p.m. on FS1.
8. Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-2)
The Golden Gophers jump back into the top 10 of my rankings after being second-to-last last week, in part due to their resounding triumph over Illinois and due to the teams below them having terrible performances.
Illinois may be one of, if not the worst team in the conference this year, but head coach PJ Fleck’s team never let the Fighting Illini in the game in a 41-14 Minnesota victory.
Gopher junior running back Mohamed Ibrahim, the conference’s leading rusher by a significant margin, posted his second consecutive 200-yard rushing game with 224 yards and four touchdowns. His lowest rushing output this season was 140 yards in Minnesota’s season-opening loss to Michigan, however in that game, Minnesota had to abandon the run as it was trailing for a majority of the contest.
Minnesota will need a strong performance from Ibrahim and the rest of the offense on Friday against Iowa. It’s strange to say, but with this being the fourth game of the season for both teams and with programs like Purdue and Northwestern getting off to undefeated starts, Friday’s game could be a de-facto elimination contest in the Big Ten West.
A loss on Friday would be a deathblow for either squad’s Big Ten aspirations.
9. Michigan State Spartans (1-2)
Talk about a post-win hangover.
After handling Michigan two Saturdays ago 27-24, first-year head coach Mel Tucker’s squad looked completely flat in the Spartans’ 49-7 loss at Iowa. The same problems that emerged when Michigan State turned the ball over seven times and lost to Rutgers reared their ugly head against the Hawkeyes.
Lombardi was careless and uncomfortable in the pocket, which resulted in him completing less than 50% of his passes and throwing three interceptions. The Spartans managed just 59 rushing yards on 1.8 yards per carry, and were overmatched on both ends of the ball.
Michigan State appears unable to turn in a consistent performance from week-to-week, a worrying sign considering the Spartans have some difficult opponents remaining on the schedule. Michigan State will look to spring the upset of No. 10 Indiana on Saturday to get back on track.
10. Michigan Wolverines (1-2)
To put it bluntly, the Wolverines are a program in free-fall.
Michigan has now lost two consecutive games after an embarrassing 38-21 defeat to Indiana last Saturday. This isn’t to take away from the Hoosiers’ impressive performance, but Michigan looked flat on offense and defense for the second consecutive week.
The Wolverines secondary was exposed by Penix Jr. and Indiana’s wide receivers, Milton was inefficient and turnover prone, Michigan managed just 13 yards on the ground and the list goes on. Turnovers help teams win games, and Michigan’s defense has yet to force one since the Wolverine’s week-one triumph over Minnesota.
At least head coach Jim Harbaugh is getting the losing out of the way before the Ohio State game?
All jokes aside, Michigan is in danger of having a lost season if it cannot beat Wisconsin on Saturday — and Harbaugh is in danger of losing his job. This four-game stretch could be an opportunity for Michigan to get back on track, as the Wolverines face Rutgers, Penn State and Maryland after this weekend’s game against Wisconsin.
At best, Michigan can hope to be 5-2 entering its season finale against Ohio State. However, it’s looking more and more likely that the Wolverines are closing in on finishing below .500 for the first time since 2014 — the year before Harbaugh was brought in.
Rest of the Big Ten
11. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1-2)
12. Nebraska Huskers (0-2)
13. Penn State Nittany Lions (0-3)
14. Illinois Fighting Illini (0-3)