This exercise is becoming increasingly more difficult as the season progresses.
Sure, cancellations are having an impact. It can be hard to fully assess the quality of Big Ten football teams week-in and week-out with so many teams needing to pause football activities for one or more weeks during the season. What it most definitely has led to is inconsistent play league-wide from almost every team not named Ohio State.
And this leads me to my point: the Big Ten currently has 10 teams with two wins. Ten! That’s incredible. I would not envy whoever is in charge of figuring out the conference’s week nine crossover matchups with such a logjam.
It really is a testament to how wacky this Big Ten season has been, a season in which unpredictability and bad football have plagued a majority of the conference. It’s almost impossible to differentiate which team is better than the other once we get past the first five teams in my power rankings for this week.
This weekend of games will have important implications when it comes to potential bowl bids. As of right now, Stadium’s Brett McMurphy projects Ohio State to land in the College Football Playoff and Indiana to appear in the Fiesta Bowl. This leaves five remaining bowl games with Big Ten tie-ins, two of which will undoubtedly go to Iowa and Northwestern, both of which are ranked.
So what does this mean? The next two weeks will see 10 two-win Big Ten teams fighting for appearances in three available bowl games. The number of teams that would actually be willing to play in a bowl game of that group remains to be seen, but don’t be tricked into thinking that this weekend’s slate of Big Ten games and next’s are completely irrelevant.
With that out of the way, let’s see where the Big Ten stands entering the final week of the regular season.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (5-0)
It came as quite the surprise last Saturday morning when it was announced that Ohio State would be without 23 players for its matchup with Michigan State.
This included the loss of three starting offensive linemen and one backup, as well as a starting linebacker. Ohio State was already without head coach Ryan Day, as he was still in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, as well as three assistant coaches.
The Buckeyes were nowhere near phased by the adversity.
Ohio State rolled the Spartans 52-12 in East Lansing, Michigan, in a game the Buckeyes dominated right from the start. Junior quarterback Justin Fields had his usual stellar outing, completing 17-of-24 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns. The Buckeyes ran for 322 yards against Michigan State, and Fields contributed 104 of those on 13 attempts with two touchdowns.
Senior running back Trey Sermon had his most productive game as a Buckeye, leading Ohio State in rushing with 10 attempts for 112 yards and a touchdown. He broke a 64-yard run to give the Buckeyes a 35-0 lead in the third quarter. Ohio State’s defense forced four turnovers.
After the news that Saturday’s game against Michigan was canceled, Ohio State will still make the Big Ten Championship despite playing only five games. On Wednesday, the conference officially waived the five-game minimum requirement for eligibility in the conference championship.
2. Indiana Hoosiers (6-1)
Indiana is the first Big Ten team to six wins, and it did so in an unbelievable team effort over Wisconsin last Saturday.
The Hoosiers rallied around sophomore quarterback Jack Tuttle, who made his first career start after sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. tore his ACL against Maryland last week. Tuttle was solid but unspectacular, completing 13-of-22 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns.
His lone gaffe was a late third-quarter fumble that Wisconsin recovered before converting a field goal to make it a 14-6 game. However, thanks to a valiant effort from Indiana’s defense, the Badgers wouldn’t get any closer.
Despite being outgained by well over 100 yards, the Hoosiers were consistently able to slow down the Badgers when it mattered most. Indiana forced two Wisconsin turnovers and held the Badgers to field goals on their first two red zone trips.
The Badgers’ third such trip came late in the fourth quarter, with the team looking to cap a 92-yard drive with a touchdown that would at least give them the opportunity to send the game to overtime. With just over a minute remaining, the Hoosier defense forced a sack and two incompletions on Wisconsin’s final three plays to seal the victory.
The coolest part of all of this was the postgame interview with Indiana head coach Tom Allen, in which he could barely complete an answer because his players kept coming up to hug him and shower him with accolades. Indiana football is far and away the best story of this Big Ten season, and Allen deserves serious consideration for coach of the year.
No. 12 Indiana has also had its final regular season game canceled, as the Hoosiers and Purdue mutually agreed to call off the matchup.
3. Northwestern Wildcats (5-1)
Northwestern didn’t play last weekend after its game with Minnesota was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns within the Golden Gopher program.
Regardless, the Big Ten West champions will look to close the regular season strong when they host Illinois on Saturday at 11 a.m. on ESPN 2.
4. Iowa Hawkeyes (5-2)
Make that five wins in a row for head coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad.
After initially spotting Illinois a 14-point lead last Saturday in Champaign, Illinois, the Hawkeyes scored 35 consecutive points to secure a 35-21 victory. Sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras had one of his best games of the season, completing 18-of-28 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns.
Iowa ran for over 200 yards against the Illini, led by sophomore running back Tyler Goodson, who had 19 carries for 92 yards. Neither team turned the ball over, but all credit to Iowa’s defense for essentially shutting down Illinois.
No. 16 Iowa closes its regular season hosting a reeling Wisconsin squad on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on FS1.
5. Wisconsin Badgers (2-2)
So begins the ranking of the two-win Big Ten squads, and we start with, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.
Let’s start with the obvious: I think that the Badgers are a much better football team than their record indicates. It can’t be easy to go through all of the stops and starts that the Badgers have had to undergo this year, and as a result I’d imagine that it’s probably pretty difficult to keep a team motivated through that stretch.
Wisconsin started the year with a dominant 45-7 victory over Illinois, then had consecutive games canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program. After returning from their pause, the Badgers dominated Michigan 49-11 on national television.
Then, the pauses really began to set in. Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz and the rest of Wisconsin’s offense flexed their inexperience in the Badgers’ 17-7 loss to a senior-led Northwestern squad. After another off weekend due to a coronavirus outbreak within Minnesota’s program, the Badgers fell to another experienced bunch — this time a 14-6 loss to Indiana.
Wisconsin has had three canceled games, and its two losses have come to ranked opponents. The Badgers are the perfect summary of the Big Ten in 2020, a talented but inconsistent football team without the experience to capitalize on big opportunities.
Like the other two-win teams, the Badgers are fighting for a bowl berth, and they can take a massive step in the right direction by upsetting No. 16 Iowa on Saturday.
6. Maryland Terrapins (2-2)
Speaking of inconsistent football teams, the Terrapins had their game last weekend with Michigan canceled.
Maryland will close the season playing just two games in five weeks, and it was unable to gather any offensive consistency when it lost 27-11 to Indiana on Nov. 28. It will be interesting to see how the Terrapins fare when they host Rutgers on Saturday at 11 a.m. on the Big Ten Network.
7. Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-3)
The Golden Gophers have had their last two games canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program, but it appears that Minnesota is back on track with practice in preparation for Saturday’s game at Nebraska.
Minnesota is in a precarious position in my rankings as, like we’ve seen from so many other Big Ten teams that have had to pause due to the coronavirus, it’s been hard to turn in a quality performance following that long of a break.
Head coach PJ Fleck’s squad will look to buck that trend when they visit Lincoln for an 11 a.m. kickoff on FS1.
8. Illinois Fighting Illini (2-3)
This is where these get really difficult, but Illinois holds the edge given its head-to-head victory over the next team on my list.
The Fighting Illini are in decent form too, having won two of their previous three games. Head coach Lovie Smith’s squad had a dream start against Iowa last Saturday, jumping out to a 14-0 lead behind two touchdown passes from Illini senior quarterback Brandon Peters.
Illinois’ offense disappeared after that though, as the Illini punted on their next six drives while Iowa turned a 14-0 deficit into a two-score advantage. Peters was eventually pulled for freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams, and he led Illinois on a long fourth-quarter drive with the hopes of cutting into Iowa’s advantage.
Unfortunately for Illinois, Williams and the offense sputtered in the red zone, and Iowa went on a 10-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that put the final nail in the coffin. Illinois has a chance to knock off the Big Ten West champs in an intrastate rivalry when it squares off with Northwestern on Saturday.
9. Nebraska Huskers (2-4)
Welcome back to the top 10, Nebraska.
The Huskers picked up a much-needed 37-27 victory over Purdue last Saturday, a game in which Nebraska had the upper hand from the start. Special teams incompetence and overall early sloppiness from the Boilermakers allowed Nebraska to bolt out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter before Purdue closed the gap a bit.
Nebraska held leads of 20-3 and 34-13 at certain points in the game but, much like a few weekends ago against Penn State, Purdue battled back. An 89-yard touchdown strike to Purdue sophomore wide receiver David Bell cut Nebraska’s lead to 34-27, but Nebraska was able to see the game out, and a late field goal from senior kicker Connor Culp sealed a Husker victory.
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez appears to have complete control over the quarterback position for the rest of the season after completing 23-of-30 passes for 242 yards and one touchdown against the Boilermakers. Sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson had 114 receiving yards on nine catches, while Martinez and senior running back Dedrick Mills combined for over 100 rushing yards and three scores.
Nebraska is very much in the mix for a bowl appearance, and head coach Scott Frost would surely jump at the opportunity for extra practices in preparation for a game. The Huskers can take one step closer towards that goal when they host Minnesota on Saturday.
10. Penn State Nittany Lions (2-5)
Penn State has quietly won two games in a row after a 23-7 victory over Rutgers last Saturday.
The Nittany Lions jumped out to a 20-0 lead and never really had trouble with an overmatched Scarlet Knights squad that managed just over 200 yards of offense. While allowing just 83 rushing yards to Rutgers, Penn State’s defense held the Scarlet Knights to 3-of-15 on third down and 1-of-4 on fourth down.
Junior quarterback Sean Clifford completed 15-of-22 passes for 133 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a winning effort. Freshman running back Keyvone Lee had his second solid outing in a row, carrying the ball 17 times for 95 yards.
Penn State hosts Michigan State on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN.
Rest of the Big Ten
11. Michigan Wolverines (2-4)
12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2-5)
13. Purdue Boilermakers (2-4)
14. Michigan State Spartans (2-4)