Illinois confirmed it this past weekend: the Big Ten race is officially over for everyone not named Michigan or Ohio State. Again. We are now down to wild scenarios involving Minnesota beating Michigan or hoping for four way ties as pointed out by my colleague at Black Shoe Diaries for anyone else to have a chance. The most realistic thing anyone can do at the moment is play for pride, a better bowl, and hope they spoil one of the Big two's seasons. Even then the best case scenario might be for those two to be at 7-0 before the big game at the Big House and then cheer like hell for Michigan to win so the conference can get two teams into the BCS and a crapload of extra money that comes with it.
As usual, the Big Ten is being called down because everyone is beating everyone else, but if it happens in the SEC or the Pac-10 it's because of the "depth of the league". Someone please tell me how the league can be down when we have a strong likelihood of getting nine teams to bowl eligibility at this point, and even Iowa could still be a 10th team if things broke right. The last time I checked that was 90.9% of the league that could go bowling. It's really starting to get ridiculous at this point. Four teams joined Ohio State on the happy side of bowl eligibility this past week, as Michigan, Purdue, Penn State, and Wisconsin all qualified for the postseason with wins. Sure, in this age of everyone going to bowls there are now almost as many bowl slots (64) as there are in the NCAA tournament (65), but it still means something to make it to the postseason.
There is not a ton of change this week in the power rankings, but I do feel there's more separation between the #2 and #3 spots, as well as the #5 and #6 spots. On to the rankings.
Week 8 Big Ten Power Rankings
1. (1) Ohio State (8-0, 4-0)
There was no flashback to 1998 as the Buckeye defense dominated again against the Spartans. Illinois should be very afraid now, as they run as run-oriented of an offense as the Spartans do and Michigan State was only able to manage 185 yards against the Buckeyes. A cause for concern though has to be the turnovers. I was watching the third quarter of this game at Harry's and Ohio State got very careless with the ball in the second half. Two straight defensive scores were very nearly followed by a third as Ohio State had a rare meltdown. The Buckeyes have not been burned badly yet by turnovers, but the day may come.
Michigan State only managed 59 yards on the ground as one of the better running offenses Ohio State will face this year. Ohio State may have to run a juggernaut of increasing difficulty each week as the season progresses, but the defense continues to play at a high enough level to make it plausable. Right now Ohio State is a team that, if the offense reaches the 20 point plateau, the game is over as long as they don't hurt themselves. They aren't the flashiest team in the country, but as we have seen this year the important thing is to just keep winning, and that is what they do.
2. (2) Michigan (6-2, 4-0)
You have to wonder what Michigan would do to Appalachian State if they played today. I still think the Oregon win was legitimate as the Ducks are a very good team, but the Wolverines are just getting stronger and stronger as the season goes on. Even with a banged up Chad Henne and no Mike Hart Michigan outlasted Illinois on the road. It helps that the Illini had one of the worst mistakes you can make in a big game, but the Wolverines are the type of team you can never screw up against. My Boilers will attest to that after a four turnover performance in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines thrive on mistakes, and this week the walking mistake that is Minnesota at the moment comes to town in the last home game before Ohio State. Right now I would say Michigan has the tougher road to 7-0 before Ohio State, but that is because Michigan State and Wisconsin will both be lying in wait needing a big home win to improve bowl stakes. I also think Michigan is in a weaker position because of injuries and they have already shown more weakness this year than the Buckeyes. If they lose both games though they still could play spoiler against Ohio State's national title hopes.
3. (3) Penn State (6-2, 3-2)
Times have indeed changed when a gritty win over Indiana can be used as a measuring stick. Penn State walked into a bear trap in Bloomington and came out clean thanks to a defense that made big plays when it had to. Thanks to Black Shoe Diaries they still have a small chance at getting to Pasadena, but with a home game against Ohio State this weekend they have perhaps the best shot of anyone else to get there.
Penn State's offense was very balanced against Indiana with 195 passing yards and 192 on the ground. Evan Royster and Rodney Kinlaw were almost even on the ground as well. If Penn State can knock off Ohio State this weekend a 10-2 record to finish is not outside the realm of possibility. Right now Penn State controls its own destiny for a New Year's Day bowl, and very few teams in this conference can say that.
4. (4) Purdue (6-2, 2-2)
Again, I place Purdue here because they should be able to win three of their remaining four games and finish 9-3 overall. That should be good enough to get a team like Purdue at least to San Antonio, and no matter who you play you can't argue with having nine wins. The Boilers convincingly got off a losing streak in a game they easily could have struggled. To me, we looked night and day better than the week before.
Iowa has a good run defense, but Purdue was able to run the ball and committed itself to running the ball for the first time in years. The return of Jaycen Taylor was a spark that will pay huge dividends if he can continue to stay healthy. The defense has also been surprisingly stout thus far against the run, a factor that has not been there the past few seasons. Right now the only team remaining on the Purdue schedule that runs the ball well is Michigan State, but that is a little down the line yet.
5. (6) Wisconsin (6-2, 2-2)
With Ohio State and Michigan both still on the schedule Wisconsin may have a better chance than Penn State to make a statement. The Badgers won't get any schedule help from Minnesota but if they get past Indiana then shock the two titans they could potentially get into the BCS at large discussion. Since Michigan and Ohio State still must play each other one well placed loss by those two would suddenly throw Wisconsin back into the BCS picture after the Iowa and Penn State losses.
It was only a win over Northern Illinois, but the margin as much needed for the Badgers after struggling with UNLV and the Citadel this year. P.J. Hill had a huge game as Wisconsin simply ran over the overmatched Huskies. The game against Indiana this week should be surprisingly good as the Hoosiers have to be getting a little desperate to get win #6.
6. (5) Illinois (5-3, 3-2)
One play summed up Illinois this year perfectly. On the muffed punt Kyle Hudson flinched under the most basic of pressures to make a fair catch. Michigan didn't do anything special on that play, as it happens hundreds of times each Saturday in college football. Sean Griffith simply stood there with the pose of, "Go ahead, catch the football. I'll be right here if screw up." Hudson screwed up, and Griffith made him pay. It was an unforced mistake on a very simple play. You can't do that if you want to dance with the best.
Illinois is not quite ready yet. They have the talent, but they must play a perfect game if they hope to beat a better team. An older, more experienced team doesn't let a single play like that do them in. Illinois will still probably get to eight wins and go to a bowl game, but the last two weeks they have to be kicking themselves because they should have won each time.
7. (7) Michigan State (5-3, 1-3)
They have the win over Indiana under their belts, but if Michigan State can't get the job done this week in Iowa a finishing kick of Michigan, at Purdue, and Penn State does not guarantee a sixth win for bowl eligibility. This is where the Northwestern loss hurts double-time, and the fact that the Spartans don't play Minnesota becomes even bigger.
If Iowa's running defense goes back to its usual stout self then Michigan State will struggle this week. They only need to ask Illinois what that is about. Iowa's defense was picked apart by Curtis Painter early this past week, and the running game only got going once the defense got tired from being kept on the field. Michigan State needs to balance some passing if Iowa gets some early stops, or Iowa may find themselves back alive for the post-season.
8. (8) Indiana (5-3, 2-3)
If Indiana doesn't turn the ball over as much against Penn State they win this past weekend. It's a big step forward that Indiana was right there against the Nittany Lions, but they nearly beat them a few years ago when Penn State was terrible but couldn't finish the job. Indiana, like Purdue, has one more chance to beat a traditional power and that comes this week at Wisconsin.
The Hoosiers will find a sixth win in these last four games, and really they deserve to go to a bowl after all they have been through this year. If they can't break through this year it will be a very long time before they do so. With the way Ball State and Northwestern have played and what they are playing for at the moment neither of those games are guarantees.
9. (9) Northwestern (5-3, 2-2)
Alas, if not for Duke. Northwestern actually scares the crap out of me at the moment because they can get on quite a role and score a ton of points. The win over Eastern Michigan was exactly what was expected, a business-like win over a lesser opponent. Now Tyrell Sutton may be back in an expanded role for the Purdue game.
Northwestern is the type of team that can get on a role and win its last four games or really struggle and lose each of its last four games. Purdue, Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois all have the capacity to both win and lose against them. What makes Northwestern all the more dangerous is that each probably considered the Northwestern game a win before the year started. Do not be shocked if Northwestern wins two or even three of these last ones.
10. (10) Iowa (3-5, 1-4)
It's do or die time for Iowa now. The Iowa defense got picked apart by a Purdue team that finally played exactly like it needs to offensively to beat a good defense, but a home win over Michigan State will make the Hawkeyes a threat for a bowl. Michigan State is the better team right now, but if Iowa digs deeps and sees it still has something to play for the talent is there.
Clearly though Iowa needs to improve its offense in a big way. I don't know if it's a lack of experience or talent, but they will only get worse unless something improves drastically.
11. (11) Minnesota (1-7, 0-4)
Is this rock bottom? North Dakota State is a really good team at the moment and could have done that to a lot of teams. Still, a 1-3 non-conference record against a slate of Miami (OH), Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, and North Dakota State will not get it done. That should be at least three big wins for a marginal Big Ten team. Instead the one win came in double overtime as it was.
On the positive side at least Minnesota is not getting blown out in these games. One could say they are a handful of plays on either side of the ball from being 5-3 right now. If the defense can be fixed the Gophers will get a lot better fast with that offense.