November 6, 2012

Around the Big Ten: Week 11 power rankings

A weekly look at the Big Ten power rankings ...

1: Ohio State (10-0, 6-0, Last Week - 1): The Buckeyes just refuse to lose, and sit at 10-0 for the first time since 2007.

Illinois hasn't posed problems for many this season, but OSU still took care of business in 52-22 throttling of the Illini. With sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, who leads the conference in total offense with 291.9 yards per game, and junior running back Carlos Hyde, who has eclipsed the 130-yard mark in three of his last five games, leading the charge, it looks more and more likely that Urban Meyer's squad is on the verge of the program's first undefeated season in 10 years.

2: Nebraska (7-2, 4-1, Last Week - 2)" Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez was horrendous at times during the Huskers' 28-24 victory over Michigan State, tossing three critical interceptions, but stepped up when it mattered. A 35-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter and a game-winning five-yard touchdown pass with time waning helped Nebraska overcome a late two-score deficit.

Sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah also continues to impress after a 110 yard performance against the Big Ten's best rush defense. He has rushed for 826 yards and eight scores this year to spearhead a ground attack that leads the conference with 269.6 yards per game.

NU controls its own destiny in the Legends Division, and the upcoming matchup against a talented Penn State team is one of the bigger obstacles on its journey to Indianapolis.

3: Michigan (6-3, 4-1, Last Week - 5): Junior Devin Gardner looked absolutely electric in his return to the quarterback position. Many will marginalize Gardner's 234-yard, two-touchdown passing performance because it came against the lowly Gophers, but upon closer inspection, Minnesota entered the game ranked seventh in the entire country in pass defense (159.9 yards per game).

Gardner made big play after big play and a Maize and Blue stout defense, which leads the FBS in allowing only 145.4 passing yards a game, should propel the Wolverines moving forward. U-M still needs help from Nebraska's opponents to reach the Big Ten title game, and has two tough matchups in Northwestern and Ohio State remaining, but the new-found depth at a key position is huge for the program that will have to adjust to life without senior standout Denard Robinson next year.

4. Penn State (6-3, 4-1, Last Week - 3): Penn State took advantage of a poor Purdue team in a 34-9 victory last week to get back on the winning track. Fifth-year senior quarterback Matt McGloin threw for 321 yards to set a record for most-career 300-yard passing games by a Nittany Lion (5), and junior running back Zach Zwinak surfaced as a legitimate threat on the ground, gaining 134 yards on 21 carries (6.4 yards per carry).

PSU may not be eligible for the postseason, but finishes the season with Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin - all of which possess legitimate Big Ten title aspirations. Bill O'Brien's squad has played inspired football all year despite the circumstances, and the opportunity to spoil the hopes of its remaining foes should add extra motivation to finish the season strong.

5: Northwestern (7-2, 3-2, Last Week - 4): While Northwestern is not statistically eliminated from the Legends Division race, a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game is highly unlikely for the Wildcats. Still, NU has the opportunity to position itself for a possible Jan. 1 bowl game - most likely the Gator Bowl - if it wins out, which would be a huge step in Pat Fitzgerald's steady building of the once abysmal program.

Junior quarterback Kain Colter (622 yards, 11 touchdowns) and junior running back Venric Mark (1,077 yards, nine touchdowns) are a one-two punch out of the backfield that has been nearly impossible to stop in recent weeks, but will face a gigantic test against a Michigan defense that ranks second in the conference in both scoring defense (16.8 points per game) and total defense (288.7 yards per game).

6: Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2, Last Week - 5): Coming off a bye week, the Badgers face an integral game against Indiana this Saturday. Despite being essentially gifted a spot at Lucas Oil Field due to the postseason ineligibility of Ohio State and Penn State, and the collapse by Purdue, UW has unthinkably been unable to run away with the division.

Starting quarterback Joel Stave is out for the year with a broken collarbone, and a once-powerful Wisconsin ground attack managed only 19 yards in its last game. A pass defense that is allowing 203.2 yards per game will be challenged by an Indiana team that has scored 33.1 points per game this year and leads the Big Ten with 299.9 yards a game through the air.

Because UW finishes the season with tough matchups against Ohio State and Penn State, this matchup against the Hoosiers takes on unexpected importance in Wisconsin's quest to defend its Big Ten title.

7: Michigan State (5-5, 2-4, Last Week - 6): The conference-leading Michigan State defense is too talented to get blown out by good teams, but the offense is not nearly effective enough to finish close games - despite employing the Big Ten's leading rusher in junior Le'Veon Bell (1,249 yards, 10 touchdowns). The Spartans' four conference losses have been by an average of 2.5 points, and MSU has led in the fourth quarter of all of those matchups.

Any hopes for a New Year's Day bowl appearance were crushed by a fourth-quarter collapse in the 28-24 loss to Nebraska, and with only two games left, reaching any bowl game has become an uncertainty for a team many predicted to contend for a Big Ten title.

This has been an exceedingly difficult team to figure out, but head coach Mark Dantonio must conjure up something if the Spartans plan on playing in the postseason.

8: Indiana (4-5, 2-3, Last Week - 10): Indiana fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter to Iowa, but relied on an effective passing game to bounce back and maim the Hawkeyes in a vital 24-21 win. It was par for the course, however, as the Hoosiers have relied on the arms of their quarterbacks all year, and continue to lead the conference 299.9 passing yards per game.

Both sophomore wide receiver Cody Latimer (113 yards) and junior wide receiver Kofi Hughes (110 yards) surpassed the century mark a week ago, and sophomore quarterback Cameron Coffman (315 passing yards, three touchdowns) has seemed to have made a connection with his receiving corps despite splitting time with freshman Nate Sudfeld.

IU has a chance to grasp the driver's seat in the Leaders Division at home against Wisconsin next week, but will need a defense that ranks dead last in rush yards allowed (208.4) to step up against a typically effective Badger rush attack.

9: Iowa (4-5, 2-3, Last Week -8): The Hawkeyes started the conference slate strong, but after losing three-consecutive games, are yet another Big Ten team with uncertain postseason plans.

A Hawkeye passing game that thrived a year ago is in disarray, as illustrated by a game-changing interception tossed in the endzone by once reliable senior quarterback James Vandenberg in the third quarter last week, and a running attack that was largely dependent on the unlikely success of walk-on sophomore Mark Weisman - who didn't play for a second-consecutive week due to a lower leg injury - has not been as prolific without him.

With the 24-21 loss Indiana, Iowa is below .500 for the first time since 2007, and long-time head coach Kirk Ferentz may find his job in jeopardy if the Gold and Black don't turn things around soon.

10. Minnesota: (5-4, 1-4, Last Week - 8): If there was ever a time to reclaim the Little Brown Jug, it was last weekend against a Michigan team without standout quarterback Denard Robinson.

Instead, a secondary that had been effective all season made Michigan junior quarterback Devin Gardner look like a future NFL first-rounder, and the offense squandered opportunities, scoring only one touchdown on four redzone tries (25.0 percent). Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson was stymied by the top statistical pass defense in the nation, completing only 13-of-29 passes (44.8 percent) for 142 yards and a score.

With tough contests against Nebraska and Michigan State on the horizon, the Gophers need a win against Illinois, the Big Ten's worst team, this week to ensure a bowl berth.

11. Purdue: (3-6, 0-5, Last Week - 11): Illinois is clearly the worst team in the conference, but the Boilermakers are certainly giving their best effort to claim the spot.

Purdue ranks 11th in the conference in scoring defense (30.2 yards per game) and total defense (428.1 yards per game) , and must win out to reach postseason eligibility -a highly unlikely scenario.

Despite possessing several pro-prospects on defense, Danny Hope has been unable to motivate his squad, and it may cost him his job. PU AD Morgan Burke issued a statement this week calling for a strong finish from the team, and Hope may need his team to catch fire down the stretch - which would be a minor miracle at this point - to return to West Lafayette next season.

12: Illinois (2-7, 0-5, Last Week - 12): Illinois actually led the Buckeyes a week ago.

It was only 3-0 and early in the first quarter, but it may have been the highlight of a dreadful season in Champaign. Unfortunately for Tim Beckman and company, the Illini were outscored 52-19 from that point on in another embarrassing blowout loss.

The Orange and Blue have dropped 11-straight Big Ten games dating back to last season, and have been outscored 30.6-11.5 in that time frame.

With UI entertaining Minnesota and Purdue, who share a combined 1-9 record in the conference, over the next two weeks, Illinois has a legitimate shot at snapping its streak of futility, but that would be little consolation in a 2012 campaign that has been a massive disappointment.

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