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November 14, 2012

Around the Big Ten: Week 12 power rankings

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

1: Ohio State (10-0, 6-0; Last Week - 1): Although the undefeated Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play, there is still much to play for in Columbus. OSU is one of only four unbeaten teams remaining in the country, and can clinch an outright Leaders Division championship by defeating Wisconsin at Camp Randall.

Ohio State hasn't gone unbeaten since 2002, but an offense that leads the conference in scoring (39.9 points per game) and ranks second in both total yards (445.3 yards per game) and rushing yards (256.1 yards per game) has provided a true opportunity for Urban Meyer to change that, and make history in his first year coaching the Scarlet and Gray.

2: Nebraska (8-2, 5-1; Last Week - 2): Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Luckily, for a Husker team that has completed four double-digit second-half comebacks this season, a combination of the two may very well lead to a Legends Division title. Nebraska barely, and controversially, scraped past Penn State 32-23 by outscoring the Nittany Lions 26-3 in the second half, and now appear poised to face a surging Wisconsin team in the Big Ten Championship Game if it can take care of business.

NU controls its own destiny and, even without star senior I-Back Rex Burkhead, will be heavy favorites in its final two games against Minnesota and Iowa. Sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah has been an absolute force in Burkhead's place, rushing for 942 yards and eight touchdowns this season.

3: Michigan (7-3, 5-1; Last week - 3): The Wolverines picked up a miracle win against Northwestern a week ago, but still need Nebraska to falter in order to earn a trip to Indianapolis. Junior Devin Gardner has displayed all the attributes of a superstar quarterback, but the team's struggles along the offensive line could prove to be a massive detriment in the future.

The previously stingy defensive unit struggled against the Wildcats' spread option attack and, although U-M still has to face Iowa first, these struggles against mobile quarterbacks could cost Michigan dearly two weeks from now against an Ohio State team that employs arguably the most electric dual-threat quarterback in the nation in sophomore Braxton Miller.

4: Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2; Last Week - 6): Wisconsin finally appeared to find its form in a 62-14 demolition of Indiana, and in doing so clinched the Leaders Division bid in the Big Ten Championship Game. Better late than never.

While the Hoosiers defense is suspect to say the least, any time a program record is broken in a conference game is notable.

Behind 198 yards from senior running back Montee Ball, 161 yards from junior running back James White and 96 yards yards from freshman running back Melvin Gordon, UW stockpiled an an all-time school-best 564 yards on the ground and averaged 8.8 yards per carry. Even more absurd, fifth-year senior Curt Phillips complete only four passes on the day. If Wisconsin can keep this momentum going, it suddenly becomes a scary adversary for either Nebraska or Michigan in Indianapolis.

5: Penn State (6-4, 4-2; Last Week - 4): A blown lead, a blown call. Penn State handled Nebraska in the first half, building a 20-6 halftime lead, but were outscored 26-3 in the second. Still, the biggest score may have been the one that wasn't counted. Down 27-23 in the fourth quarter, fifth-year senior quarterback Matt McGloin hit junior tight end Matt Lehman on what appeared to be a go-ahead three-yard touchdown pass.

Lehman lunged toward the endzone but the ball was dislodged by a defender. The play was ruled a fumble on the field and subsequently reviewed, and, despite seemingly clear evidence to reverse the call from multiple camera angles, the fumble stood. The Nittany Lions would never recover in the 32-23 defeat, but have proven resilient all year and remain a threat moving forward - especially if sophomore running back Zach Zwinak can continue his strong play.

6: Northwestern (7-3, 3-3; Last Week - 5): Northwestern played itself out of Legends Division title contention with a heart-wrenching 38-31 overtime loss to Michigan. NU has squandered double-digit second-half leads in each of its three conference losses, and a talented Wildcat squad will have nightmares about what could have been for years to come.

On the positive side, Pat Fitzgerald's offense has found a rhythm with a spread option attack featuring play-making junior quarterback Kain Colter and break-out junior running back Venric Mark, and at 7-3, maintains an opportunity to play itself into a New Years Day bowl with a strong finish.

7: Michigan State (5-5, 2-4; Last Week - 7): The Spartans' 2012 season has been beyond curious. Pegged as a front-runner in the Legends Division, they have lost four of six conference matchups, despite building a fourth quarter lead in each of those contests on the shoulders of the 11th best scoring defense in the nation (16.3 points per game).

Junior running back Le'Veon Bell leads the conference with 1,249 yards on the ground, yet the Green and White rank 110th in the country in scoring offense (19.7 points per game). Mark Dantonio's squad has not been able to make the big plays at big moments, and because of these shortcomings will be fighting for its postseason lives rather than an appearance at Lucas Oil Stadium during its final two games.

8: Minnesota (6-4, 2-4; Last Week - 10): Minnesota trudged its way to postseason eligibility with a resounding, yet ugly, 17-3 victory over a meager Illinois squad. Still, the defense stood stout and sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood offered hope for UM's ground attack with 152 yards and two scores on the ground.

While its signature, bowl-clinching win came against the worst team in the conference, and the Gophers won't be bowling in a high-profile battle, reaching any bowl is a huge stepping stone for a rebuilding program that was 3-9 a year ago, and hasn't been to the postseason since 2009.

9. Purdue (4-6, 1-5; Last Week 11): The Boilermakers kept their bowl aspirations, as well as head coach Danny Hopes' job security, above water with a 27-24 victory over Iowa. Although it needed a last-second field goal to fend off the Hawkeyes, Purdue controlled the yardage battle 490-264 and held UI to only 4-of-16 on third down (25.0 percent). Fifth-year defensive tackle Kawann Short was a monster, making a career-best four tackles for loss, and senior quarterback Robert Marve threw for 266 yards and two touchdowns to lead a reinvigorated PU offense.

With games against Illinois and Indiana remaining, PU has a legitimate shot at reaching bowl eligibility despite a mid-season five-game losing streak.

10: Iowa (4-6, 2-4; Last Week - 9): Iowa falls in the power rankings after losing to lowly Purdue at home for the first time in 20 years. With the loss, Iowa has dropped four-consecutive games for the first time since 1999, and, with Michigan and Nebraska on the horizon, is likely to finish the regular season with a losing record for the first time in over a decade.

Long-time head coach Kirk Ferentz received the ominous vote of confidence from Iowa athletic director Gary Barta Oct. 29, and the Gold and Black have looked listless since in crippling losses to Indiana and the Boilermakers.

11: Indiana (4-6, 2-4; Last Week - 8): Perhaps this is the reason Indiana doesn't play in many big games. In one of the most hyped Hoosier home contests of the past 20 years, Kevin Wilson's squad was absolutely annihilated by a hungry Wisconsin side 62-14.

Badger ball carriers ran, and probably could have walked, for over 560 yards to quell any musings of a home-state Big Ten Championship Game appearance for IU, and possibly any postseason appearance at all. With games against a tough Penn State team and a Purdue squad that looked rejuvenated last week, Indiana fans may be focusing their attention on the hardwood sooner rather than later.

12: Illinois (2-8, 0-6; Last Week- 12): The Illini are still desperately searching for their first conference win since Oct. 8 2011, and after a lethargic performance in a 17-3 loss to a Minnesota team that has yielded an average of 30.6 points over its last five games, it appears that the drought could be far from over.

Tim Beckman's first year in charge has been an unmitigated disaster, and Illinois continues to rank last in the conference in scoring offense (16.9), scoring defense (32.2), total offense (298.5), rushing offense (123.5), first downs per game (16.1) and sacks allowed (229).

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