Northwestern, Iowa on the rise in the Big Ten Power Rankings; Illinois, Nebraska fall

Northwestern, Iowa on the rise in the Big Ten Power Rankings; Illinois, Nebraska fall

If the Big Ten and SEC had a head-to-head challenge that pitted 14 teams from one conference against the other -- seeded by preseason projected finish -- how many games would the Big Ten win?

Four? Five? Best case of six?

The Big Ten simply doesn't have the SEC's depth of talent, athleticism and coaching.

But the Midwest's best conference now has a top two that can compete with any conference in the country.

Ohio State and Michigan State came in at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in this week's AP Poll. The Buckeyes received 42 of 60 first-place votes, while the Spartans received seven first-place votes, vaulting MSU up two spots ahead of Alabama (which lost at home to Ole Miss) and TCU.

The Big Ten reputation has taken a hit during the past decade, but the conference appears to have two legit national title contenders this season. The Buckeyes and Spartans play Nov. 21 in Columbus.

The rest of the conference is still full of unknowns though.

Are Wisconsin and Nebraska on the decline?

Are Northwestern and Iowa legit threats in the West, and is Minnesota really capable of winning the West?

Are Illinois and Purdue still pushovers in the West?

Is it worth watching anyone from the East outside of OSU and MSU?

B1G Power Rankings - pre-Week 4

1. Ohio State (3-0); last week's rank: No. 1

Last game: 20-13 win over Northern Illinois

I get it. Michigan State is really good, and they've been sharp so far this season. Meanwhile, Ohio State is undefeated and still is No. 1 in the AP Poll, but the Buckeyes have been sloppy. So some put Sparty ahead in their rankings.

Urban Meyer's handling of one of the the greatest quarterback problems ever hasn't been perfect. Here's what I think. Meyer prefers J.T. Barrett. He is a coach's dream as a leader, does and says the right things, is very accurate and his mobility and speed make him even more difficult for defenses to scheme against. But Cardale Jones has the talent to be a top-10 pick, proven when he led the Buckeyes to their three biggest wins of a national championship-season. But he's not as textbook or PR-safe as Barrett. Meyer probably would like Jones to lead the Buckeyes back to the playoffs and get drafted high. Then he'd have Barrett as his unquestioned guy for the next two seasons. But Jones hasn't looked sharp, but neither has Barrett. Does Meyer just stick with one or does he keep playing yo-yo with these Heisman hopefuls?

Still this is a really good problem to have. The reason I still rank Ohio State No. 1 is because they still have more talent than Michigan State. And almost all of that talent led the Buckeyes to a national title. The king has to be knocked off the throne. And Meyer still has the most talented force in the Big Ten.

Up next: vs. Western Michigan, 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday

2. Michigan State (3-0); last week's rank: No.2

Last week: 35-21 win over Air Force

Air Force out-gained Michigan State by 104 yards and won the rushing battle 279 to 77. But what makes Michigan State special is its ability to win in different ways. They can win in defensive battles or shootouts. They can win on the ground, like they did against Oregon. Or they can win through the air, like they did against Air Force. Senior quarterback Connor Cook doesn't have all the elite physical traits (though he certainly has very good arm talent) but he is extremely smart, accurate and efficient.

Up next: vs. Central Michigan, 11 a.m. Saturday

3. Wisconsin (2-1); last week's rank No. 4

Last week: 28-3 win over Troy

I admit, Wisconsin has this spot partially by reputation. The Troy win wasn't outstanding, but the defense could again be one of the conference's best. Quarterback Joel Stave appears over last year's yips (67.4%, 666 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs), and two-way player Tanner McEvoy is one of the more intriguing players in the conference as he reps as receiver, quarterback (32-yard TD run on Saturday) and safety (three PBUs on the season).

Up next: vs. Hawaii, 11 a.m. Saturday

4. Northwestern (3-0); last week's rank: No. 5 

Last week: 19-10 win at Duke

The Wildcats weren't much better than Duke, but they made the game-changing plays -- a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown by Solomon Vault and a 55-yard touchdown run by Warren LongThe Wildcats are healthy -- and Northwestern is starting to get a few more bounces to go its way, unlike the previous two seasons -- and confident. Their potential might be limited due to a freshman quarterback (Clayton Thorsen on Saturday was 9-for-23 for 70 yards and two interceptions), but it's hard not to take the Wildcats seriously after two very good nonconference wins (Stanford and at Duke) and a thrashing of Eastern Illinois.

Up next: vs. Northwestern, 7 p.m. Saturday (BTN)

5. Iowa (3-0); last week's rank: No. 6 

Last week: 27-24 win over Pitt

See, Kirk Ferentz isn't that bad, Iowa fans. The Hawkeyes still win the battles up front (55 rushing yards allowed vs. Pitt). But quarterback C.J. Beathard is the X-factor. He has arm talent (141.2 passer rating ranks fifth in the conference) and can make plays with his feet (142 rushing yards, 3 TDs). If he keeps this up, Iowa is a real contender in the West.

Up next: vs. North Texas, 2:30 p.m. Saturday

6. Minnesota (1-1); last week's rank: No. 3 

Last week: 10-7 win over Kent State

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill isn't about style points. He wins ugly, but he wins a lot. Still, it's hard not to take account for some style points following back-to-back ugly wins: a 23-20 win at a tough Colorado State program and a nail-biter home win against a really inferior Kent State team. We knew Minnesota wasn't very explosive. But whoever wins West Division winner must make a few big plays along the way, and I just don't see it out of the Gophers. That said, Kill will still probably find a way to lead this team to seven or eight wins -- most of them ugly.

Up next: vs. Ohio, 2:30 p.m. Saturday

7. Michigan (2-1); last week's rank: No. 9 

Last week: 28-7 win over UNLV

A decent win over one of the weakest FBS teams normally wouldn't deserve a rise in the rankings. But Nebraska's unpredictability and Jim Harbaugh's proven coaching chops give the Wolverines the edge for now. This might not be a spectacular season in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines succeed at running the football and defending the run -- a huge recipe for success. Ty Isaac (114 yards on eight carries) would've looked great in orange and blue.

Up next: vs. BYU, 11 a.m. Saturday

8. Nebraska (1-2); last week's rank: No. 7 

Last week: 36-33 OT loss at Miami

Try and figure this team out. Entering the fourth quarter on Saturday down 30-10, the Huskers looked like a team struggling to adapt to new coach Mike Riley. After outscoring the Hurricanes 23-3 to force overtime, the Huskers looked on the verge of a turning-point win. Then Tommy Armstrong -- who was fantastic in the fourth quarter -- threw a first-down interception (his third of the night) to hand Miami the win. Riley probably should run Armstrong more, but Nebraska's biggest issue remains the defense.

Up next: vs. Southern Miss, 11 a.m. Saturday

9. Penn State (2-1); last week's rank: No. 10 

Last week: 28-3 win over Rutgers

Former Rutgers recruit Saquon Barkley ran for 195 yards and Akeel Lynch ran for 120 yards. Maybe James Franklin should cut down on throws for and hits on his all-hype quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who is completing 49.3 percent of his passes and has just one touchdown to two interceptions.

Up next: vs. San Diego State, 2:30 p.m. Saturday

10. Illinois (2-1); last week's rank: No. 8 

Last week: 48-14 loss at North Carolina

The Illini missed yet another opportunity to create real excitement around the program. Not only was it another road loss, it was another road drubbing. So were the initial two games -- which Illinois won by a combined score of 96-3 -- a mirage? Saturday's embarrassing loss was an all-too-familiar feeling in Champaign. The Illini will have to pull off a surprise win or two to buy some believers. Until then, remain skeptical.

Up next: vs. Middle Tennessee State, 3 p.m. Saturday

11. Indiana (3-0); last week's rank: No. 13 

Last week: 38-35 win over Western Kentucky

The Hoosiers are 3-0 for the first time under head coach Kevin Wilson, but is anyone really buying them? They barely escaped against Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky. Though, give them credit for pulling out the 'W against a dangerous WKU team. Wilson is halfway to a bowl game in what seems like a bowl-or-bust season. A big one awaits this week as they hit the road against a very beatable Wake Forest.

Up next: at Wake Forest, 11:30 a.m. Saturday

12. Maryland (2-1); last week's rank: No. 14 

Last week: 35-17 win over South Florida

A nice bounceback win after getting crushed at home by Bowling Green and a heck of an interesting season starting debut for Brandon Rowe, who completed 21 of 33 passes for 297 yards, four TDs -- though he did throw three interceptions fumbled three times (lost none).

Up next: at West Virginia, 2 p.m. Saturday

13. Purdue (1-2); last week's rank: No. 11 

Last week: 51-24 loss at Virginia Tech

This program has a long way to go -- proven again on Saturday with an uncompetitive road loss against a good program. And it's proven again with this week's line in Vegas. Some books call the Boilermakers' home game against Bowling Green a pick 'em.

Up next: vs. Bowling Green, 11 a.m. Saturday

14. Rutgers (1-1); last week's rank: No. 13 

Last week: 28-3 loss at Penn State

Dumpster fire. But at least it gave us this.

Up next: vs. Kansas, 11 a.m. Saturday

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