A weekly look at the Big Ten power rankings
1: Ohio State (11-0, 6-0; Last Week - 1): Despite uncharacteristic struggles from sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller a week ago, the Buckeyes escaped Madison with a 21-14 overtime victory to clinch the Leaders Division title. Junior running back Carlos Hyde carried the load with 87 yards and two scores on the ground against the Badgers, and will need to produce yet another big game in Columbus against arch-rival Michigan.
A win over the Wolverines would give OSU its first undefeated season since 2002, but a defense that yielded 206 yards on the ground against UW will need to regain its form against a creative U-M rush attack that looked dominant a week ago.
2: Nebraska (9-2, 6-1; Last Week - 2) For once, Nebraska fans could breathe easy in the second half of a Big Ten game. The Huskers, who have completed four second-half double-digit comebacks in conference play this year, trounced Minnesota early, building a 38-0 nothing lead. Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez turned in another solid performance with 308 passing yards and two scores, and sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah surpassed the 1,000 yard rushing plateau on the season with his 79-yards on the ground (1,021).
NU now finds just one obstacle preventing it from a trip to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis - a beleaguered Iowa squad that has little if anything to play for. The return of senior I-Back Rex Burkhead remains questionable, but Bo Pelini's offense hasn't missed a beat in his absence.
3: Michigan (8-3, 6-1; Last Week - 3): Junior quarterback Devin Gardner continues to be a revelation for Al Borges's offense following a six-touchdown performance last week against Iowa, and with electric senior Denard Robinson healthy enough to carry the ball out of the backfield in various roles, Urban Meyer and Ohio State will be putting in extra hours in the film room attempting to prepare for the Wolverines' new-found one-two punch.
On the flip side, the U-M defense has struggled against run-oriented quarterbacks this year, most recently yielding 31 points to Northwestern, and will have its hands full against one of the fastest and most elusive quarterbacks in the nation in sophomore Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
4: Penn State (7-4, 5-2; Last Week - 5): Penn State will conclude its season at Beaver Stadium against Wisconsin without the services of fifth-year senior leader Michael Mauti in what could turn out to be a massive blow for the team both on the field and in the locker room. The heart and soul of the Nittany Lion defense, he suffered yet another knee injury in last week's 45-22 win over Indiana.
While Senior Day won't quite be the same without Mauti manning the middle, PSU will still employ one of the top arms in the Big Ten in fifth-year senior quarterback Matt McGloin. Look for junior running back Zach Zwinak and sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson to help McGloin go out with a bang in his finale in Happy Valley.
5: Wisconsin (7-4, 4-2; Last Week - 4): Despite losing 21-14 in overtime, Wisconsin outplayed Ohio State for a majority of the game, outgaining OSU 360-236 and out-possessing the Buckeyes 37:17-22:43. After another 190+ yard rushing effort, senior running back Montee Ball appears to have returned to his bowling ball self from a year ago, which should help camouflage UW's deficiencies at the quarterback position down the stretch.
But a loss is a loss, and a Badger team that has rushed for 770 yards in its last two games still has to figure out how to outscore good opponents on the scoreboard, not the just the stat sheet, if it is going to earn a trip to Pasadena.
6: Northwestern (8-3, 4-3; Last Week - 6): The Wildcats were outplayed by an emotional Spartan team in East Lansing, but still grinded out a gutsy 23-20 victory at Spartan Stadium. Northwestern's offense wasn't at its best, and star running back Venric Mark was neutralized before suffering an injury, but Pat Fitzgerald's squad took a major step forward by actually closing out a game, something it has struggled with all year.
If heavily-favored NU can take care of business against a bad Illinois team at home, it could lock up a rare appearance in a New Year's Day bowl game.
7: Minnesota (6-5, 2-5; Last Week - 8): The Gophers' 38-14 loss was yet another reminder of how far Jerry Kill's squad is from competing against the best the country has to offer. This is a no-quit bunch that won't back down, but it is obvious that they lack both the top-end talent and quality depth to be a real player in the Big Ten in the foreseeable future.
The departure of leading receiver AJ Barker doesn't do any favors for freshman starting quarterback Philip Nelson with a talented and aggressive Michigan State defense on the horizon. Still, bowl eligibility is a huge accomplishment for a program that finished just 3-9 a year ago, and a tangible sign that progress is being made in Minneapolis.
8: Michigan State (5-6, 2-5; Late Week - 7): A preseason Legends Division pick by many, the Spartans, who finish the 2012 conference campaign with an jaw-dropping 0-4 record at home, must win their regular-season finale just to realize bowl eligibility. MSU has talent, but has been prone to turnover and penalty issues all season, which was perfectly illustrated by four critical giveaways in a 23-20 loss to Northwestern - a game it otherwise dominated.
Junior running back Le'Veon Bell has is the conference's second-most prolific runner with 1,382 yards, and junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell has show signs of improvement throughout the year, but Michigan State, which has lost its five conference games by a total of 13 points, has not made the big plays when necessary and its record reflects it.
9: Purdue (5-6, 2-5; Last Week - 9): A sliver of postseason hope remains alive for Purdue following a 20-17 triumph over Illinois, but that doesn't change the fact that this team has spectacularly failed to live up to expectations.
Senior quarterback Robert Marve has been effective in his last two starts, raising questions as to why it took a five-game conference losing streak to insert him into the role; providing yet another negative notch against maligned head coach Danny Hope. Purdue can make a second-straight bowl in a winnable game against Indiana, but those in West Lafayette were hoping for much more heading into the 2012 season.
10: Indiana (4-7, 2-5: Last Week - 11): A superb air attack was once again sullied by a poor running game and deplorable defense in a 45-22 loss to Penn State. Sophomore quarterback Cameron Coffman sliced through a decent Nittany Lion secondary for 454 yards and two touchdowns, but Indiana managed only 24 yards on the ground and IU's defense yielded an unacceptable 546 yards.
It's been the story of the season for Kevin Wilson's squad, which leads the Big Ten in passing yardage (307.8 yard per game), but has faltered in seemingly every other aspect of the game. Now officially eliminated from postseason play, it will be interesting to see if Indiana gives Purdue a fight in West Lafayette.
11: Iowa (4-7, 2-5; Last Week - 10): Iowa should be thankful that Illinois fields a team, because without Tim Beckman's squad, the Hawkeyes would hold the distinction of the Big Ten's bottom feeder. Unfortunately, Michigan's Big Ten Championship Game hopes rest on the shoulders UI, which was victim to the Wolverines a week ago and all signs point to a blowout loss to Nebraska on Black Friday.
Sophomore running back Mark Weisman returned from injury, but couldn't spark a stumbling Iowa offense and rushed for only 63 yards on 19 carries (3.9 yards per carry). Perhaps the Gold and Black can band together and deliver an unlikely performance on Senior Day in Iowa City, but I wouldn't bet on it.
12: Illinois (2-9, 0-7; Last Week - 12): In a season where moral victories may be the closest Illinois gets to a 'W' during the conference slate, the Illini battled Purdue until the bitter end, and even covered a 6.5 point spread. Optimism is running on empty in Champaign, as UI ranks 109th in the nation in passing yards, 98th in rushing yards, 121st in the points for and 84th in points against.
To put Tim Beckman's first year as the Illinois head coach into perspective, the 20-17 loss to the Boilermakers was the first time that his team was defeated by less than 14 points to a Big Ten foe, and has been outscored 196-80 in conference play.
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