By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – For the second consecutive week, the Big Ten’s highest ranked football team calls Iowa City home.
That’s true not only in regard to the USA Today’s Coaches Poll in which Iowa is ranked sixth, but also in my latest Big Ten power rankings where Iowa is ranked first.
Iowa’s performance during this past Saturday’s 30-7 victory over Kent State at Kinnick Stadium was hardly a masterpiece as the defense gave up some big passing plays, while Iowa’s passing game sputtered at times.
But Iowa still prevailed by 23 points, and the Iowa defense allowed just seven points.
Iowa also has won nine straight games dating back to last season.
Ohio State still is the Big Ten’s most talented team, and could ultimately return to its usual position on top of the rankings. But right now the Buckeyes are struggling, especially on defense with seven new starters.
Michigan State is arguably the most improved team in the conference, but the bar wasn’t set very high because the Spartans were horrendous for most of last season.
And watch out for Penn State as it continues to play well under James Franklin.
- Iowa, 3-0, 1-0 – Iowa’s defense allowed some big plays against Kent State, and had some rare breakdowns in coverages, and yet, still only allowed seven points, marking the 25 straight game that Iowa has played without surrendering 25 points.
The Iowa running game also came to life against Kent State as junior Tyler Goodson rushed for a career-high 153 yards.
And what more can be said about punter Tory Taylor that hasn’t already been said? He is clearly Iowa’s MVP as this point and maybe the top punter in all of college football. Taylor’s ability to flip field position, and to pin opponents deep in their own territory can’t be understated from an importance standpoint.
As for starting quarterback Spencer Petras, he had his moments against the Golden Flashes on Saturday, but still is very much a work in progress. Most of his completions were on short crossing routes or underneath routes as Iowa continued to struggle with completing vertical routes.
But there is no substitute for being 3-0 as a starting quarterback. In fact, Iowa has won nine straight games with Petras behind center.
2. Penn State, 3-0, 1-0 – Since starting 0-5 last season, the Nittany Lions have won seven consecutive games, and already have two victories over ranked opponents this season, including a 28-20 victory over No. 22 Auburn this past Saturday at home.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford is playing with poise and precision and is part of a potent combination with star receiver Jahan Dotson, who is playing as well as any receiver in the country.
The Penn State defense also has been solid, and with each win, expectations continue to soar.
3. Ohio State, 2-1, 1-0 – It’s hard to think of a time when the Buckeyes have been ranked this low, but the Big Ten’s most dominant program has some issues right now, especially on defense.
Tulsa shredded Ohio State’s defense for 428 passing yards and two touchdowns during this past Saturday’s 41-20 loss in Columbus.
On the bright side, freshman sensation TreVeyon Henderson is showing why many considered him the top high school running back in the country last season as he broke Archie Griffin’s freshman rushing record in the win over Tulsa with 277 yards and three touchdowns, all of which were critical for an offense that has struggled to put it all together.
Ohio State still has the highest upside and the most talented roster in the conference. But talent and potential doesn’t always translate to success on the field. And right now, the Buckeyes are still very much a work in progress.
4. Michigan State, 3-0, 1-0 – The Big Ten’s most improved team from last season resides in East Lansing, Michigan.
Second-year head coach Mel Tucker deserves praise for how much his team has progressed from last season when he took over under tough circumstances after Mark Dantonio had retired abruptly.
The addition of Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III at running back, coupled with Payton Thorne’s performance at quarterback, has turned an offense that was inept at times last season into a force.
Walker rushed for 172 yards and caught a touchdown pass in Saturday’s 38-17 thumping of Miami (Fla.), while Thorne passed for 261 yards and four touchdowns.
Thorne, who was only named the starter just hours before the season opener against Northwestern, has passed for 726 yards and nine touchdowns in three games, completing 48 of 77 attempts with no interceptions.
Michigan State’s defense also continues to improve, and it’s clear that Tucker has this once-proud program moving back in the right direction.
5. Michigan, 3-0, 0-0 – Jim Harbaugh still hasn’t defeated Ohio State or won a Big Ten East Division title, but his current team is performing at a high level, especially its running game.
Blake Corum rushed for 100 yards for the third consecutive game during Michigan’s 63-10 victory over Northern Illinois this past Saturday in the Big House. Michigan rushed for 373 yards overall and now ranks first nationally in rushing offense, averaging 350.3 yards per game.
Harbaugh has won 10 games in three different seasons at his alma mater, so it’s not that Michigan has been average under his watch. The Wolverines just haven’t been elite, but if they continue to dominate on the ground, perhaps this will be the season in which Harbaugh finally gets the program over the hump.
6. Wisconsin 1-1, 0-1 – The Badgers were idle this weekend, and you can assume that fixing a sputtering offense was the top priority in practice.
Defensively, Wisconsin looks tough and well coached as usual. But the defense can only do so much,
At some point quarterback Graham Mertz and the offense will have to play better. That’s it, plain and simple.
Mertz was a five-star recruit in high school, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Because right now, he’s a struggling quarterback, and his offense desperately needs him to play better.
Wisconsin also doesn’t seem to have that one dynamic running back that makes the quarterback’s job easier.
So, for now, the Badgers don’t deserve to be ranked above sixth despite their success over the past three decades. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-now business.
7. Maryland, 3-0, 1-0 – The Terrapins didn’t play exceptionally well at Illinois this past Friday, and yet, still prevailed 20-17 thanks to a 32-yard field goal by Joseph Petrino as time expired. Maryland lost two fumbles and only scored three points in the first half.
But its defense also held Illinois to three points in the first two quarters. And then when it came time to produce with the game on the line, Petrino delivered.
Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa also delivered throughout the game, completing 32-of-43 passes for 350 yards and one touchdown. Maryland finished with 481 yards and had 24 first downs.
If the Maryland defense can hold its own, this could prove to be a breakthrough season for third-year head coach Mike Locksley.
But it’s still early.
8. Rutgers, 3-0, 0-0 – Speaking of teams maybe on the verge of having a breakthrough season, the Scarlet Knights crushed Delaware 45-13 this past Saturday, moving halfway to a bowl game.
Quarterback Noah Vedral completed 13-of-14 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns in the first half against Delaware and finished with 323 yards.
Rutgers paid a lot to convince Greg Schiano to return as head coach, but so far, it’s money well spent as the program is clearly moving in the right direction.
9. Minnesota, 2-1, 0-1 – The Gophers are not the same team without star running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who is lost for the season due to a lower leg injury.
But they still are a team with lots of potential and promise as evidenced by Saturday’s 30-0 shutout at Colorado.
Trey Potts, who replaced Ibrahim as the featured running back, rushed for 121 yards and three touchdowns against Colorado, while the Gopher defense held Colorado to just 63 total yards.
It marked the first time that Colorado had been shutout at Folsom Field since Nov. 3, 2012, against Stanford. The last nonconference team to shutout Colorado at home was LSU in 1979.
10. Purdue, 2-1, 0-0 – The Boilermakers suffered two big losses this past Saturday, one being a 27-13 setback at Notre Dame, and the other being the loss of star receiver David Bell, who was carted off the field after taking a vicious hit from Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton.
Bell was able to get up on his own power, but he was clearly shaken by the hit.
Should Bell be lost for any period of time, Purdue would likely suffer from it. He had seven catches for 64 yards when he was injured.
11. Indiana, 1-2, 0-1 – A season that started with so much hope and optimism is now quickly moving in the wrong direction.
The Hoosiers lost at home to Cincinnati 38-24 this past Saturday despite having led 14-0, and despite having a rare sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium.
Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw three interceptions for the second time in three games and running back Tim Baldwin fumbled on the 2-yard line on what would’ve been a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.
Turnovers and injuries can derail any season, and right now, turnovers are destroying Indiana’s season.
12. Nebraska, 2-2, 0-1 – The road to recovery under Scott Frost has been filled with many potholes and wrong turns.
The situation has gotten so bad under Frost that Nebraska’s 23-16 loss at No. 3 Oklahoma is being described as a moral victory because that’s what it was for this once-dominant program.
Nebraska performed well on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and nearly pulled off the upset against one of its biggest rivals.
That’s a moral victory in Lincoln.
13. Illinois, 1-3, 1-0 – The season-opening win over Nebraska at home seems like an eternity ago because Illinois is 0-3 since then, including a loss to Texas-San Antonio in week two.
Bret Bielema knew it wouldn’t be easy rebuilding a program that has struggled for over a decade, and it’s proving to be as hard as expected, perhaps even harder than expected.
14. Northwestern, 1-2, 0-1 – A case could be made for putting the Wildcats ahead of Illinois, but Northwestern’s only win this season has come against lowly Indiana State.
Northwestern made an impressive comeback against Duke this past Saturday, but still lost 30-23 against a mediocre opponent.
Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson had four turnovers before halftime, and the Wildcats trailed 31-7 at halftime.
How quickly Northwestern has fallen after having won two of the last three Big Ten West Division titles.
Pat Fitzgerald has defied the odds many times before, but that might be beyond even his reach this season.