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After Losses by Penn State and Ohio State, the Big Ten Makes No Sense

Iowa ripped Ohio State. Michigan State nipped Penn State with a final-play field goal. The once-clear Big Ten East picture is now anything but.

The Big Ten staged its most consequential game of the season a week ago, a meeting between East division contenders Ohio State and Penn State in Columbus. The Buckeyes prevailed after a furious second-half comeback, in a result that seemed to clarify the conference pecking order: Ohio State was on top, Penn State was a close No. 2, and then a gap existed between that pair and everyone else.

A week later, the state of affairs in the Big Ten is far more complicated after two shocking upsets. In one, Iowa made good on its reputation as the conference’s premier giant slayer by blowing out the Buckeyes in Kinnick Stadium, scoring 31 unanswered points in a 55-24 win. In the other, the Nittany Lions fell to a game Michigan State squad in East Lansing, 27-24, after a three-hour lightning delay pushed a contest that kicked off at noon past dinner time.

When the smoke cleared, Penn State was reeling from its first two-game losing streak since 2015, Ohio State was left wondering what went wrong after being dump-trucked by a team it was heavily favored to beat, and the Big Ten viewing public was rubbing its collective eyes in disbelief after an afternoon that turned the league on its head.

A week after lighting up the Nittany Lions with 39 points and 6.78 yards per play, the Buckeyes repeatedly went nowhere against the Hawkeyes’ defense, managing a season-low 371 total yards and holding the ball almost 10 minutes less than their hosts. In his first game since vaulting into the front of the Heisman Trophy race against Penn State, quarterback J.T. Barrett completed only 18 of his 34 pass attempts for 208 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions.

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Unlike Ohio State, Penn State didn’t let its opponent blow the game open before halftime. Quite the opposite: The Spartans secured the three-point winning margin on the last play of the game, a 34-yard field goal from redshirt freshman placekicker Matt Coghlin, who tied the game on a 32-yarder earlier in the fourth quarter. Credit Michigan State for keeping Penn State’s high-octane offense in check, with star Saquon Barkley managing only 93 rushing and passing yards combined and quarterback Trace McSorley tossing three picks.

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After last week’s win over Penn State, Ohio State opened this week at No. 6 in the first version of the College Football Playoff rankings. But even though the selection committee didn’t view them as a final four-caliber team to this point, the Buckeyes’ path there was straightforward. If they won out in the regular season and beat the West division winner in the conference title game, they’d stand a good chance of getting in.

That line of thinking didn’t account for the possibility that Ohio State would fall flat at Iowa. The Buckeyes can still get to the conference championship tilt out of the East if they win out; they hold a head-to-head win over Penn State, and Michigan State comes to the Horseshoe next week. But they close the season with a road game against a Michigan team that’ll be eager to foil their postseason hopes, and more importantly, Ohio State doesn’t look like CFP-caliber outfit right now.

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The Nittany Lions weren’t eliminated by the defeat in Columbus. The loss definitely set them back in the chase for a berth in the national semifinals, but they were slotted only one spot behind the Buckeyes in the initial rankings. If Ohio State suffered a pair of conference losses and Penn State ran the table, it would give itself a shot on Selection Sunday after falling one spot short a year ago. Now Penn State is staring up at two other teams (Ohio State and Michigan State) in the East division, and it’s almost certainly going to have to settle for sub-playoff postseason play again.

As Ohio State and Penn State collapsed in the East, West leader Wisconsin continued its methodical trek through the Power 5’s most favorable schedule, blasting Indiana, 45-17, in Bloomington ahead of a manageable closing stretch. If Wisconsin handles business against Iowa and Michigan at home and Minnesota on the road and then takes out the East winner in Indianapolis, it could turn into the conference’s top playoff candidate. This looks too easy for the Badgers.

All of this probably will get sorted out in the coming weeks. Penn State and Ohio State will try to pick up the pieces after crushing road defeats to inferior opponents, and Wisconsin should keep humming along, but it’s unclear whether the Big Ten can recover from a tumultuous Saturday to put a team in the CFP. Instead of entering the most important part of the season with a well-defined hierarchy of teams, the conference is a jumbled mess.