No. 2 Iowa. . . No. 6 Ohio State. . . No. 7 Penn State. . . No. 8 Michigan. . . No. 10 Michigan State.
That’s five Big Ten teams in the top 10 for the first time in the 85-year history of the Associated Press poll, if you’re keeping score at home. Pretty good stuff, no matter how you slice it.
But what does it mean? Does it mean the Big Ten has half of the top 10 teams in America?
As a former AP voter, I can tell you this: No. Because polls don’t work that way. Polls are curious animals. It means the league has five teams that have mastered the rules of rising in the polls.
For example, the one-loss Buckeyes are sixth. The team that beat them in impressive fashion, one-loss Oregon, is ninth. Huh? How can that be?
Because Oregon’s loss at Stanford (3-3) is worse than Ohio State’s loss. So the theory is that the Buckeyes are better in the long run than the Ducks. That’s how polls work.
The real value of polls, coaches like to say, is this: If you are ranked in the Top 25, ESPN shows your highlights, which recruits watch. Which helps your recruiting.
Other than that, polls are mainly fun to argue about.
So here goes. Is Iowa the second-best team in the nation?
Put it this way: When Penn State kicked a field goal with 12:38 left in the second quarter to take a 17-3 lead, Iowa was the second best team at Kinnick Stadium.
What happened? On the play before the field goal, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford got hammered after throwing an incomplete pass. Clifford did not return.
His backup, Ta’Quan Roberson, was not ready for this kind of challenge.
``Knocked their quarterback out. I hope he’s fine,’’ Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz—in a terse but telling comment of sympathy—said after the Hawkeyes had rallied for an exhilarating 23-20 win that left a large portion of the 70,000 spectators storming the field.
Here’s the thing: With its six remaining games against the under-achieving Big Ten West, Iowa is well-positioned to run the table. Which would leave the Hawkeyes still No. 2 going into the Big Ten championship game.
Yes, the College Football Playoff rankings will take over for the AP Poll as the most important measure by then. But the Hawkeyes are unlikely to lose their No. 2 slot if they remain unbeaten.
Question No. 1: Can the Hawkeyes run the table? Their toughest remaining games are at Wisconsin on Oct. 30, at Nebraska on Nov. 26 and against Minnesota on Nov. 13.
Although Wisconsin stumbled out of the gate, losing three of its first four games due to subpar play by its quarterback, offensive line and running backs—yes, it’s feeble offense—I would not be too quick to write off the Badgers’ chance against Iowa.
For one thing, while Penn State was doing just fine against the Hawkeyes’ vaunted defense with a healthy Clifford, Penn State was very stymied by the Wisconsin defense, which kept the Badgers locked in a scoreless battle at halftime despite their feeble offense before Penn State won 16-10.
Question No. 2: Will the Badgers have their scoring act together by the time Iowa comes to Madison?
No one can say for sure.
But we can say this: For all the marvelous things Iowa does on defense (first in the nation in turnover margin, fourth in scoring defense), that offense is about as wobbly as it gets for a No. 2-ranked team: 100th in passing offense, 99th in rushing offense, 120th in total offense. And 49th in scoring, 31.5 points a game.
With that kind of ``attack,’’ Iowa’s defense will need to buckle its chinstrap very tight against not only the Badgers, but any number of challengers. That regular-season finale at Nebraska, which is playing much better despite it 3-4 record, looms most ominous after the trip to Wisconsin.
And should Iowa reach the Big Ten championship game, whoever emerges from the Big Ten East will be a major obstacle to Iowa running the table.
That scenario, by the way—a one-loss Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State—would set up the Big Ten very nicely to land two teams in the College Football Playoff.
If Michigan or Michigan State remain unbeaten, the case would be even stronger. But merely getting a one-loss Big Ten East team into the conference championship game will be an accomplishment.
How well would two Big Ten playoff teams be received in the land of ``It Just Means More?'' That depends on whether the SEC fills out the other half of the bracket.
Question No. 3: What about that Big Ten East?
That race is going to be a great one, especially on Oct. 30, what could be one of the most interesting days in the history of the Big Ten. While Iowa and Wisconsin are knocking each other around in Camp Randall Stadium, Penn State will be at Ohio State and Michigan will play at Michigan State.
Clifford or not, the Nittany Lions should remain a force. As overwhelmed as Roberson looked in the teeming Kinnick den, James Franklin and his staff will turn their attention toward having the redshirt sophomore backup looking sharper even if Clifford returns. They have a bye week and a tuneup against Illinois before taking on the Ohio State juggernaut.
The buzz departed from Buckeye Land after those shaky defensive showings against Oregon and Tulsa. But the defense has looked better since then, allowing only 37 points in the three routs of Akron, Rutgers and Maryland.
And new quarterback C.J. Stroud has upped his game lately, leading Ohio State to 177 points in those three games. Admittedly, not very accomplished opponents. But we’ll see if the Buckeyes can measure up to their playoff expectations in the second half, which includes trips to Indiana and Nebraska before the one-two finish against Michigan State and Michigan.
The Wolverines, off to a 6-0 start for only the second time under Jim Harbaugh, seem to have more teeth this fall. The big pay cut that Harbaugh took seems to have worked quite well. Will that become a trend among big-name coaches who fail to meet the expectations that got them big bucks? Not likely.
The team that remains very intriguing, though, is Michigan State. Before the season, six wins might have seemed about right for the Spartans. But here they are, 6-0, highlighted by a series of blowout wins, including a 38-17 cruise at Miami.
If Mel Tucker is not emerging as a national coach-of-the-year candidate, the selectors are not paying attention.
If Kenneth Walker III, who leads the nation in rushing with 152.2 yards a game, isn’t a top Heisman Trophy candidate, the voters aren’t paying attention.
And how about this line? In Saturday’s 31-13 rout of somewhat improved Rutgers, not only did Walker carry 28 times for 223 yards and a touchdown. Receiver Jalen Nailor caught five passes for 221 yards, including touchdowns of 63, 63 and 65 yards in the first half. And quarterback Payton was 16 of 27 for 340 yards and three TDs.
That was only the fifth time in FBS history a team has had a 300-yard passer, a 200-yard rusher and a 200-yard receiver in the same game, the Big Ten Network said.
Question No. 4: Who is the best bet to win the Big Ten East?
Wow. Talk about a loaded question. Betting against Ohio State, like betting against Alabama, has not been a good proposition for years. Despite the Iowa loss, Penn State has shown its mettle against Wisconsin and Auburn, especially if Clifford returns.
Michigan and Michigan State are still mystery teams in terms of their upsides. Harbaugh seems to finally have to found a winning hand at his alma mater. And what Tucker has done in East Lansing is nothing short of sensational so far.
The only thing we know for certain. The Big Ten East has the strongest claim to being the best division in the nation. And the second half in the Big Ten East is going to be filled with thrills and spills.
Don’t blink. The team that wins the division certainly won’t.