Where Big Ten’s best could land after Week 9

October 31, 2021
Michigan State defensive end Drew Beesley carries the Paul Bunyan trophy after the Spartans' victory over Michigan.

As expected, the Big Ten will head into November with a more streamlined list of contenders for the conference championship and the College Football Playoff.   

While Michigan State’s win against Michigan vaults the Spartans into a tie for first in the East division, the Wolverines are still in play for the championship game in early December. To have a chance, they would need to combine a sweep of Indiana, Penn State and Maryland with an Ohio State win against Michigan State on Nov. 20.

One potential contender did flop in a crucial divisional matchup. An issue even when rolling off six straight wins to open the year, Iowa’s offense cratered in a 27-7 loss to Wisconsin, likely sending the Hawkeyes freefalling into the bottom half of this week’s USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll.

The Big Ten’s list of playoff contenders is now down to three in Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, and the Wolverines no longer have any room for error. 

Winners and losers of Week 9:Florida sliding in wrong direction; Jim Harbaugh still can’t get a signature win

With Georgia still entrenched at No. 1, where those three teams will fall is the biggest question in this week’s poll, which will be released Sunday. Here’s how the top 10 poll may look:

1. Georgia (8-0)

The Bulldogs’ defense held Florida under wraps to seal up a 34-7 rivalry win that nearly stood as the Gators’ first shutout loss since 1988. It was actually close until the final two minutes of the first half, when Georgia turned a 3-0 game into an insurmountable 24-0 lead. Remarkably, this defense has played eight games and allowed just 16 points in the first half.

2. Cincinnati (8-0)

How tenuous is Cincinnati’s hold on No. 2? Voters could be looking for other options after the Bearcats’ 31-12 win against Tulane due to the expectations placed on the top team from the Group of Five. And what are those expectations? At the very least, to dominate the bottom teams in the American. Cincinnati hasn’t done so in games against Navy and the Green Wave.

3. Alabama (7-1)

Alabama’s averaging about a yard fewer per play than during a historic 2020, which was to be expected given the huge shakeup in offensive personnel heading into this season. But what we’re seeing in the past month is far better balance from the Crimson Tide, which might be why this offense can do what no teams have done all season: put up points against the Bulldogs. Alabama has run for at least 150 yards in its last five games after struggling on the ground to open September.

4. Oklahoma (9-0)

Caleb Williams continues to play at a level well beyond his status as a true freshman. He finished with 402 yards and six touchdowns in the Sooners’ 52-21 win against Texas Tech, just the team’s second victory by more than 12 points against FBS competition. Williams has the offense on a tear heading into games against Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma State.

Lincoln Riley:Narrative that benched Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler is checked out ‘is over’

5. Ohio State (7-1)

Beating Penn State in prime time will be enough to keep OSU ahead of Michigan State. But should that be the case? Beyond being unbeaten to the Buckeyes’ one loss, MSU has more road wins, more Power Five wins and the best win between the pair — beating Michigan trumps anything on the Buckeyes’ resume.

6. Michigan State (8-0)

This landing spot reflects the reality of the situation for the Spartans. Being behind a pair of one-loss Power Five teams, including one rival from the Big Ten East, stems from the preseason belief that MSU was not even one of the top five teams in the conference, let alone the entire FBS. But it’s ultimately meaningless for a team that controls its path to the playoff: beat OSU, beat the winner of the West, crack the top four.

7. Oregon (7-1)

The Ducks had no trouble with Colorado, winning 52-29, and continue to look like the team to beat in the Pac-12. But it won’t be an easy race to the finish line of the regular season. Even before the conference title game, the Ducks have to take on Washington, a gritty Washington State team, Utah on the road and rival Oregon State. 

8. Notre Dame (7-1)

At very few moments this season have the Irish looked like the eighth-best team in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Yet here we are: Notre Dame is now 7-1, with the one loss to undefeated Cincinnati, and inching closer and closer to securing a New Year’s Six bowl bid. While it’s a sort of backhanded compliment, that this team has such obvious flaws and still could win 10 or more games could make this the finest work of Brian Kelly’s stint with the program. 

9. Michigan (7-1)

No. 6 in last week’s poll, the Wolverines should remain in the top 10 after the close loss to the Spartans. Bigger issues than a national ranking will come out of the game, led by the inability to seal the deal and finally notch a meaningful victory in one of the program’s two rivalry games. Jim Harbaugh’s search for a signature win continues.

10. Wake Forest (8-0)

The Demon Deacons have a terrific shot at cracking the top 10 for the first time in program history after moving to 8-0 with a 45-7 win against Duke. Wake is the only team in the country to score at least 35 points in every game. A path into the top 10 was made possible by losses from Ole Miss, Iowa and Kentucky. 

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

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