BY PAUL MYERBERG, USATODAY SPORTS
The best team in the Big Ten Conference is ...
Before Saturday, the easy answer was Ohio State. The Buckeyes entered the weekend as the league’s lone undefeated team and, if you were feeling optimistic, as one of the few teams in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision viewed as capable of beating Alabama.
Ohio State had earned the title. The Buckeyes owned a very good road win at Penn State and a solid neutral-site defeat of TCU. The defense had issues, especially when it comes to limiting big plays, but the Dwayne Haskins-led offense had been even better than advertised and perhaps the program’s best overall under Urban Meyer despite short-yardage issues.
Then came Saturday. First was Michigan’s 21-7 win at Michigan State, the latest impressive performance for a team still battling back from a season-opening loss to Notre Dame, even if that loss looks better and better in hindsight as the Irish make a run at a 12-0 season.
The Wolverines’ defense is again one of the best in college football. The offense continues to lack imagination but has enough talent to put together the sort of big plays needed to put teams such as the Spartans away – as in the long touchdown pass from Shea Patterson in the second half. The offense has room for improvement; the defense is ready for anyone.
Michigan’s win was followed by a major upset: Purdue bombed Ohio State 49-20, handing the Buckeyes an embarrassing first loss and changing how we’ll view the Big Ten during the final half of the regular season.
The Boilermakers were better than their record indicated. Could it be that OSU was never as good as that 6-0 mark might’ve suggested? The truth might sit closer to the middle: Purdue is a good team on the rise – with a head coach, Jeff Brohm, firmly on the national radar – and Ohio State is still a very good team, though not one that deserves to be mentioned among the very best in college football.
The Buckeyes give up far too many explosive plays. J.T. Barrett has been sorely missed in his ability to convert on third or fourth down and short. The Buckeyes’ red-zone efficiency is abysmal. They commit too many penalties.
Now, the question: Is Ohio State the best team in the Big Ten, or is it Michigan? Don’t sleep on Michigan’s ability to win every game the rest of the way, Ohio State included. Even lesser Michigan teams under Jim Harbaugh have put OSU on the ropes. It seems almost obvious that this the best team Harbaugh has had yet.
It’s an interesting question that’s ultimately meaningless. Ohio State’s reputation takes a hit after Saturday night but the road to the College Football Playoff remains the same – just win every game the rest of the way. Likewise with Michigan. The two meet to end the regular season with that on the line.
Here are the rest of Saturday’s winners and losers:
Scott Frost nailed down his first win back at Nebraska after the Cornhuskers stormed out to a 28-0 lead against Minnesota and held on for dear life before pulling away 53-28. This was a win that was coming, if not long overdue.
Backhanded compliment, maybe, but Nebraska was far better than its 0-6 record heading into the weekend might have indicated — and they proved it by getting into the win column for the first time. True freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez looks like a future star.
This is the sort of win that justifies the hype around Brohm, who in less than 20 games at Purdue has transformed the program from Big Ten nobody to one of the trendy programs in college football.
The offense is dynamic, aided by recruiting coups like the one that reeled in the phenomenal Rondale Moore, and the defense bent to Ohio State's offense but pulled out a number of game-changing plays. Saturday's win was the Boilermakers' first against a top-2 opponent since 1984.
The Cougars were a non-entity in any preseason playoff chatter. They were even an afterthought in the Pac-12 Conference race, pegged for a bowl game but not much more in a league seemingly dominated by Washington and Stanford.
Instead, Washington State heads into the home stretch as the lone one-loss team in the conference.
Saturday night's 34-20 win against Oregon capped one of the most memorable days in program history and bumps the Cougars into position for a New Year's Six bowl.
The Seminoles put together their best performance of the Willie Taggart era with a 38-17 win against Wake Forest.
The offense was productive if not quite balanced; the Seminoles looked like they could’ve beat up on the Deacons’ defense with the running game but leaned heavily on quarterback Deondre Francois.
The defense was even better, especially in defending the pass and getting after the passer. It was a good win for Taggart and FSU with Clemson coming to town next week.
Virginia is beginning to slowly rise to the top of the shaky Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference. As other teams have scuffled, the Cavaliers have put together back-to-back solid wins against Miami (Fla.) and, on Saturday, at Duke.
The 28-14 victory at the Blue Devils leaves Virginia at 5-2 with three home games in a row against North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Liberty. Suddenly, eight wins seems possible as Bronco Mendenhall continues his building in Charlottesville.
Tennessee actually equaled Alabama in the second quarter, 14-14, which is a small victory for a program looking way, way up at its rival. Too bad the Tide led 28-0 after 15 minutes.
It says quite a bit about Alabama that it wasn’t a great performance yet still resulted in a 42-14 halftime edge and a 58-21 final.
The Bulls did it again. Saturday's 31-17 win at Toledo came against the Mid-American Conference's presumptive preseason favorite and was the third consecutive victory and seventh overall in what is shaping to be the program's breakout season.
Buffalo is the best team in the MAC and a contender for 10 or more wins in 2018.
There are questions to be asked about the health of this offense. Does Mark Dantonio need to address his team’s continued issues on this side of the ball? It was just too easy for Michigan to put clamps down on the Spartans and quarterback Brian Lewerke.
And while illustrated best by the Wolverines’ dominance on Saturday, this isn’t a new concern: Michigan State has been toothless on offense all season, and that’s as big a reason as any why this team isn’t a national contender.
The Tigers smothered Mississippi State in a 19-3 and will be 7-1 heading into their Nov. 3 matchup with Alabama to decide the SEC West Division.
But it's not all good news: LSU will be without star linebacker Devin White for the first half of next weekend's game after he drew a controversial targeting penalty against the Bulldogs.
Was it good call? There's an argument for the call being terrible, actually. But not having White for the first two quarters against Alabama is a major concern for the Tigers.
That the Trojans trailed Utah for 20 points at times during Saturday night's 41-28 loss was a fact greeted with shrugged shoulders. It's a telling statement about the current status of the program: USC can lose to anyone, anytime.
That includes getting pushed around by Utah in a game the Trojans needed to have to remain a factor in the North Division race.
The Bearcats suffered their first loss on the year, 24-17 to Temple in overtime, in a game they seemingly had in control heading into the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
It’s a bad loss, if somewhat predictable given the lack of quality wins the team put together in its 6-0 start, but it’s not the end of the world: Cincinnati Is still a pretty good success story after going 4-8 in head coach Luke Fickell’s debut season in 2017.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE
The Wolfpack were another team making noise on the back of a weak schedule. This is a solid team, but Saturday taught us two things: one, that N.C. State was not as good as its 5-0 record might have suggested, and two, the Wolfpack are very clearly not on the same level as Clemson.
The Tigers’ 41-7 win illustrated the wide gap between the best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the rest.