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As division races intensify, Parker Gabriel checks in on each Big Ten team in his power rankings

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Ohio State vs. Nebraska, 11.6

Ohio State's Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) can't quite reach a pass against Nebraska in the third quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

It's that point of the season where division races begin to intensify. The Big Ten West? Well, that's still wide open. The Buckeyes are the favorite in the East, but their schedule moving forward is difficult. 

Here's Parker Gabriel's latest snapshot of the conference.

1. Ohio State (8-1, 6-0)

Previous: 1. Last week: W 26-17 at Nebraska.

Buckeye coach Ryan Day called it “survive and advance” on Saturday and with good reason. Like "a C.J. Stroud fumble rolling on the ground with a six-point lead and three minutes to go" reason. The Buckeyes did get the job done in Lincoln, though, against the upset-minded Huskers, and they remain in control of the East as a result. However, OSU’s path to the College Football Playoff isn’t easy. They’ll have to beat Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan in consecutive weeks, and then whoever comes out of the wide-open West.

2. Michigan State (8-1, 5-1)

Previous: 2. LW: L 40-29 at Purdue.

The Spartans’ magical run finally ended at the hands of Purdue. Mel Tucker’s team gave up 536 passing yards and 29 first downs and allowed PU to go 11-of-18 on third down. Heisman Trophy hopeful Kenneth Walker rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown. MSU still can win the East by winning its final three games, but that will be a task. After a home game against Maryland on Saturday, the Spartans travel to Ohio State on Nov. 20 before closing the regular season against Penn State.

3. Michigan (8-1, 5-1)

Previous: 3. LW: 29-7 vs. Indiana.

One week after a disappointing loss to in-state rival Michigan State, the Wolverines are right back in the hunt for a division title after they calmly dispatched reeling Indiana. Hassan Haskins rushed for 168 and a TD, and UM held IU to 195 yards of offense. Now Jim Harbaugh’s team can win the East if it wins out and Ohio State beats Michigan State. Easier said than done, of course. Penn State is up first for Michigan, then Maryland before the regular season closes with that old familiar rival that’s dominated the series recently.

4. Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2)

Previous: 5. LW: W 52-3 at Rutgers.

The Badgers are suddenly rolling. They’ve won five in a row, the most recent a destruction of the Scarlet Knights. UW outgained Rutgers 579-207, had the ball for 37:32 and allowed just one third-down conversion. Even quarterback Graham Mertz played well, throwing for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Paul Chryst’s team started the season 1-3 and now might be considered the favorite in the West. There’s still plenty of work to do, though. UW has Northwestern and Nebraska at home the next two weeks and then finishes the year at Minnesota.

5. Minnesota (6-3, 4-2)

Previous: 4. LW: L 14-6 vs. Minnesota.

Minnesota just signed P.J. Fleck to an extension and then got a nice placement from the College Football Playoff committee. It was a good week in Minneapolis. Until Saturday. The Gophers lost at home to Illinois and a four-game winning streak came to a screeching halt. Tanner Morgan threw two interceptions and UM’s usually strong run game produced just 89 total yards. Ouch. The Gophers are still in the West hunt but will have to rebound quickly with a trip to Iowa City on deck this week.

6. Purdue (6-3, 4-2)

Previous: 6. LW: W 40-29 vs. Michigan State.

The Boilermakers, too, are right in the hunt for the West after knocking off Michigan State. Purdue beat Iowa when it was No. 2 and MSU when it was No. 3. Now it’s going to get another top-five team in Ohio State. Can Jeff Brohm’s team make it a trio of massive wins on the year? It will likely have to in order to have a realistic chance of winning the division. How about QB Aidan O’Connell against MSU? He finished 40-of-54 for 536 yards and three TDs. And star WR David Bell (11 catches for 217 yards and a TD)? He’s up to 1,003 yards on 64 catches for the season.

7. Iowa (7-2, 4-2)

Previous: 7. LW: W 17-12 at Northwestern.

It wasn’t pretty, but Iowa, too, held serve in the Big Ten West. The Hawkeyes have the best overall record but will need a little help because they’ve lost to two of the other contenders (UW and Purdue). They face the other, Minnesota, on Saturday. Alex Padilla stepped in at QB for Spencer Petras (shoulder) and was steady, if unspectacular, in completing 18-of-28 for 172 yards. Tyler Goodson ran for 141 and a TD, and Iowa turned Northwestern over three times. After UM, the Hawkeyes close with Illinois and Nebraska.

8. Illinois (4-6, 3-4)

Previous: 10. LW: W 14-6 at Minnesota.

There’s some fight in Bret Bielema’s first team. They’ve had their struggles, but also have top-25 wins now against Penn State and Minnesota. Good on them. They won’t be easy to deal with in the West going forward. On Saturday, Illinois got it done despite throwing the ball just 10 times.

9. Penn State (6-3, 3-3)

Previous: 8. LW: W 31-14 at Maryland.

The Nittany Lions buried a three-game losing streak by knocking off the Terps. Star WR Jahan Dotson had a massive day (11 catches for 242 and three TDs) and is up to 932 and nine scores on the year. Now PSU will turn its attention to playing spoiler with both Michigan and MSU still left on the schedule.

10. Maryland (5-4, 2-4)

Previous: 9. LW: L 31-14 vs. Penn State.

The Terps have lost four out of their past five and now face Michigan State and Michigan the next two weeks. Nothing’s impossible, of course, but Mike Locksley’s team may need a win Nov. 27 at Rutgers to get bowl eligible after starting the year 4-0.

11. Nebraska (3-7, 1-6)

Previous: 12. LW: L 26-17 vs. Ohio State.

The Huskers have played four teams in last week’s top 10 close this year, but the bottom line is they’re 1-6 in Big Ten play and have lost six of their past seven overall. NU has the week off and then closes with Wisconsin and Iowa.

12. Rutgers (4-5, 1-5)

Previous: 11. LW: L 52-3 vs. Wisconsin.

It was a rough day at the office for the Scarlet Knights. Greg Schiano’s team still has a shot at a bowl berth with Indiana, Penn State and Maryland left on the docket.

13. Northwestern (3-6, 1-5)

Previous: 13. LW: L 17-12 vs. Iowa.

The Wildcats have struggled offensively for most of the season, and that was the case again Saturday against the Hawkeyes. The bad news? Now they have to deal with Wisconsin’s defense this weekend. Senior NU linebacker Chris Bergin leads all Big Ten tacklers with 108 this year (12 per game).

14. Indiana (2-7, 0-6)

Previous: 14. LW: L 29-7 at Michigan.

Even if you expected regression from the Hoosiers this year, it’s been a surprising one. On Saturday, freshman QB Donaven McCulley was 10-of-24 for 88 yards and IU finished with just 195 yards overall against Michigan. The Hoosiers’ best chance for a Big Ten win is Saturday vs. Rutgers, then they close with Minnesota and Purdue.

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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