This season, the Big Ten is back in its dark ages of depth.

Arguably no conference is better at the top. The B1G has a pair of bona fide national championship contenders in No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan. Only the SEC can compete as measured in championship-caliber football teams.

But from there, a divergence opens.

When you descend from the peak, things drop off quickly for the B1G. The Big Ten is back where it was in the 1970s, when it was known in some quarters as “the Big 2 and the Little 8.”

The only thing that has changed is the numbers, and the addition of a third team that isn’t at Ohio State or Michigan’s level but has a considerable gap over the rest.

Penn State is in a weird tier all on its own right now — Nittany Island, if you will.

The Lions aren’t good enough to hang with the Wolverines or Buckeyes for a full 60 minutes. But Penn State is also superior to everyone else in the B1G by a considerable margin, as demonstrated in a 30-0 thrashing of Maryland.

The Terrapins came to Beaver Stadium with a chance to prove themselves as the Big Ten’s third- or fourth-best team. The previous week’s loss at Wisconsin may have merely been a freakish, weather-related anomaly.

Instead, it turns out that Wisconsin weather exposed the Terrapins for who they are: as average as the rest of their peers.

At halftime, Maryland had the same number of total yards as Penn State had points: 27.

The game was never close — a total rout in the trenches. Penn State finished with 9 tackles for loss, including 7 sacks.

The Nittany Lions have had more than 2 sacks in just 2 other games this season. One was against Auburn, which has since fired its head coach. The other was against Indiana, which has already fired its offensive line coach and is 124th nationally in TFL allowed.

Sorry as Maryland’s performance was, the Terps still might be in the top half of the conference. Because once you get past the Big 2.5 — Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State — there is a massive crevasse.

Illinois had the appearance of being the B1G’s fourth-best team, but that faded in a 31-24 loss to Purdue.

So, who is No. 4?

Is it Iowa, which looked addicted to 3-and-outs for the first 7 weeks of the season? Purdue, which at least gave Penn State a game? Minnesota, which has already lost to Illinois and Purdue and was also blown out at Penn State? Still Illinois despite a 2-game home losing streak?

The fact that question doesn’t have a definitive answer lends credence to the argument that the Big Ten is the most top-heavy conference in the country this season.

So do the polls. Only 3 B1G teams are ranked.

By comparison:

  • Pac-12: 6 ranked teams
  • SEC: 5 ranked teams
  • Big 12: 3 ranked teams
  • ACC: 3 ranked teams
  • American: 3 ranked teams

Although the ACC and Big 12 have the same number of ranked teams as the Big Ten, both leagues feel deeper.

Six ACC teams were ranked a week ago before 3 (NC State, Wake Forest, Syracuse) lost this week. All may be able to climb back in by the end of the season.

With 2 games left to play, every team in the Big 12 is still bowl-eligible. That includes last-place Iowa State, which beat potential B1G West champion Iowa.

From a pure depth perspective, the Big Ten feels more like a souped-up version of the American right now. If only 3 teams are ranked at the end of the season, it would be the conference’s weakest showing since 2014.

Of course, 2014 is also the last time a Big Ten team won a national championship. So if the Buckeyes and Wolverines both make the CFP and Penn State goes to the Rose Bowl, no one will particularly care about a lack of quality depth. Some will even spin it as proof that the Big Ten is stronger than ever.

If you’re judging each league strictly by its top 3 teams, that is true. But when you get to the middle tier, this is as weak as the B1G has been in quite some time.

Deciding which is better for the Big Ten is more of a philosophical issue.

If it’s national titles you’re after, top-heaviness is preferable to cannibalization. In many ways, that is the SEC model. But if you want a league where 1 of the Davids is actually capable of taking down a Goliath any given week, you won’t find it in the 2022 Big Ten.

Personally, this year’s version strikes me as boring. But it’s good for business.

Around the B1G horn

Couldn’t watch every game? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

No. 2 Ohio State 56, Indiana 14

After 3 straight tepid rushing performances, the Buckeyes busted loose for 340 rushing yards against the Hoosiers. Unfortunately, some of those good vibes were lost when Miyan Williams was carted off after 147 yards on 15 carries. Ohio State is currently without its top 2 running backs.

That might not matter against Indiana or Maryland, but it could be significant against Michigan.

No. 3 Michigan 34, Nebraska 3

By the second half, Nebraska was on its third-string quarterback (Logan Smothers) and backup offensive coordinator (Mickey Joseph) after injuries to Chubba Purdy and Mark Whipple. Yeah, it’s that kind of year for Nebraska — even the OC got carted off after a sideline collision.

Though it didn’t matter, JJ McCarthy’s uneven performance — 8-of-17 for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns and 3 carries for minus-8 yards — is a bit worrisome. The Wolverines haven’t played a pass defense anywhere near the caliber of Illinois this season. McCarthy could get exposed as not-quite-ready for prime time next week.

No. 14 Penn State 30, Maryland 0

The Terrapins were shut out for the first time since 2019, when they lost 59-0 to Penn State.

Maryland, which entered last week on a streak of 10 games with at least 27 points, has now combined for 10 points in the 2 games since. The 7 sacks tied for the second-highest total allowed by Maryland since 2010.

The score would have been worse if Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was not off his game. Clifford finished 12-of-23 for 139 yards before Drew Allar and Christian Veilleux mopped up. The Nittany Lions passed for fewer than 175 yards for the third time this season, and are now 2-1 in those games.

Purdue 31, No. 21 Illinois 24

The Cannon is the most hilarious rivalry trophy in the Big Ten. How tall are the soldiers firing this thing? 11 inches?

For Illinois fans, it’s impossible to conjure a bigger nightmare. The West was all but clinched with a win. Now the Illini need to beat Michigan. And they might need to do it without Chase Brown, who was injured on one of the final plays of the game.

This is not how dream seasons are supposed to end.

Iowa 24, Wisconsin 10

And just like that, the Hawkeyes are the frontrunners in the Big Ten West. If Illinois loses to Michigan (or Northwestern), Iowa will reach the Big Ten championship game if it finishes the regular season with wins over Minnesota and Nebraska.

In classic Iowa fashion, the Hawks won despite averaging 2.1 yards per play on offense. But this wasn’t the usual brand of offensive ineptitude. Iowa began 2 possessions inside the Wisconsin 20-yard line thanks to a punt block and a long punt return, and cashed in with touchdowns on both.

In classic Iowa vs. Wisconsin fashion, the defenses combined for 20(!) tackles for loss and 10 sacks. The Badgers had 11 TFL and 6 sacks, while the Hawkeyes finished with 9 TFL and 4 sacks.

Minnesota 31, Northwestern 3

Four Northwestern quarterbacks combined to complete 15 passes on 32 attempts for 206 yards and 2 interceptions. One Minnesota quarterback completed 7 passes on 13 attempts for 64 yards. Somehow it still took just over 3 hours to finish the game. Probably all those Wildcat incompletions.

This game is noteworthy in another way, and not just because Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim scored his 50th career touchdown. Minnesota became the first team this season to win its next game after playing Nebraska.

That’s good news for Michigan heading into next week.

Michigan State 27, Rutgers 21

The Scarlet Knights gained 460 yards — their most since racking up 585 against FCS Wagner in Week 2. In Big Ten play, it’s the most yards Rutgers has gained since the 2015 season finale against Maryland.

Much like that game, Rutgers lost.

In this instance, penalties were the main culprit. Rutgers was flagged 14 times for 107 yards. And that is nothing new. The Scarlet Knights are tied for 125th nationally with 84 penalties.

The team Rutgers is tied with? Tennessee.

Greg Schiano was destined to coach a highly-penalized team in 2022. The fates just needed to determine the identity.

Week 11 MVPs

1. DB Cooper DeJean (Iowa)

The best B1G defensive performance this season by a player not named JT Tuimoloau.

DeJean had 10 tackles, including a TFL. He had a 32-yard interception return touchdown. And he also destroyed Wisconsin in the return game, bringing back 4 punts for a combined 82 yards, including a 41-yarder that set up the Hawkeyes in the red zone.

2. RB Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota)

Mo the Machine just keeps chugging along.

Ibrahim tied his season high with 36 carries, turning them into 178 yards and 3 touchdowns. If Minnesota wins out, Illinois loses to Michigan, and Purdue loses to Northwestern or Indiana, Mo and the Gophers will motor to Indianapolis.

3. OLB Nick Herbig (Wisconsin)

Herbig makes his second-straight appearance in the Top 5 after another dominant performance.

The Flyin’ Hawaiian finished with 7 tackles and 3 sacks, including a strip-sack that set up Wisconsin’s first 3 points of the game.

4. TE Payne Durham (Purdue)

Purdue doesn’t beat Illinois without Payne Durham.

Durham caught 7 passes for 70 yards and 2 touchdowns on 8 targets. If Aidan O’Connell got the ball anywhere near him, Durham was hauling it in. And then dragging Illini defenders along for the ride.

5. QB CJ Stroud (Ohio State)

I grade Stroud on a tougher scale than anyone else in the Big Ten because his ceiling is the highest. But it’s impossible to ignore a 5-touchdown game, even if it comes against Indiana. And even if it’s the 9th time Stroud has thrown 5 touchdowns in his career.

Because in this case, it’s immediately after his 76-yard showing in a windswept and waterlogged day at Northwestern caused some to question his Heisman merits.

Stroud completed 17 of 28 throws for 297 yards against the Hoosiers.

Honorable mention

Get ready to see a bunch of Buckeyes, starting with defensive back Lathan Ransom, who had 7 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a blocked punt. … Carry on with linebacker Tommy Eichenberger, who had 3 TFL. … There’s also running back Miyan Williams, who was on pace for well over 200 yards before being carted off. … In a rare Rutgers offensive outburst, running back Kyle Monongai had 162 yards on 24 carries. … Michigan State linebacker Cal Haladay, who was credited with an other-wordly 20 tackles, albeit just 1 solo. … Penn State defensive end Chop Robinson, who tortured his former team with 2 sacks. … Michigan running back Blake Corum, who gained another steady 162 yards on 28 carries.

Play of the week

Marvin Harrison Jr.’s sideline grab is a perfect demonstration of why he should be this year’s Biletnikoff Award winner. If a normal person tried this, they would tear their groin in about 4 different places.

Also, this is a perfect example of why the NFL should adopt college rules for what is and isn’t a catch. The fact that this would be incomplete at the next level is silly. It’s a catch. One of the best you’re likely to see.

Moment of the week

Derailed by 4 ACL tears in his career that never got going, Ohio State senior wide receiver Kamryn Babb finally reached the end zone. That’s perseverance that even a Michigan Man should appreciate.

Blooper of the week

Color commentator Robert Griffin III’s reaction to Nebraska receiver Alante Brown getting upended by Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil is comedy gold.