state of the conference

Having earlier conference games might not be the best thing for a majority of Big Ten teams, but the change was necessary this season. For the first time, league play starts with two games for each team in early December, so the conference tournament can also start earlier, on Feb. 28 in New York City's Madison Square Garden.

After getting annihilated in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge (three wins to 11) this week, several Big Ten teams are clearly trying to figure out their identity. Now they won't have a few more nonconference games to get their act together. League play started Friday — the Gophers open with Rutgers on Sunday — and a second game will be played early next week before picking back up again in early January.

Some teams might continue to lose and learn tough lessons.

"The Big Ten is a late-bloomer conference," analyst Stephen Bardo said. "Big Ten teams take a beating early on, like in this ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They got smoked.

"I think it takes time for Big Ten teams to really gel. From an early conference games standpoint, it will hurt some of the younger teams to play this early."

With "early" being the key word, here's how I see the Big Ten, top to bottom, heading into opening weekend:

Power Rankings

1. Michigan State: The national championship contender blew out No. 5 Notre Dame on Thursday.

2. Gophers: When healthy, the Gophers are the Spartans' biggest threat. But starter Dupree McBrayer is out indefinitely with a leg infection.

3. Purdue: How do you rebound from two disappointing losses? Upset Arizona and Louisville in back-to-back games.

4. Maryland: If Justin Jackson starts playing to his star potential, this team will be dangerous.

5. Northwestern: Biggest disappointment so far with three losses, including a 36-point defeat to Texas Tech.

6. Michigan: Lack of consistent point guard play is glaring, but it wasn't going to be easy to replace Derrick Walton Jr.

7. Penn State: Besides the Gophers' Jordan Murphy, Nittany Lions sophomore Tony Carr made the biggest jump from last season and averages 20 points per game.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have the talent to beat anyone, but their defensive issues resulted in losses to Lafayette and South Dakota State.

9. Ohio State: Lucky for Buckeyes fans, it's still college football season in Columbus.

10. Illinois: Did first-year coach Brad Underwood inherit enough pieces to compete in this conference?

11. Wisconsin: Badgers have a solid freshman in Maple Grove's Brad Davison, but All-America candidate Ethan Happ needs more help.

12. Indiana: Hoosiers don't have much depth, but rookie coach Archie Miller was encouraged by how his team battled Duke to the wire.

13. Nebraska: Nobody has a tougher upcoming schedule: Michigan State, Minnesota, at Creighton and Kansas. Ouch.

14. Rutgers: Defense has improved, but the Scarlet Knights' schedule has been softer than a pillow.

Marcus Fuller