|Stretch run to Indy|
|Written by Matt Pargoff|
Michigan entered last week’s game against Nebraska in control of its own destiny, holding sole possession of the top spot in the Legends Division. With the injury to Denard Robinson in the contest, the Wolverines’ offense stalled out and that edge in the conference race disappeared. The loss to the Cornhuskers knotted the two teams atop the division, but gave Nebraska the tie-breaker in the race for the Big Ten Championship Game.
The Wolverines claimed victory over Minnesota this weekend, but then watched as Nebraska, aided by an “unusual” pass interference call, came from behind to defeat Michigan State. By keeping pace, the Cornhuskers maintained their edge.
Looking forward, there are still opportunities for change in the Legends Division, but the window for Michigan to overtake Nebraska is shrinking quickly.
The toughest remaining challenge on the Cornhuskers’ schedule comes on Saturday, when they play host to Penn State. In their last seven games, the Nittany Lions have only lost to Ohio State, and each of the six wins were by double-digit margins.
If Penn State does win, it gives Michigan a chance, but that would of course be predicated on the Wolverines winning out. While Devin Gardner played well against the Golden Gophers, the Maize and Blue need Robinson back to have the best shot in the stretch run.
After the Penn State meeting, Nebraska gets much easier matchups against Minnesota and Iowa. The Wolverines have a tougher remaining schedule with Northwestern, Iowa and Ohio State.
Indiana in Indianapolis?
Coming off last season, many expected pretty big things out of Wisconsin. When it was announced that Penn State would join Ohio State in being barred from post-season play this fall, it appeared as though the Badgers were receiving a free trip to Indianapolis.
Wisconsin has a long history of scheduling easy non-conference games, and that seemed to be the case this season as well. Instead, Oregon State and Utah State turned out to be pretty tough teams. The Beavers handed Wisconsin a loss and the Aggies missed a last second field goal that would have put them on top. There is no good explanation for why Wisconsin struggled so much against Northern Iowa and UTEP, but they did.
The Badgers’ problems seemed to open the door for other challengers, with Purdue being the likely threat. The Boilermakers entered conference play with a bit of optimism after three blowout wins and a nail-biting loss to Notre Dame. However, five weeks in, they haven’t won a Big Ten game. Illinois returned some pretty decent defensive talent, but the Fighting Illini have been terrible on both sides of the ball and are likewise winless in the conference.
What makes the Leaders Division particularly unusual is that most would have expected an adjustment period for Urban Meyer and Bill O’Brien at Ohio State and Penn State respectively. The Nittany Lions in particular had a lot of critical losses from last year’s squad, both from graduation and last second departures. But those two squads have been the best in their division, knocking off every other team they’ve played so far while having no stake in the race. It is a top-heavy division with the two teams at the top ruled out of playing for the title.
And then there’s Indiana. The Hoosiers lost to Ball State. They were beaten by Navy. They lost their first three conference games. So why bother even talking about them? Well as odd as it sounds, Indiana is still in the running to play in the Big Ten Championship Game. And not just through some statistical oddity. They have a legitimate shot of playing in the title game.
By beating Illinois and Iowa – the Hoosiers’ first back-to-back conference wins since 2007 – Indiana is now only one game behind Wisconsin, with the two teams ready to face off this week. If the Hoosiers pull off the upset, they will hold the tie-breaker over the Badgers on the right to play in Indianapolis. Given that Wisconsin finishes the season with Ohio State and Penn State, while Indiana has the Nittany Lions and a much easier game against Purdue, it would be very difficult for the Badgers to pull back into the lead with a loss.
The game in Bloomington will no doubt see the Badgers favored to win, but looking over both teams, neither has been particularly impressive this season. The best team that Indiana beat was Iowa (4-5), while Wisconsin’s signature victory this year was against Minnesota (5-4). Yet this is the matchup that will determine who plays for the conference crown. There are no other contenders.
Big Ten Bowls
Given relative struggles of the conference early in the year and the ineligibility of two of the league’s top programs, there is a good chance that the winner of the cross-divisional meeting in Indianapolis on Dec. 1 will be the Big Ten’s only BCS Bowl representative.
Michigan is one of four squads in the conference to have reach bowl eligibility already this season, joined by Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Minnesota has a strong chance of making it to six wins this week, playing against an Illinois squad that has been blown out in its last six games. Michigan State also needs just one more win, but the Spartans enter a bye week before finishing up against Northwestern and Minnesota. The Wildcats may present a challenge, but the Spartans should be able to defeat the Gophers.
It is entirely possible that those six teams will the Big Ten’s only post-season representatives. It is statistically possible as few as five or as many as eight Big Ten teams could make it into bowl games.
Iowa and Indiana each need to win two of their final three games to play in a bowl game. To do that, each will have to pull off at least one upset.
For the Hoosiers, it will mean beating one of Wisconsin or Penn State in the next two weeks, before taking possession of the Old Oaken Bucket against Purdue for just the fourth time in the last 16 meetings. As odd as it sounds, Indiana’s game with Wisconsin could be the difference between getting a chance at the Rose Bowl or going completely without a bowl game.Iowa likewise has its best chance of getting a win against the Boilermakers in a meeting this coming week. After that, the Hawkeyes face the difficult task of upsetting one of Michigan or Nebraska.