Wed Nov 02 12:22pm EDT
It's November. The frontrunners in each of the Big Ten's bizarrely named divisions has just lost a critical division game on the road, throwing the conference standings into a jumbled mess that leaves the door theoretically open for eight different teams — seven of them realistically — to make the first Big Ten Championship Game in December. Here's one early, haphazard attempt to handicap the stretch run.
• BET: Michigan State (Legends) and Wisconsin (Leaders).
Before Saturday, on the heels of their dynamite finish on Oct. 22, a Badger-Spartan rematch in the title game looked like the closest you could come in this league to a lock. After their respective losses on the road, both need help in the form of losses by Nebraska and Ohio State and their margin of error has been reduced to zero. But with their remaining schedules, the opportunity for error isn't much higher.
With four consecutive ranked opponents in the rearview, Michigan State has the most user-friendly November in the conference: Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern (combined Big Ten record: 2-12) close out the season on either side of a dangerous but manageable road trip to Iowa, whose season is on red alert after a hide-the-children-level loss at Minnesota (see below). Barring a meltdown in Iowa City, the Spartans should come out the other end of that stretch at 7-1 in the conference; if they do, the title game is only one Nebraska loss — at Penn State, or Michigan, or at home against Iowa in the finale — away.
Wisconsin has even further to go, needing losses by both Ohio State and Penn State before the Nittany Lions come to Madison for the season finale on Nov. 26 for (Wisconsin hopes) a winner-take-all showdown for the Leaders Divisions. The Badgers shouldn't have any problem keeping up their end of that bargain: Even on the heels of two straight, deflating losses, wins over Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois should be no-brainers for a team that dominated the first half of its schedule and is two Hail Mary heaves from being in the thick of the national championship picture. Either Ohio State or Penn State will suffer the requisite loss when they meet in Columbus on Nov. 19; the winner there has another realistic chance to go down against either Michigan or Nebraska, respectively. Of the three, Wisconsin's path to 6-2 looks the cleanest.
• PASS: Iowa (Legends) and Penn State (Leaders).
The Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions both control their destinies in their respective divisions, for the very good reason that (with the exception of Penn State's win over Iowa on Oct. 8) they haven't played anyone yet worth losing to — and Iowa still managed to lose Saturday in a fourth quarter flop against the worst team in the conference, which has Hawkeye fans waving the white flag. With heavies Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska ahead, just qualifying for a bowl game could come down to a Nov. 19 trip to Purdue, suddenly looking like a 50-50 proposition.
At 8-1, Penn State has ridden the defense about as far as it go without a functional quarterback — a seven-game winning streak just isn't sustainable for an offense that ranks dead last in the conference in pass efficiency and next-to-last in scoring (!) as it hits the thick of a backloaded schedule. It's hard to imagine the same Lions that struggled well into the fourth quarter against Temple, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois taking two straight against Nebraska and Ohio State, and a loss in either puts their back against the wall at Wisconsin. The fact that an 8-1, brand-name power is likely to be an underdog in all three says all you need to know.
• WILD CARDS Michigan (Legends) and Ohio State (Leaders).
The Wolverines have played one ranked team and were beaten handily. The Buckeyes, left for dead in early October, have rallied behind their young quarterback and taken two straight against ranked favorites — and might have made it three if Braxton Miller hadn't been knocked out of the game at Nebraska. Even their fans have no idea how good they are.
It may be a few more weeks before we find out: Michigan's next two games are road trips against struggling middleweights (Iowa and Illinois) that have recently lost games to Minnesota and Purdue, respectively; Ohio State has back-to-back dates with Indiana and Purdue. The Wolverines could be welcoming Nebraska to Ann Arbor on Nov. 19 with a 9-1 record and no idea what to expect against another legitimate contender. The Buckeyes play Penn State the same day with a chance to move into the driver's seat in the Leaders Division, freshman QB and all. If there's anything more than the usual pride and Ohio State's winning streak on the line when these two teams hook up for their annual rivalry match on Nov. 26, no one will be more surprised than their own fans.
For the record, at 2-2 with Leaders Division rivals Wisconsin and Ohio State on deck, Purdue remains mathematically alive, too, in the case of a four-game Boilermaker winning streak and a three-game Penn State losing streak. But it's complicated enough without spending time on a 4-4 outfit that lost to Rice.