Breaking Down the Big Ten Part I: The Contenders

After what was beginning to feel like 1000 years of darkness under Ohio State's run of conference titles, this year the Big Ten has shifted into one of the most competitive top-to-bottom conferences in the entire country.  While all this parity has virtually guaranteed that the Big Ten will miss the BCS title game, it has made for a number of great games and set up a dramatic final three weeks of the season.  Over the next three Saturdays there will be eleven match ups that have a hand in shaping the Big Ten title.  With games such as Wisc vs. MSU, PU vs. NWU, Iowa vs. UM, OSU vs. Wisc, MSU vs. NWU, Wisc vs. Iowa, and UM vs. Ill already in the books fans of the Big Ten have seen some of the most exciting football in the country.  With four teams vying for a share of the Big Ten title, fans all over the Midwest can expect many more memorable games before the 2010 season comes to a close.  A fitting send off to the end of the shared conference championship era.

Today we will take a look at the teams that are fighting for the conference title.  Where have they been and how will things play out over the next month.

Tomorrow we will look at the rest of the conference.

The Contenders:

Michigan State (9-1) is either a team that you saw coming a mile away, or a team that you still don't trust---maybe even both.  Back in August I didn't pay much attention to the articles floating around the Lansing State Journal or the Freep that were titled some variation of "Spartans Eyeing a Big Ten Title Run?" (At this point the question mark was still obligatory).  In the non-conference schedule this year's Spartan team took care of business.  The first four games didn't offer many real challenges, but the Spartans played mistake free with a heavy reliance on moving the ball with big bruising running backs and passing with the newly error free Kirk Cousins.  The Spartans then scored their first two  signature wins of the season by beating Wisconsin at home (in what looked like the same disappointing loss that Wisconsin suffers every year in at least one game away from Camp Randall) and Michigan in the Big House.  Sparty followed that up with two wins that foreshadowed problems that lay ahead.  Illinois went in to halftime with a 6-3 lead before MSU rattled off 23 unanswered in the second half to win comfortably.  The next week in Evanston the Spartans fell behind 17-0 in what looked like the typical "sparty no" game, but MSU hung around until the 4th quarter and rattled off 21 points to NWU's 3 to stay unbeaten.  Then came Iowa, a team that was well equipped to end the Spartans' perfect season.  The Spartans got off to another slow start and Iowa looked to be in total control for the entire sixty minutes.  It was reported that Michigan State played a game last week against the decaying corpse of the Minnesota Gophers, but no one could be found that had actually witnessed the mercy killing.

So today the Spartans stand two games away from 11-1 and a shot at a BCS bowl.  Does Cinderella's story have a happy ending?

Yes.  The Spartans will beat Purdue in two weeks.  The Boilermakers are too decimated by injuries on offense and too reliant on one standout on defense to beat a team that doesn't beat itself.  Iowa was equipped to wear down the Spartan defense, and challenge the Spartan offense to pass the ball down the field by controlling the line of scrimmage.  Purdue is capable of...not getting beat as badly as Minnesota?  Maybe?  A game at Penn State offers a tougher challenge after the emergence of the next (first?) great ginger sports hero.  Matt McGloin looks much more comfortable in the Penn State offense (who wouldn't look comfortable against Michigan's defense.  ZING!) and Happy Valley is probably the second toughest venue in the conference.  Either way, Dantonio's boys squeak out a win to notch the first one loss season since the mid sixties, as well as the first time ever that somebody hasn't dejectedly muttered "when does basketball season start?" before Thanksgiving.

That State University in Ohio (8-1) has been the meal ticket for the Big Ten since about the time Michigan last beat them in 2003.  That has been good (OSU is always in the hunt for the title game) and bad (once in the game OSU becomes the hunted) for the conference's reputation nationally.  This year something has been slightly off in Columbus.  You wouldn't have noticed in the first few weeks as the Buckeyes dispatched three especially tasty cupcakes and survived a barrage of badly thrown Jacory Harris passes (I'm sure knocking out opposing players with errant passes was never part of Randy Shannon's plan, but you never know).  The Big Ten schedule has so far consisted of three equally tasty cupcake games (Minn, Purdue, Indiana), a close call against Illinois, and most dominating performance by a Big Ten team against the Buckeyes since Michigan '03.  Wisconsin jumped out to a quick lead with a huge special teams TD, proceeded to beat up the Buckeyes in the trenches en route to a 21-3 halftime lead.  If Tresselball has a kryptonite it is second half comebacks.  The Ohio State offense struggled to move the ball effectively behind a shell shocked Terrell Pryor, and Wisconsin buried them with a 10 point 4th quarter.  

Is this Buckeye team capable of fighting through its toughest stretch of schedule to capture a share of the conference title?  Is that 8-1 record inflated after beating up on five teams with losing records?

With home games against Penn State and Michigan sandwiched around a trip to Iowa City, it has quickly become time to put up or shut up for the Buckeyes.  My best guess is that they emerge from this stretch 2-1.  While Penn State goes to Columbus with numbers that scream "average" on both sides of the ball, they are rolling in on a three game win streak that is guided by the hot hand of Matt McGloin and has given this team a newfound swagger.  If Penn State can slow the Buckeyes run game and force Pryor to beat them they could give themselves a chance. Iowa is unquestionably the biggest challenge for OSU down the stretch.  Ohio State struggled in the trenches against Wisconsin, and Iowa has the hog-mollies (to borrow one of my favorite Herbstreit phrases from NCAA '09) to push the Buckeyes around.  If Ohio State can survive both these games, don't sleep on Michigan's chances to steal a win.  "But Michigan doesn't play any defense and their players are all 5'6, fast, and made of fine porcelain," you say.  First of all, I heard you the last 10,000 times you said it over the past three months.  However, Michigan's offense is capable of moving the ball on the Buckeyes and the game could turn into a shootout.  Can Terrell Pryor keep up?  Will Tressel be able to adapt to a high scoring game on the fly?  This could be a great game to make a definitive Heisman statement, but which quarterback will make it?  In the end the Buckeyes finish 10-2, the city of Columbus shits a collective brick, and some crazy OSU fan makes a series of highly entertaining Youtube videos that call for Jim Tressel's head on a platter because "down years" are for pussies.

Iowa (7-2) has been playing this game for a while.  Not football mind you, but the kind of football games that contribute to widespread heart disease among the fanbase and drive a team's blogosphere to the kind of insanity that results in crude cartoons and Japanese poetry.  Iowa spent 2008 losing most of its close games and 2009 winning most of its close games.  2010 saw three non-conference foes blown out and one failed comeback against Arizona in the desert.  What followed was a de-pantsing of Penn State, an uncomfortable 4th quarter against Michigan, a Les Miles-esque bit of clock management in close loss to Wisconsin, and two quarters of utter destruction against Michigan State followed by two quarters of easy street.  After all that of course Iowa would spend an entire game against Indiana pissing away red zone opportunities, take the lead late in the 4th, and then escape after Demarlo Belcher dropped the game winning pass in the back of the endzone with 28 seconds left.

So what Iowa team shows up in the final three games?  The team that spent 57 minutes kicking field goals against Indiana or the team that made Michigan State look like Bobby Williams had won a "coach for the day" contest?

First Iowa needs to deal with some demons in the form of just Northwestern (as the kids are calling them these days).  This series has been surprisingly competitive over the past decade and Iowa fans still have a bad taste in their mouth from last year's game when their hopes for an undefeated season buckled like Ricky Stanzi's ankle.  This year the Hawkeyes will win, but it will probably be after another quick start and subsequent collapse by Northwestern.  Can the Hawkeyes beat Ohio State?  Ricky Stanzi and the rest of the Iowa offense is talented enough to score points on the Buckeyes, and the stout defensive line should be able to slow the Buckeye's run game and put the game on Terrell Pryor's back.  He couldn't get the job done in Camp Randall, and Kinnick will be no easier.  Given the Hawkeye's season so far the game at Minnesota will be closer than it should, but nothing is going to save the Gophers from 1-11 (more on that later).

Isn't it just like Wisconsin (8-1) to lose a winnable game in East Lansing and doom any chance of an undefeated season early.  After an uninspired non-conference schedule (UNLV, San Jose St, ASU, Austin Peay) the Badgers walk right into Spartan Stadium and squander three turnover while giving up a punt return touchdown.  A bad day from Scott Tolzien put the Wisconsin offense a step behind and they never recovered.  From there Wisconsin rattled off an easy win against Minnesota and stunned Ohio State.  The Iowa game was an equally impressive win for the Badgers after a back and forth slugfest and a well timed fake punt.  Of course the next game Wisconsin looked like it was asleep for the first half against Purdue before pressing the gas pedal in the second half and winning comfortably.

Will the Badgers stumble in one of the three remaining games against spread offenses?  Will Badger fans be bitter that no one takes them seriously as national championship contender?  Will someone teach me how to Bucky?

(Shoutout to MZone for digging this one up)

Last year the Badgers came within three points of losing to Indiana, and lost to Northwestern in Evanston.  Both these games are in Camp Randall which means a heavy advantage for the Badgers.  However, the Badgers will have to travel to Ann Arbor between those home games, a place with a painful history for Wisconsin fans.  The Wolverine offense could make this game interesting, but the pounding run game of Wisconsin should be enough to ensure a 3-0 record over the final stretch of the season.

--

What does all this mean big picture?  A three way tie at the top with Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State sharing the Big Ten title and MSU going to the Rose Bowl by virtue of tie-breaker.  Dodging Ohio State this year was fortuitous for the Spartans, as it set them up with one of the easiest Big Ten schedules (this also applies to Ohio State who dodged MSU but couldn't take care of business and go undefeated).  This gives the Spartans a month to celebrate before TCU beats them like a red headed step child in a broken home in front of a national TV audience just to stick it to the BCS.  For the record, I don't like any one of the potential Big Ten representatives to the Rose Bowl in a game against TCU.  You never want to play a great team with something to prove (see: USC in either the '04 or '07 Rose Bowl).  If Auburn and Oregon win out to set up a TCU/Big Ten match up, go ahead and gear up for another year of "the Big Ten is overrated" talk.  Trust me.

Can Iowa or Wisconsin steal one of the at-large bids?  That is for the suits to decide.  If it happens, and I imagine that it will, the loser gets a trip to the Capital One Bowl.  This means that Ohio State---for the first time since 2004---will miss a BCS bowl and most likely end up in the Outback Bowl.  If the Big Ten doesn't get the at-large bid it pushes everyone down a notch and lands OSU in the Gator Bowl.

What about the rest of the conference?  More on that later.

(Disclaimer:  You get what you pay for.  If you don't like these predictions, don't like my jokes about your team, or think I am a kool-aid chugging homer for suggesting Michigan has a chance to upset your team (you know who you are Badger and Buckeye fans) I know a certain place you can shove it.  I have watched enough football to believe I am right, while also knowing I could well look like an idiot in three weeks.  This is all in good fun.  However, if I messed up a Big Ten tie-breaker rule or didn't factor in some bowl selection policy, please let  me know.)

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