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College Teams Mon Nov 28 2011

Big Ten Football: Hail Sparty, Bucky

Thumbnail image for big ten divisions vertical.JPGAll in all, it's been hard to take Big Ten football seriously this year.

That's not to say it hasn't been entertaining; this season could affectionately be described as Everybody Beating Up On Everybody. But as thrilling as the mayhem has been, it's also left us scrambling for solid answers as we gear up for the first Big Ten championship game next weekend.

Here's what we know: Michigan State (10-2, 7-1) and Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2) are headed Indianapolis to square off in the most highly anticipated rematch this side of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. You may recall the last time the two met up, the Spartans won on a last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass.

At that point, this rematch seemed a foregone conclusion: No team in the Big Ten was playing as well as these two teams. And the following week, both of them lost.

Since their humbling loss at Nebraska, the Spartans have won four straight, including a two-touchdown win on the road against Iowa and this weekend's 31-17 drubbing of 6-6 Northwestern. They'll likely be favored next weekend.

But despite two late-game missteps in October, the Badgers have their own momentum brewing. They beat No. 19 Penn State (9-3, 6-2) this weekend to earn a title-game berth, and they did so convincingly, responded after an early Nittany Lions touchdown with 45 unanswered points to win 45-7. Even though they share first place in the Leaders Division, there was no doubt Saturday about which team deserved to win the tiebreaker as the Badgers ran over, under and through the supposedly staunch Penn State defense.

But while Michigan State will have their hands full in Indianapolis, it's interesting to consider what the conference would look like had it not made the leap to a 12-team league with a championship game.

Michigan State only has one conference loss, so they would have won the championship outright. However, the Badgers would be in a three-way tie with the Nittany Lions (whom they still would have had the tiebreaker over) and the Michigan Wolverines (10-2, 6-2). Michigan has not had an opportunity to play either Wisconsin or Penn State this year.

Michigan's two losses came on the road at Michigan State and on the road against the unpredictable Iowa Hawkeyes (7-5, 4-4). Since then, the Wolverines have put together an impressive three-game stretch that includes a win on the road against Illinois, a 45-17 dismantling of then-No. 16 Nebraska, and this week's 40-34 win against rival Ohio State (6-6, 3-5).

So while they will miss out on the championship game because of their two-touchdown loss in East Lansing, Michigan's likely climb into the top 15 in the BCS ranking gives them an outside shot at being selected as an at-large bid for a BCS game. In all, it's not a bad position for Brady Hoke's team, especially considering this was still supposed to be a rebuilding year. Their offense has looked as explosive and impressive as any in the Big Ten, but their punishing defense has been the real surprise.

The team that doesn't receive as much consolation is No. 21 Nebraska (9-3, 5-3). Despite their workmanlike 20-7 shutdown of Iowa on Friday, the Cornhuskers are left in flux. After entering the conference with aspirations of the Rose Bowl or better, they are now likely going to play in a bowl game sometime before Jan. 1. All this because when the Huskers lost, they lost bad: a 48-17 laugher at Wisconsin, a 45-17 laugher at Michigan, and an embarrassing loss at home to Northwestern.

The loss to Northwestern was widely interpreted as a rude, belated welcome statement from the Big Ten, because unlike the Big 12 from whence they came, the Big Ten affords no days off. Or it affords only two, as this season 10 of the conference's 12 teams have achieved bowl eligibility.

Of them, the two biggest surprise teams are Purdue (6-6, 4-4) and Illinois (6-6, 2-6). While Purdue flirted with hopes of a division championship just a few short weeks ago, they took care of business against Indiana (1-11, 0-8) Saturday, 33-25, to wrap up a .500 season.

Illinois is on the other side of things. After polishing off what looked like the most impressive non-conference slate and starting the season 6-0, they've dropped each of their six games since and are backing into a potential bowl game after losing yet another: a 27-7 loss in Minnesota (3-9, 2-6), of all places.

Really, there's no question why head coach Ron Zook was fired. That's one of the few certainties we've arrived at over the last three months of football. Everything else seems unsatisfying, because the conference is in an awkward position. Ten of its 12 teams are bowl-eligible, yet none are in any real conversation for the BCS championship. Which begs a legitimate question--is the Big Ten that good to have defeated national champion-caliber teams within its own schedule, or is the Big Ten that poor that nobody should be in a conversation about teams with national recognition?

The end of the regular season has given us answers about the true quality of Illinois, about the staying power of Northwestern and quarterback Dan Persa, about Michigan's new regime under Brady Hoke, and about the potential of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. We now know exactly how well Nebraska and their mobile quarterback can handle a rigorous Big Ten schedule, and we know how important home field advantage can be. But the rest of our questions--about how well the Big Ten stacks up against the rest of the conferences--will only now be answered as the 10 qualifying teams strap it up against 10 outsiders.

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