CHICAGO -- When Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema served as Kansas State's defensive coordinator in 2003, the Wildcats opened Big 12 play with back-to-back losses against Texas and Oklahoma State.
Bielema assumed K-State's league championship hopes were finished.
"I remember being depressed as a young coach, I didn't really know what to do," Bielema said. "[Head coach Bill Snyder], who's been through it a million times, came in and said, 'Hey, we still have a chance to win our division, get to the championship game and get to a BCS game.' And that's exactly what happened."
Kansas State won its final six league games, including all five against Big 12 North division opponents. The Wildcats advanced to the league championship game and crushed Oklahoma to advance to the Fiesta Bowl.
"If [the losses] had been against two teams from our division, it would never have happened," Bielema said.
While Big Ten fans have to familiarize themselves with the divisions and the increased importance of division games in the championship race, Bielema has a firm grasp on it from his Kansas State days. Illinois coach Ron Zook knows the drill, too, after serving as Florida's boss in the SEC East division.
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson comes to the Hoosiers from Oklahoma, which won a Big 12 South division tiebreaker last year and faced Bo Pelini's Nebraska Cornhuskers in the championship game. Wilson and Pelini both enter the Big Ten with knowledge of division play.
"I'm coming from a conference where for seven years I was in a championship game, and I thought it was pretty exciting," Wilson said. "A couple years from now, with two weeks left, instead of two or three teams jockeying, there are going to be four or five or six teams, two or three in one [division], two or three in another, maybe one or two teams controlling their destiny, maybe one or two big matchups coming.
"That's a pretty good deal."
Will Big Ten fans catch onto the difference with division play?
"They're going to want to win every game," Bielema said. "They're not going to change the way they think. But the fans who take the time and look at the details of how you've got to get to a championship game and hopefully to a BCS game will benefit."