- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Kentucky Derby is Saturday, which is about all anyone in my hometown can talk about this week. (And if you've never been here for the Derby, put that near the top of your bucket list).
Anyway, since I've had one eye on the racing form for the past few days, I got to thinking about how the Big Ten would be handicapped if it were a horse race. Get your mint juleps ready, because I think it might go a little something like this ...
Michigan: 6-to-1 odds
The Wolverines are the hot horse now, at least in the mind of the general public, after an 11-2 season and Sugar Bowl win in 2011. They certainly have the pedigree to win the Big Ten derby. But they also face a potentially bumpy trip (Alabama, at Notre Dame, at Nebraska, at Ohio State) to the finish line. That's why I have them at somewhat tepid offs for a favorite -- er, make that the co-favorite.
Michigan State: 6-to-1
You have to like the past performances, as the Spartans have put together back-to-back double-digit win seasons, and they have looked strong this spring in workouts despite needing a new jockey to replace Kirk Cousins. They've beaten Michigan to the wire four straight times, so there's that. There could be a photo finish between these two stablemates in 2012.
Some see the Badgers as too much of a plodder, but they've won the Run for the Rose(s) Bowl two years in a row. With its offensive line and Montee Ball in the backfield, you know this contender can run all day. And Wisconsin appears to have an easier path to the home stretch because its division may not be as top-loaded.
The Cornhuskers moved to a new circuit and endured a sometimes bumpy ride in 2011. That experience could prepare them for a stronger run this time around. They get a favorable draw, with Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State coming to Lincoln, and they have the epitome of a war horse in Rex Burkhead.
Penn State: 15-to-1
The wild card in this race. The Nittany Lions get a new trainer (Bill O'Brien) and a new running style (the Patriots offense) for the first time in ages. This has felt like a program sitting on a big race. Enviable post position (Wisconsin and Ohio State at home, no Michigan or Michigan State on the schedule) could lead to a surprise victory.
This is a young but potentially frisky colt. The Hawkeyes have undergone major equipment changes for the first time under Kirk Ferentz (new coordinators on both sides of the ball) and may not have the horses in the backfield to go the distance. But Ferentz has made many a handicapper look silly in the past.
The wiseguy pick as a potential upset special. The Boilermakers broke their maiden under Danny Hope, finally making a bowl game last year, and looked healthy and sharp during the spring prep season. They're still facing a jump in class, but don't be shocked to see them at least hit the board in this race.
Ownership changed trainers (from Ron Zook to Tim Beckman) after some disappointing finishes. This talented contender was a big-time pacesetter last year (6-0 start) but faded badly down the stretch (0-6 regular-season finish). Perhaps some new training methods will help and the defense sure looks great in the paddock. But past performance indicates this is an underachiever.
Always good for an upset or two along the way, the question remains whether these Wildcats are a one-trick pony (all offense, little defense). Plus, the traffic from the Legends Division seems a little too heavy for a clean trip.
The Gophers showed decent closing skills last season, beating Iowa and Illinois in the second half of the year after a horrid start. Jerry Kill has a strong track record of bringing his charges along. Yet this still remains a longshot that might need another year or two of training (and recruiting) to be a real contender.
The Hoosiers didn't belong in the field last year, going 0-11 against FBS competition. They should stay a little closer to the pack this time around, but a victory in this race would be even more shocking than Mine That Bird or Giacomo winning the real Derby.
Ohio State: Scratched
DQ by the NCAA stewards. The Buckeyes are gearing up for 2013, when they might just be the favorites.
So there's how I'd write the program. What kind of odds would you give to each team, and who would you put money on in 2012?
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