Big Ten second-half preview

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
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A BCS title is out of the question for the Big Ten. An eighth straight BCS at-large bid also seems unlikely. But that doesn't mean the second half will be a snoozefest for the league.

In fact, more teams' fan bases have reason to stay alert during the second half than in years past. That's because the race for the Rose Bowl -- still the Holy Grail for this conference -- looks as wide open as it's ever been.

Fans of Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern can all make a case for why their team will win the Legends Division, and even Michigan State isn't out of the picture yet. While Wisconsin looks like a lock to make the Big Ten championship game out of the Leaders side, Ohio State and Penn State can still officially win the division title. The Buckeyes will try to go undefeated and build a case to finish No. 1 in The Associated Press poll, while quarterback Braxton Miller pursues a Heisman Trophy. The Nittany Lions' seniors will continue to play like the whole world's against them and try to leave a unique legacy at the school.

Minnesota is behind the eight ball in the Legends Division race, but needs only two more wins to reach its first bowl game in three years. Purdue has stumbled, but can make the Leaders race interesting if it can get back on track -- or we might be seeing the beginning of the end for Danny Hope in West Lafayette. Indiana has come agonizingly close to some big wins, and the Hoosiers should gain their first conference victory since 2010 if they keep scratching and clawing. As for Illinois, well, there's always next year.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThere's no national title at stake, but Denard Robinson and the Wolverines could find themselves heading to the Rose Bowl at season's end.
The margin of separation between the teams has probably never been this close, which is why you can see Ohio State escaping Indiana by only three points or Iowa losing to Central Michigan at home but beating Michigan State on the road. Virtually anything is possible in the league these last seven weeks.

A BCS championship isn't one of those possibilities. But that's no reason to tune out now.

Bold prediction: Michigan goes to the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines' absence from the initial BCS standings will soon be corrected, and a long winning streak will put them back in position for a second straight BCS at-large bid. But the Maize and Blue -- whose defense has steadily improved while the offense has smartly re-emphasized Denard Robinson's running skills -- won't need to go that route once they beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Robinson will end his unprecedented career in Pasadena.

Looking forward to: Ohio State's quest for perfection. The Legends Division race figures to be wild and woolly, but the Buckeyes' goal of finishing 12-0 should provide the best storyline. Many of Ohio State's games have been roller-coaster rides, and Miller has had to play the hero several times to bail out a shaky defense. The Buckeyes are talented enough to win the rest of their games, but will get stern tests at Penn State, at Wisconsin and versus Michigan in the finale.

Top five games

Michigan at Nebraska, Oct. 27: This game could determine the Legends champion. Nebraska has struggled against mobile quarterbacks and spread offenses, which could spell doom against Robinson. But the Cornhuskers are a different team at home and are looking to go 2-for-2 in avenging last year’s road blowouts after defeating Wisconsin earlier this year.

Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 27: Call it the Ineligi-Bowl if you like, but it may also be a showdown of the two best teams in the Leaders Division. The Buckeyes could well be 8-0 heading into a frenzied environment in State College, and a win at home could make Penn State's season.

Ohio State at Wisconsin, Nov. 17: Bret Bielema and Urban Meyer have played down their offseason dustup, but that figures to be a hot topic again leading into this one. There's not a lot of love lost between the two staffs, and both teams are known for keeping their foot on the gas pedal even if the game gets out of hand. Should be a blast.

Nebraska at Iowa, Nov. 23: There wasn't a whole lot on the line in last year's first Heroes Game, but that could change this year. Iowa is currently tied atop the standings in the Legends, while Nebraska remains very much in the hunt. Wouldn't it be fun if a possible division title was at stake on Black Friday in Iowa City?

Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 24: This one is always circled on the calendar, but this year's game could be the biggest edition of the rivalry since 2006. It's the first of hopefully many meetings between Brady Hoke and Meyer and could be the beginning of a Big Ten superpower race for years to come. Michigan could need the game for the Legends title and might look to spoil a perfect season for the Buckeyes. And Robinson versus Miller will be a treat.

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