Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Big Ten impact game: Leaders Division
By Adam Rittenberg
After looking at the Legends Division's impact game (Michigan State at Michigan) earlier today, it's time to shift the focus to the Leaders Division.
Half of the matchup is fairly obvious. After winning back-to-back Big Ten titles and reaching back-to-back Rose Bowls, Wisconsin has to be there. The Badgers are the clear-cut favorite to win the Leaders, in part because Ohio State is banned from the postseason this year and both Penn State and Illinois are welcoming new coaches.
So which Wisconsin game will have the biggest impact?
My pick: Wisconsin at Penn State, Nov. 24
While it's tempting to pick Ohio State-Wisconsin, which could pair the division's two strongest teams, an impact game should have two participants competing for a championship, not one. So that game is eliminated. Penn State and Purdue appear to have the best chance to challenge Wisconsin for the division title, and the Badgers visit both State College and West Lafayette this season. It's a close call between the two road trips, but Penn State gets the nod for several reasons.
The Lions are going through a historic transition to new coach Bill O'Brien, but their schedule sets up well for a team that undoubtedly will be stronger in November than in September. The non-league portion isn't overly taxing, and Penn State likely won't face a ranked team until Ohio State visits Beaver Stadium in Week 9. If the defense and running game can carry the team -- as it did during the first two-thirds of the 2011 season -- Penn State could be in very good shape by the time the Buckeyes come to town. The schedule gets tougher after Ohio State with trips to Purdue and Nebraska, but don't be surprised if Penn State finds itself in the race.
It'd be surprising if any Leaders Division team runs the table, and the division champ could have two league losses, as Wisconsin did a year ago. Whether or not Penn State is the team pushing the Badgers at the end, Wisconsin could need a victory in State College to punch its return ticket to Indy. The matchup features two star running backs in Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Penn State's Silas Redd and two standout linebacker pairings (Penn State's Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti; Wisconsin's Mike Taylor and Chris Borland). The game could have an interesting subplot if quarterback transfer Danny O'Brien starts for Wisconsin, as he picked the Badgers over Penn State.
There should be several big Leaders Division games along the way, but the best could be the last.