Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Salvaging the season for Big Ten also-rans
By Brian Bennett
Only four teams -- Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Minnesota -- still have a chance to win the Big Ten title. Two teams, Illinois and Purdue, have been eliminated from bowl contention, while Indiana needs a Hail Mary this week at Ohio State and Northwestern would have to upset Michigan State to have any shot at postseason.
But what about the other four teams? The big prize is gone, but they can still have achieve some milestones. So what's left on the table for these Big Ten also-rans? Let's examine:
In many ways, 2013 is already a success for the Hawkeyes. They're 6-4 after last year's abysmal 4-8 campaign, and they will go back to a bowl.
But this year might look even better in retrospect. Iowa's only losses have all come to ranked teams: Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Michigan comes to Kinnick Stadium this week, followed by the Heroes Game matchup at Nebraska in the finale. The Hawkeyes have a shot at winning both of those, and an 8-4 record would represent a tremendous and poetic turnaround from 2012.
Head coach Brady Hoke terms any season that ends without a Big Ten title resting in Ann Arbor a failure, and there's no question the Wolverines (7-3) have been a major disappointment this season.
But Hoke has mentioned a 10-win season as being a goal left for which to play. His team showed a lot of fight and toughness in battling back to win last week at Northwestern in triple overtime. If Michigan can win in Iowa City this week, it will have at least a little positive momentum going into the finale against Ohio State at home. The chance to ruin the Buckeyes' perfect season in that rivalry showdown will no doubt have the Wolverines fired up to play their best game. A 9-3 record with a win over Ohio State could get Michigan to a nice postseason spot, like a return to the Outback Bowl.
The Huskers (7-3) remain without a conference championship since 1999, and the BCS drought will extend to 12 years. They can still win a share of the Legends Division title, but when that doesn't include a trip to Indianapolis, it rings pretty hollow.
Still, there's a lot on the line for this program in the final two weeks, beginning Saturday at Penn State. Nebraska has a chance to win at least nine games for the sixth consecutive season under Bo Pelini. A rough finish could bring up renewed questions about Pelini's job security in Lincoln. A 9-3 mark would have to be viewed as understandable, given all the injuries the team has faced. A nine-win Nebraska team would also be attractive to the bowls.
There's no postseason possibility for the Nittany Lions, of course. But Penn State (6-4) has a chance to paint this season in a positive light despite some ugly losses.
Winning on Senior Day would be huge for a program that is on probation and provide a great sendoff to those players who stuck around through the sanctions. Penn State could match last year's record by winning out (the finale is at Wisconsin) or finish with a winning season by taking one of the final two. Given all the roster limitations, ending up with a winning record is no small feat, and it could help Bill O'Brien's recruiting efforts.