Big Ten: what-we-learned-112711

Five lessons from the final week of regular-season play in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson
AP Photo/Morry GashRussell Wilson and Wisconsin have emerged as a power in the Big Ten and are headed to a rematch with Michigan State.
1. The dream rematch is set: Wisconsin and Michigan State treated us to one of the most exciting games of the college football season Oct. 22 in East Lansing. Many folks wanted more, and they're going to get it as the Badgers and Spartans will meet again Saturday in the inaugural Big Ten football championship. The Big Ten has endured a rough 11 months both on and off the field, but the league should be celebrating as its best two teams will share a stage at Lucas Oil Stadium. While controversy hovers above two of the Big Ten's signature programs, Wisconsin and Michigan State have emerged as new powers in the league. Both teams went 4-0 in November and won impressively when they needed to, punching their ticket to Indy. If the rematch is anything like the first meeting, we're in for a treat.

2. Michigan State is peaking at the perfect time: Michigan State heads to Indianapolis as the Big Ten's hottest team, riding a wave of confidence after a perfect 4-0 performance in November, including two impressive road wins (Iowa and Northwestern). Rather than ease off the gas in a game it didn't need to win against Northwestern, the Spartans continued to perform in fifth gear, making big plays in all three phases during a 31-17 victory that clinched the Legends division title outright. Senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and his dangerous receiving corps are hitting their stride, as Michigan State converted 8 of 12 third-down attempts and connected for two second-half touchdown passes on third-and-long to pull away. Keshawn Martin is showing why he's among the Big Ten's most dangerous weapons, both on offense and on special teams, and Jerel Worthy leads a strong defensive effort that recorded six sacks on Saturday. Michigan State didn't lose momentum in Evanston and will be a very tough team to beat this week at Lucas Oil Stadium.

3. Michigan is BCS-worthy: Is Michigan the best team in the Big Ten? No. The Wolverines lost claim to that title by losing to Michigan State and Iowa. Is Michigan the second-best team in the Big Ten? Maybe not. But Brady Hoke's club has done everything it could have reasonably been expected to do this year in finishing 10-2 and finally ending a seven-game losing streak to Ohio State. That should be enough to get the Maize and Blue ranked in the top 14 of the final BCS standings and for Michigan to earn an at-large bid to a BCS game, quite possibly the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Remember that outside of the national title game and conference tie-ins, the BCS slots aren't really a meritocracy. Those bowls are about creating the most interesting and attractive matchups possible. The Wolverines ended the season on a three-game winning streak, are exciting to watch with Denard Robinson, Fitz Toussaint and an improved defense and have a great story as a blue-chip program back on the rise. All of that should add up to the Big Ten's second BCS bid this year.

4. The Blackshirts can put it all together: Black Friday brought out the best from the Blackshirts, as Nebraska turned in quite possibly its most dominating defensive performance of the season. The Huskers finally played their A-game as all three phases of the defense stepped up to completely shut down a good Iowa offense in Lincoln. Stars like Alfonzo Dennard and Lavonte David performed brilliantly, but they received plenty of help from the supporting cast as Nebraska nearly handed Iowa its first shutout loss since Oct. 14, 2000. Nebraska held Iowa off the board for more than 56 minutes and made star receiver Marvin McNutt a nonfactor. It had been an up-and-down season for the defense, which came in with supreme confidence and lofty expectations but struggled through much of the season. The win likely seals a good Florida bowl game for Nebraska, which will be in good shape if its defense replicates Friday's performance in the Sunshine State.

5. Purdue is going bowling, while Illinois might not be: Purdue's 33-25 win over Indiana made the Boilermakers bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. While Purdue hasn't dominated this season and its fans don't seem to have truly embraced Danny Hope, it is still in a lot better shape than Illinois. The 6-6 Illini ended the season on a six-game losing streak, including Saturday's ugly 27-7 loss at Minnesota. With no enthusiasm around the program and a potential coaching change in the works, Illinois would likely get left out of the Big Ten bowl picture now that the league has 10 bowl teams and nine tie-ins, assuming Michigan gets a second BCS bid. Purdue is much more attractive, having won two of its final three and with a win over Illinois to boot. The Illini could still find an open spot somewhere as an at-large invitee, but it wouldn't be surprising if they got passed over completely.

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