Monday, October 31, 2011
Big Ten race update: Week 10
By Adam Rittenberg
If the Big Ten title race has your head spinning, you're not alone.
We know two teams will meet Dec. 3 in Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten championship game, but forecasting which squads head to Naptown is no easy task. Right now, each division features three primary contenders (sorry, Iowa and Illinois).
- Penn State (8-1, 5-0)
- Wisconsin (6-2, 2-2)
- Ohio State (5-3, 2-2)
- Nebraska (7-1, 3-1)
- Michigan (7-1, 3-1)
- Michigan State (6-2, 3-1)
The team with the most direct path, Penn State, seemingly has the toughest remaining schedule of any contender (Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin). While Penn State holds a two-and-a-half game lead in the Leaders Division over both Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Lions can't go on cruise control.
The Legends Division race is more convoluted as three teams -- Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan -- are tied for first place at 3-1. I wrote several weeks ago that the team within this group that can win on the road has the best chance of heading to Indianapolis. Michigan has stumbled at Michigan State and Michigan State has stumbled at Nebraska. If the Huskers find a way to win in the Big House on Nov. 19, don't be surprised to see them in Indy two weeks later.
A lot of you are asking about the tiebreakers, and we'll explore them more as things continue to shake out. Here's the full breakdown. The thing to remember: division games really matter. For example, if Nebraska has to lose one game the rest of the way, falling to Penn State would be better than falling to Michigan.
In an effort to break down the division races and these six teams during my flight home from Columbus, I looked at the remaining schedules and made two lists: most likely to win out and most likely to lose twice. I'd be very surprised if a team with three conference losses has a chance to go to the title game.
In compiling these lists, I took into account several factors such as game site, how a team is performing right now and when certain players return from injuries/suspensions.
LIST No. 1: MOST LIKELY TO WIN OUT
1. Wisconsin (Purdue and Penn State at home; Minnesota and Illinois on road)
2. Michigan State (Minnesota and Indiana at home; Iowa and Northwestern on road)
3. Ohio State (Indiana and Penn State at home; Purdue and Michigan on road)
4. Michigan (Nebraska and Ohio State at home; Iowa and Illinois on road)
5. Nebraska (Northwestern at Iowa at home; Penn State and Michigan on road)
6. Penn State (Nebraska at home, Ohio State and Wisconsin on road)
We can debate these rankings -- and I trust that you will -- but it helps shape how I think the races will play out. Despite losing Saturday, Wisconsin and Michigan State clearly have the easiest remaining schedules. Ohio State has the mojo and gets Penn State at home before visiting archrival Michigan, a team it has dominated recently. Michigan has no gimme games left, although the Wolverines' two toughest contests are at home. Nebraska and Penn State are at the bottom because they have the toughest remaining road schedules.
LIST No. 2: MOST LIKELY TO LOSE TWO GAMES
1. Penn State
4. Ohio State
6. Michigan State
Again, not to rip on Joe Paterno's crew, but I don't see Penn State winning in Madison. Could the Lions beat both Nebraska and Ohio State? Sure. But a 1-1 split seems more likely. While Michigan might have a better chance of winning out than Nebraska, Brady Hoke's crew has no easy games given the sites and could easily fall twice. Michigan State might lose once on the road but should handle its other games, while Wisconsin could fall to Illinois and Penn State.
Based on these lists, I wouldn't be shocked to see a Wisconsin-Michigan State rematch in Indianapolis. I also wouldn't be surprised if Penn State, Ohio State, Nebraska or Michigan made it to Lucas Oil Stadium, either. Nothing should surprise us about this league right now.
There's a very long way to go, and a lot will change from now until Nov. 26.