With the bulk of the Big Ten conference season starting this weekend*, it is time to fast forward to December 7 when the Big Ten Championship game will be contested in Indianapolis.
*Yeah, I realize that Purdue and Wisconsin got things started last week. But Bo Pelini’s audio archives got me a little distracted. Besides, it’s not like the no-so-surprising outcome of Boilermaker v. Badger was going to alter my predictions.
How did I do last year? Let’s say it was a mixed bag. I was right with Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, but missed badly on Purdue, Penn State, and Michigan State.
While I’m excited for conference play to start up, I’m very, very excited to have this be the last, painful year of Legends and Leaders. Farewell, pompous, non-descriptive names. You won’t be missed.
Here is how the Big Ten teams will finish this year:
1. Michigan State. I believe in the old football cliché that “defense wins championships” and the best defense in the division (if not the conference) resides in East Lansing. I understand that the Spartan offense is truly offensive, but I think they can get to Indy in spite of their offense. Husker fans can tell you that their 2009 team had a dominating defense and a dysfunctional train wreck of an offense. They scored just enough to make it to the Big XII Championship game, and nearly knocked off heavily favored Texas.
In addition to their strong defense, Michigan State’s schedule is very favorable. They get Michigan at home and their cross-over games (Indiana and Purdue at home, at Illinois) are as easy as they come. The challenge will be not falling apart at the end of the season when they go to Nebraska and Northwestern back to back.
2. Michigan. Yes, Michigan almost lost to Akron and UConn, but all that really matters is how they’re playing when they host Nebraska and travel to Michigan State. If they get their issues figured out – and my guess is that Brady Hoke is up to the task – the Wolverines could pick up steam in October and November. Michigan may have the most talent in the division. If they can get it all going they’ll be in the hunt.
Just think: this could be the year where Michigan needs to beat Ohio State to secure the division title and a rematch with the Buckeyes in Indianapolis. That sound you hear is Jim Delaney getting sick in the corner.
3. Nebraska. Remember how I said “defense wins championships”? If Nebraska’s defense was mediocre to average, they’d be the favorite. Unfortunately, the Blackshirts have several large holes – namely, they struggle to stop the run, are allowing 67% of passes to be completed, and have issues with tackling. On the flip side, the offense is as potent as any in the league and their kicking game should be solid. The health of QB Taylor Martinez – and more specifically, when or if Pelini plays a backup – could be crucial.
For the Huskers to have a shot, they need to go at least 3-1 in November (Northwestern, at Michigan, Michigan State, and Iowa). It’s doable, but I’m not sure how many Husker fans honestly think it will happen.
4. Northwestern. I really like what Pat Fitzgerald is doing at Northwestern. I have a lot of respect for the program he’s built, and where they are going. I would really like to put them higher on this list, as I think they’ll be a good team. However, I feel their schedule (crossing over with Ohio State and at Wisconsin, plus a three game stretch of Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State) will be their undoing. Give the Wildcats the conference schedule that Nebraska is playing, and they go to Indy.
5. Iowa. Last year, I couldn’t pull the trigger on putting the Hawkeyes in the cellar. This year I want to do it even more, but I still can’t do it. Make no mistake, this is more about Minnesota (and their nasty schedule) than it is about the improvements Iowa has made to their 2012 team that went 2-6 in conference. On the off-chance that Iowa is in the hunt come November, playing Michigan and Nebraska back-to-back should take care of that.
6. Minnesota. Want to know why I have the Gophers picked last? They start off the conference slate with their Iowa rivalry game, then play at Michigan and at Northwestern. They finish up with Penn State and Wisconsin at home, and then at Michigan State. That is a tough stretch. I don’t know if Minnesota has the talent or experience to survive that gauntlet.
1. Ohio State. At the beginning of the season, there was Ohio State, a noticeable pause, and then everybody else. Then QB Braxton Miller missed two games with an injury, giving hope to the rest of the division. But after backup QB Kenny Guiton threw for 10 touchdowns in those two games, the other teams said “Oh. Crap. Who wants to talk about basketball?”
The Buckeyes have talent, experience, and the confident swagger from going 12-0 last year. Plus, it’s not like the Leaders Division is going to be confused with the SEC West. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Ohio State has the division title locked up well before they play Michigan.
2. Wisconsin. Even with a new coach, bet against the reigning league champs at your own risk. They have a pretty easy cross-over schedule (at Iowa, at Minnesota, Northwestern at home), which could help them. But Wisconsin’s best hope to get back to Indianapolis will be to upset Ohio State in Columbus. Should the Badgers pull the upset, they would be in the driver’s seat to play in their third straight championship game.
3. Penn State. After sitting out last year, the Nitany Lions are once again eligible for the championship game. They have some tough cross-over games (Michigan and Nebraska) but both are at home. Until their scholarships are fully restored, depth will continue to be a concern.
4. Indiana / Illinois (tie). Admittedly, this is a bit of a cop-out. I couldn’t decide which team should be 4th and who should be 5th, but I think it also speaks to the rebuilding efforts at these two schools. Both are showing some signs of life with strong offenses (Indiana is averaging almost 45 points per game; Illinois is over 30 per game), and notable wins (Illinois’s 45-17 thumping of Cincinnati certainly got noticed).
Indiana has the harder schedule, with back to back trips to Michigan State and Michigan following a game with Penn State. But the tie breaker between these two schools will likely be the head to head match up, which is in Bloomington.
6. Purdue. Purdue is already has three losses, one of which was to Wisconsin last week. It’s worth noting that their lone win was over Indiana State of the FCS – and only by six points. For reference, the Hoosiers beat Indiana State 73-35. At this point, I’ll be shocked if Purdue gets out of the cellar. Only those with strong stomachs should plan to watch when Iowa travels to Purdue in November.
My prediction is the Big 10 Championship game will pit Ohio State against Michigan State. I like Ohio State to win that game by two touchdowns.