At the start of the season the Notebook picked Penn State to win the Big Ten, so I suppose that is about the last place you would expect the Nittany Lions to be called an unlikely leader. But if there was ever a prediction that managed to be both right and wrong simulataneously this one is it. The Nittany Lion offense is woeful and the wins ugly–they survived Illinois on Saturday in spite of fumbling seven times–but they’re sitting on 5-0 and a two-game lead in the Leaders Division as the toughest part of their schedule beckons.
Wisconsin and Ohio State are both two games back of Joe Paterno’s team and both get a head-to-head crack at the Lions. PSU also has to play Nebraska. The Badgers have become the Big Ten’s version of the San Diego Chargers. You approach every game thinking they’re set to run their opponent off the field, but then the middling defense and woeful special teams combine with an astonishing inability to make the key play and a loss ends up as the result. Ohio State has hung in there and Braxton Miller is getting better, but it’s still tough to imagine them winning their last four, as will likely be necessary to take the division title. Right now the safest bet is that the Leaders race will come down to Penn State-Wisconsin in Madison on Thanksgiving Saturday.
The Leaders Division is even more wide-open, with Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan all deadlocked at 3-1. The Cornhuskers have the edge right now because they’ve beaten Michigan State and still have Michigan ahead. The Spartans win over the Wolverines would give them the inside track should Nebraska lose to either the UM or Penn State in November. And don’t forget Iowa–the Hawkeyes may have lost to Minnesota, but they’re one game back and have the leaders still on the schedule. Then again they did lose to Minnesota so how realistic is it to expect a November surge?
As we look at the overall major bowl picture, the Big Ten has gotten used to putting two teams into BCS games, having done so every year since 2006, when a separate BCS National Championship Game was created and the number of at-large bids expanded to four. That streak is in serious jeopardy this year, with Boise State, the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 all in position to grab the bonus bids. This in turn puts the squeeze on the race for New Year’s Day slots, when the Big Ten goes head-to-head with the SEC in three games (Capital One, Outback and Gator). All seven teams that are still contention for the conference title are natually in the hunt for these spots, and you can’t rule out Illinois at 6-3, especially if the Illini knock off Wisconsin and win their final three games. The big questions on the bowl bubble are with Purdue at 4-4 and Northwestern at 3-5. The league only has eight commitments to fill, and with a BCS at-large less likely this season it looks like the Big Ten will fill all their spots. The top seven are either in the Rose or against the SEC & Big 12, while the #8 choice gets the privilege of going to Ford Field to play in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl against a top MAC team.
Wisconsin’s last-second losses have not only opened the conference race to all comers, but it’s prevented the Player of the Year race from being a walk for Russell Wilson. This isn’t really fair as the Badger quarterback has delivered back-to-back electrifying rallies from double-digit deficits, only to see the defense give it back in the closing seconds. Wilson has certainly been knocked out of the Heisman race, and it’s possible that he could be challenged for Big Ten POY. The problem with any challenge is that the most likely alternate candidacies would come from his own teammate in Montee Ball, or quarterbacks Denard Robinson at Michigan and Kirk Couisins of Michigan State, each who have had some bad games. The guess here is that Wilson is still a solid frontrunner to at least win league honors.