Big Ten Bowl Projections

The Big Ten football race has taken some early shape, with the Leaders Division having a clear…well, leader, in Ohio State. The Legends Division race is considerably more fluid. In the meantime, there’s angling for possible at-large spots to the BCS, to good New Year’s Day bowl games and to bowl eligibility itself. TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage will touch on some key overview points and then make some Big Ten bowl projections.

Ohio State’s push for an undefeated season and a possible trip to the BCS National Championship Game on January 7 in Pasadena is the league’s big story, but there are four other items worthy of note at the season’s halfway point…

*At the start of the year it looked like the Leaders Division would be top-heavy with Ohio State, while the Legends Division would be deeper in quality, thanks to Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and Michigan State. It turns out the Leaders Division might have a leg up on both counts, thanks to Wisconsin blowing out Northwestern and Penn State knocking off Michigan. There’s still plenty of time for the Legends to rally, but the excitement of their division race has the look of thrills based on shared mediocrity.

*The Big Ten did not get an at-large bid to the BCS a year ago, a rare occurrence for a conference whose brand power gives it the benefit of the doubt in close decisions by bowl executives. If we assume Ohio State is going to roll to the league title and the automatic bid, that puts the at-large focus squarely on Wisconsin. The Badgers might be just 4-2, but the schedule is in their favor and six straight wins to close the year almost surely puts them in one of the league’s marquee games.

*BCS at-large hopes have a ripple effect, as it moves everybody up one slot on the league’s bowl ladder. With Penn State still on probation, this puts the league’s ability to fill all of its automatic spots at risk. While I’m sure no one is complaining about a possible Fiesta Bowl payday from Wisconsin risking the loss of Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl money at the bottom of the ladder, it’s still something that Big Ten bowl projections have to take into account and heightens the pressure on the league’s borderline bowl teams.

There are seven teams we can realistically chalk in as automatics for bowl eligibility–Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska, Michigan, Northwestern, and I’m going to include Indiana. Maybe “automatic” is too strong a word, but the Hoosiers need three wins and have three games they will be favored in ahead of them. They are also good enough to spring an upset. I’ve got them on the list of teams that will make it.

That leaves at least one bid, and perhaps two, pending the BCS at-large situation to fill, and three teams that are viable–Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. The Gophers and Hawkeyes are both 4-2, but with very difficult schedules ahead and if you assume the likely favorite wins each game, neither school would make it.

We know that chalk doesn’t hold in college football, especially with teams like Iowa and Minnesota fighting for bowl spots–which is why I think at least one will make it–but be aware of the hill each school has to climb.

Illinois is 3-2 and has four games at home–but those four are Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Northwestern. There are road games with Penn State and Indiana. Even the Purdue game is on the road and the league’s one also-ran has already pushed Notre Dame to the max in West Lafayette. Illinois has rebounded after a disastrous 2012 season, but it requires  big leap of faith to find three more wins in this schedule.

That’s the landscape as we head into the games of October 19. Here’s TheSportsNotebook’s current Big Ten bowl projections. By each one I’ve included a potential opponent, which is not an official pick (though we did SEC bowl projections last week), but just something to stir the pot on games that might be ahead in December and January.

Rose: Ohio State
BCS At-Large: Wisconsin (Texas, in Fiesta)
Capital One: Michigan (SEC #2: Texas A&M)
Outback: Michigan State (SEC #4: Georgia)
Buffalo Wild Wings: Nebraska (Big 12 #4: Oklahoma State)
Gator: Northwestern (SEC #6: Missouri)
Meineke Car Care: Iowa (Big 12 #6: TCU)
Heart Of Dallas: Indiana (CUSA #4: Rice)
Little Caesars Pizza: No eligible team (MAC #1: Northern Illinois)