The Big Ten’s 7 Contenders

This superconference thing is working out well for the Big Ten so far in their first year of a division split and championship game. Seven teams have very viable chances of winning the conference title in Indianapolis on December 3, whereas only 2-3 would have a shot under the classic format. The Leaders Division is headed by Penn State, who is two games up on Wisconsin and Ohio State, but still has both rivals ahead of them. The Legends Division has Michigan State plus a game on the trio of Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska. Let’s take a brief look at all seven…

Penn State: On the surface the division lead looks comfortable, but nothing Penn State does on the football field looks comfortable. This team has mastered the art of winning ugly, but there’s nothing lucky about running the ball well with sophomore back Silas Redd, playing mistake-free and using that formula to win close games. PSU won’t sweep its final three–Nebraska is also on the slate, but nor do they need to for a ticket to Indy.**

Wisconsin: The Badgers used to use the formula Penn State is relying upon, but for 2011 they’ve shifted to a San Diego Chargers approach. They can score on anyone from anywhere and when things are clicking, they annihilate people. But the defense is a little suspect, and if a game stays close, the special teams are atrocious. UW will be favored in all remaining games, but they need help if their season finale against Penn State will be for a division title.

Ohio State: The return of Dan Herron in the backfield has brought a running game back and Braxton Miller is using his own running ability to give Ohio State a viable offense. The defense was solid from the get-go. It’s tough to see how the Buckeyes win a championship throwing for less than 100 yards a game, but if they win out, and Penn State loses to either Nebraska or Wisconsin, OSU would be an unlikely division winner.

Michigan State: Since that epic win over Wisconsin, the Spartans have been asleep at the wheel two straight weeks. They lost at Nebraska decisively which was understandable. They struggled past Minnesota at home last week, which was not. But if they beat Iowa on Saturday the Spartans all but clinch the Legends Division crown. They would have a one-game lead and have beaten all contenders. With a balanced offense and a defense good enough to survive, it’s enough in a league with no great team.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes win over Michigan kept them alive, and their upset loss to Minnesota doesn’t look quite as bad after the Gophers threw a scare into Michigan State. Iowa’s James Vanden Berg is doing a nice job at quarterback, and Marcus Coker is an explosive and underrated back. With Michigan State and Nebraska still ahead, Kirk Ferentz’s team controls its destiny. I doubt they’re good enough to win both, given defensive inconsistency, but they’ve got a shot.

Michigan: Denard Robinson’s inconsistency in passing is becoming an increasing liability, as he struggles to post decent percentages. If he can’t make teams pay for keeping him in the pocket, he’ll face increasingly conservative looks, and that’s something Big Ten defenses can execute. With games against Nebraska and Ohio State still ahead, Robinson and Michigan’s fate is still up in the air.

Nebraska: Defensive inconsistency is what I look at here. The Cornhusker defense looked so good two weeks ago in beating Michigan State, and then couldn’t get it done against Northwestern. The Wildcats are a good team, as Bo Pellini made clear in a postgame press conference where he threw everybody but himself under the bus, as he made it clear just how much he emphasized Northwestern’s ability all week in practice. When the Huskers defend, they win, and they’re going to have to man up against the run when the play Penn State on Saturday.

The guess here is that Wisconsin and Michigan State will rematch for the conference title. But it’s still anybody’s game among the seven contenders.

Current BCS Bowl Projections

BCS National Championship: LSU-Stanford
Fiesta: Oklahoma-Boise State
Sugar: Alabama-Oklahoma State
Orange: Clemson-Cincinnati
Rose: Wisconsin-Oregon

**The revelations at Penn State regarding criminal conduct from higher-ups in the football program and athletic department are rightfully overshadowing football right now. Just as rightfully, the Notebook considers such topics to be beyond its competence and too serious to be subjected to every writer in America rushing online with rash commentary.  Thoughts and prayers go out to the victim and the hope that justice—whatever that might be—be served.