Tom Oates: Fun has just begun in Big Ten football race

2011-11-02T06:05:00Z 2012-05-23T17:57:42Z Tom Oates: Fun has just begun in Big Ten football raceTOM OATES | toates@madison.com | 608-252-6172 madison.com

This year was supposed to provide rare clarity for Big Ten Conference football.

Nebraska became the 12th team, the Big Ten split into divisions and a conference championship game was instituted. Unlike five of the previous nine years, there would be no shared Big Ten title and thus no debate over which team should represent the conference in the Rose Bowl.

Instead of clarity, however, the Big Ten has produced chaos.

With four Saturdays left in the season, crazy races are expected in both divisions. Adding to the craziness is the realization that there is no great team in the conference, just a bunch of flawed contenders that make the Big Ten look a lot more like the ACC than the SEC.

The Legends Division race is already wild with three teams — Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska — tied at 3-1. They are a game ahead of Iowa (2-2), which lost ground after inexplicably losing to Minnesota on Saturday.

The Leaders Division should get wild soon because Penn State, though 5-0, is uncomfortably ahead of Ohio State, Purdue and the University of Wisconsin (all 2-2). The Nittany Lions should be worried because they have been the luckiest team in the country and they finish with Nebraska, Ohio State and UW, with the latter two on the road.

Unless you think Purdue is going to beat both UW and Ohio State the next two weeks, there are seven teams in the running for a spot in the inaugural Big Ten title game. Penn State and Nebraska control their destiny in their respective divisions, but that's about all they control in a conference where the balance of power experiences a seismic shift almost weekly.

Remember when UW-Nebraska was the Big Ten's game of the year? That was only a month ago. UW was the class of the league after routing the Cornhuskers, until it lost on a Hail Mary pass at Michigan State. The Spartans were then the class of the league, until they were manhandled at Nebraska.

That leaves Penn State as the team to beat. Yes, the same team that won its five conference games by a combined 34 points even though it played only one team (Iowa) that is still considered a contender. And the same team that is proving the old football axiom that when you have two quarterbacks, you don't really have one.

Handicapping the field at this point is difficult because there is little that separates the top nine or 10 teams, despite the fact that they are very different from one another. Indeed, for every yin, there is a yang among the Big Ten contenders.

There are teams with great offenses and shaky defenses — Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern — and teams with strong defenses and struggling offenses — Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois. The most balanced teams are UW, which can't win on the road, and Michigan, which has not beaten an opponent of note.

There are teams with passing quarterbacks — UW, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern — and teams with running quarterbacks — Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State — and teams with two quarterbacks — Penn State, Purdue, Illinois. The teams with quarterbacks who best combine running and throwing are UW, Northwestern and Illinois.

Finally, there are teams with difficult remaining schedules — Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa — and teams with relatively weak schedules — UW and Michigan State. Ohio State falls somewhere in between.

Some think that puts UW and Michigan State on a collision course for a rematch in the Big Ten title game. However, both need help. Especially UW.

To have a realistic shot at taking the division, the Badgers must win out, including a victory over Penn State in the finale, and have Penn State and Ohio State lose at least one other game. The Nittany Lions have Nebraska at home before playing at Ohio State and UW, so they could lose two of three, if not three of three. The rejuvenated Buckeyes should beat Indiana and Purdue the next two weeks, so they would have to lose at home to Penn State or at Michigan.

UW remains the Big Ten's most talented team, but its dramatic losses at Michigan State and Ohio State on consecutive Saturday nights left the conference with no BCS title contender and a mad scramble for its own championship.

The bad news for the Badgers? Not since 2000 and only twice in 26 years has a team with two losses won the Big Ten title. The good news? The anemic condition of the conference and the split into divisions improves the chances of a two-loss teams winning it all this year.

Nebraska and Penn State currently lead the race for a trip to Indianapolis, but that won't last. Michigan State and emerging Ohio State look like the real teams to beat in the mediocre yet highly entertaining Big Ten.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

Copyright 2015 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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