This is a new experience for the Big Ten. Yes, the final three weeks of the conference’s regular season will be chock full of the same intensity and tenseness as ever. But, no there will not be rose-colored dreams. No, there will not be the crazy ties that always seem to occur.
The Big Ten is going to end up with a definitive conference winner thanks to the inaugural Big Ten Championship in December at Indianapolis.
Big Ten fans are still wrapping their heads around this idea of divisions and a championship game. The value of inter- versus intra-division games is still a foreign idea.
Things are simpler now with just three weeks remaining in the season: if you take care of business and win games, a trip to Indianapolis is very much in the cards.
Who is leading the Leaders and Legends as we head down the stretch?
Surprisingly, the Legends Division front-runner is Iowa. Yes, Iowa, the team that lost to Minnesota just two weeks ago. But Marcus Coker’s big game against Michigan saved Iowa’s season and put Iowa in the driver’s seat.
What a long strange journey it has been.
Last week, three teams sat tied for first place in the Legends Division with Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State all with one loss. The Cornhuskers and Wolverines fell while the Spartans held on to a seven-point win over the Gophers. In the conference race, winning is the only currency that matters.
So Iowa, with a Senior Day game against Michigan State this week and trips to Purdue and Nebraska, controls its own destiny to Indianapolis.
So does Michigan State. The Spartans have at times looked like the best team in the Big Ten but have struggled to regain their footing after a crushing loss at Nebraska. The Legends Division could be decided on the field at Kinnick Stadium.
The Spartans have one loss, the only team in the division with just one loss, and a win over Iowa all but assures them of the trip to Indianapolis. A home date against Indiana and a trip to Evanston to face Northwestern lie beyond the date at Kinnick Stadium.
If Michigan State beats Iowa, it gives MSU a chance to go to the Big Ten Championship Game by splitting its final two games. Of the two loss teams, Nebraska still has to play Michigan and so one of those teams will be eliminated. The only worry the Spartans would have is tying with the Cornhuskers, who own the tiebreaker by virtue of their win two weeks ago.
Luckily for Michigan State, Nebraska’s closing schedule is extremely difficult. Trips to Penn State and Michigan start this week followed by a home game with Iowa. All three teams are in the hunt for their division crowns.
The Legends Division is far from decided, but Michigan State’s game with Iowa will clear the picture up. The winner has complete control over the division and might be the winner.
In the Leaders, mystery abounds. Penn State is two games clear of Ohio State and Wisconsin. But who knows how the Nittany Lions will play in the wake of the scandal this week.
Penn State plays Nebraska at home and then travels to Ohio State and Wisconsin. Much like in the Legends, the Nittany Lions control their destiny directly. But it will take wins to get to Indianapolis. Penn State is not going to back into the championship game. And with the distractions off the field, a collapse could be in store.
Ohio State and Wisconsin have more favorable schedules. Ohio State plays Purdue this week before Penn State and Michigan to close out the season. The Badgers play Minnesota and Illinois before finishing with Penn State at home.
Life is clearly not easy at the top of the Leaders Division. Wisconsin and Ohio State seem like sharks circling in the water. The Badgers’ schedule is the easiest, but they still need the Nittany Lions to lose two, including one to the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium.
Nothing is settled in the Big Ten as things head down the stretch. We will know more after this week who will be punching their tickets to Indianapolis.
Follow Philip on Twitter @PhilRSquared.
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