Commentary: Big Ten Bowl Picture Beginning to Form
by Jonathan Hodges

After a weekend of 5 Big Ten blowouts, the cream of the crop within the conference has begun to separate itself with the bowl season right around the corner.  As many know, the Big Ten has 7 bowl tie-ins and the possibility of sending 8 teams to bowl games if the conference can get a second team into a BCS bowl (which is a much larger possibility with Penn State ranked #3 and making a run at the title game) or if an 8th team is left and nabs an at-large bid.  If one heads on over to the HailToPurple.com bowl page, one will see that the Big Ten bowl tie-ins feature the Rose Bowl (BCS game), Capital One Bowl, Outback Bowl, Alamo Bowl, Champs Sports Bowl, Insight Bowl, and Motor City Bowl (which is also their selection order).  Conference teams that are now bowl eligible (at least 6 wins, of which there are 5) include: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, and, of course, Northwestern.  Two additional teams should be able to reach eligibility: Iowa and Illinois (5 and 4 wins, respectively).  Wisconsin is a wild card, with a 3-4 record, and although their schedule is favorable, they have now lost 4 straight conference games and aren't looking good.  And, finally, teetering on the edge of bowl elimination are Indiana, Purdue, and Michigan: all with 5 losses already.

Given the fact that the season is more than half over and the picture is beginning to clear a bit, I'll evaluate the bowl opportunities for each team given their schedules the rest of the way, although being college football, anything can and probably will happen.  Remember that with 5 weeks left to go in the Big Ten, a lot of movement is still possible, and those teams left for dead could very well wake up and make a run while the front runners could drop from their heights.  Northwestern should know better than anyone to focus on the task at hand: this week's game, and not where they'll be in December or January (otherwise it'll be Evanston).

BCS Contenders

Penn State (8-0, 4-0): PSU has taken a big step forward and boasts an undefeated record 2/3 of the way through their season, and they have basically blown out everyone along the way.  Of course, it all comes down to this week's matchup against Ohio State in Columbus to determine who the conference front runner will be down the home stretch, but they look like the strongest team by far.  They come in at #3 in the initial BCS standings and have a very good shot at a spot in the national championship game if they can get by Ohio State.  While there are a couple of landmines left for them after that (most notably a trip to Iowa and a home date against MSU), they have been able to take care of business against lesser competition so far.  Even if they end up with one loss (the most they should have given the strength of their team), expect this team to head off to the BCS - their resume is impressive enough and their fan base is as large as anyone's - plus it may very well be JoePa's swan song.

Ohio State (7-1, 4-0): They have been downgraded on the national scene after their 35-3 loss to USC, but have quietly stormed back and are in the position to make noise in the Big Ten race with the aforementioned home game against PSU this weekend.  After a subpar performance against Purdue, they bounced back in a big way with a thrashing of Michigan State in what was predicted to be a competitive game.  If they beat Penn State, they will be propelled back to near the top of the rankings, although they will realistically need USC to lose another game or everyone above the Trojans to lose to get a shot at the national title game (which would be their third straight).  Even if they get beat, as a two loss team (with both losses likely being to teams in the top 5 or above), they should have a good chance at securing a BCS bowl spot - very likely to be the Rose Bowl since they haven't been there in a decade.  Again, they must also avoid a land-mine along the way; they have trips to both Illinois and Northwestern on the slate after PSU, along with the rivalry game against Michigan where anything could happen.

Seeking to Play on New Year's Day

Michigan State (6-2, 3-1): MSU suffered a setback against OSU, but still have a relatively clear path in front of them with PSU being their biggest challenge left.  If they do attain 10 wins, it will most likely be the Capital One bowl for the Spartans, who haven't been there since 2000, and would likely bring a large contingent after years of suffering late season collapses.  But first, they must avoid such a collapse after a poor showing against the Buckeyes.  They have Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Penn State left (the first 3 should be winable).  If the Big Ten doesn't manage to get 2 into the BCS, they would fall to the Outback, in all likelihood.

Minnesota (6-1, 2-1): The Gophers are going on quite a run after a 1-win season last year and look poised for a solid bowl spot.  They have already played their toughest opponent (Ohio State) and miss MSU and PSU, leaving NU as their toughest remaining opponent.  They must also face Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa, but could conceivably win 3-4 more games.  This would potentially be their best season in years, and could lead them to their most significant bowl berth since the 1962 Rose Bowl.  The Outback Bowl or Alamo Bowl seem likely destinations for the Gophers barring a second half meltdown.  The biggest question will be if their W-L total will overcome the bowls' aversion to bringing in Minnesota, who is actually liked a bit less than NU (the Music City Bowl was about to bring in NU above Minnesota, who had the same record as the 'Cats until NU's loss to Hawaii, back in 2004).

Northwestern (6-1, 2-1): Northwestern still has some very important games to go, including the trip to Minnesota in 2 weeks, the following home game against OSU, and the final two games at Michigan and home versus Illinois.  This stretch of games will decide where NU lands; 2 wins seem likely and such a record should place the 'Cats in the Alamo Bowl (where they also went in 2000), Champs Sports Bowl, or Insight Bowl.  Sprinkle in an upset or two, and the 'Cats could be heading to a New Year's Day bowl - which really comes down to the head to head matchup against the Gophers.  First off, NU must beat Indiana to essentially secure a bowl spot - something they failed to do last season.

Fighting to Stay out of Detroit

Iowa (5-3, 2-2): After a disappointing 3 game losing streak (by a total of 9 points), the Hawkeyes have battled back to big wins over Indiana and Wisconsin and seem to be on their way to a bowl berth.  They still have trips to Illinois and Minnesota to deal with along with the Nittany Lions coming to town, but should pick up 2 more wins in their final 4 games to secure a spot.  Iowa always travels well which gives them extra credibility when it comes to bowl selection and likely will end up at the Champs Sports Bowl or Insight Bowl, with the Alamo being a possibility as well (although they have been to that bowl 4 times, most recently in 2006).  If they win more than 2 games down the stretch, expect them to possibly move up in the bowl picture.

Illinois (4-3, 2-2): After heading to the Rose Bowl a season ago, Illinois has fallen back to earth a bit, although their 3 losses have come against ranked teams (Minnesota, Missouri, and Penn State).  They have a relatively tough schedule to contend with the rest of the way, having to travel to Northwestern and also face Iowa and Ohio State at home.  The Illini should be able to reach bowl eligibility with 3 more wins, but it's tough to see them making a big enough run to reach a big-time bowl.  The season finale against Northwestern will likely determine their bowl fate, with the Insight Bowl likely now and a trip to Detroit for the Motor City also within reason.

Wisconsin (3-4, 0-4): Wisconsin reached the top 10 only to lose 4 straight conference games and get pounded along the way.  They look like a shell of the team they've been over the past few years when they have been regulars in Florida for bowl contests there, and will have to fight the rest of the way to get 3 wins to even reach bowl eligibility (likely wins are against Indiana and Cal Poly, but games against Illinois, MSU, and Minnesota also remain - requiring an upset to reach the 6 win mark).  While they have a shot at attaining bowl eligibility, whether they go or not may depend on if the conference gets 2 teams into the BCS (which could send them to Detroit if they get the requisite 6 wins), or, if an at-large spot is available and no teams with a winning record are without a bid.  This would make the Motor City the most likely destination IF they can win the 2 that they should and pull off an upset.

Home for the Holidays

Michigan (2-5, 1-2): The Wolverines' streak of bowl appearances (stretching back to the 70's) and winning seasons (spanning to the 60's) is very much in trouble after getting whomped by PSU in the second half last Saturday.  They must somehow come up with at least 4 more wins to get to .500 and then hope for a spot to remain open.  While two losses will officially remove them from bowl contention, it will likely take just one to erase most chances.  With games remaining against MSU, Minnesota, Northwestern, and OSU, making bowl plans seems very unlikely.

Purdue (2-5, 0-3): The Boilermakers have also been backed into a corner as they are now in the midst of a 4 game losing streak; they must still face MSU, Minnesota, and Iowa.  They must also put together 4 wins to somehow, which doesn't seem likely considering the teams they have left on their schedule; it would essentially take 2 upsets.  It is definitely a disappointing season for Tiller in his Purdue finale after leading them to bowls in 9 of the last 11 seasons, including his first 6 in a row at the helm.

Indiana (2-5, 0-4): After heading to a bowl for the first time in over a decade last season, the Hoosiers have fallen back to earth this year and are currently riding a 5 game losing streak.  While their schedule isn't extremely difficult the rest of the way, they haven't been playing well and things don't look promising for the rest of the season.  They must face Northwestern (the only ranked team left on their slate), Central Michigan, Wisconsin, then travel to Penn State and Purdue to finish the year.  Like the other 5 loss teams, 2 losses will eliminate them from bowl eligibility, which seems likely at this juncture.

To sum things up, it is quite possible to see 2 Big Ten teams in BCS bowls (OSU and PSU) which could open up 8 slots for conference teams, although much will depend on how Wisconsin fares down the stretch to fill the open Detroit spot.  Remember that the Big Ten has only sent a representative to that bowl on two occasions (NU in 2003 and Purdue last season) despite having an agreement with the bowl since 2002.  So, it's also possible that the spot could remain unfilled, or that 2 conference teams don't reach the BCS and Wisconsin is left home, like Iowa and NU were last season.

But, again, I must say that this is all very preliminary, and a few upsets could change the landscape significantly.  Technially, all of the conference's teams are still in play, and if some of the teams that are lower in the standings suddenly put things together and go on a run, things could shake up significantly.  It's all part of the college football experience, and if everything was as predetermined as it is in pro sports, it just wouldn't be as fun.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.