Commentary: Big Four, Middling Seven?
by Jonathan Hodges

As we approach the final three weeks of the 2009 Big Ten football schedule, every game will either have an impact on the conference title race or a team's bowl hopes.  For instance, despite getting off the rough starts, both Illinois and Purdue haven't yet been eliminated from bowl contention.  But the fact is that outside of the four teams sitting atop the conference standings, there isn't much to garner national attention.

Iowa is the talk of the conference with its 9-0 start which it has seemingly earned the hard way.  Penn State is lighting up the scoreboard and shutting down any offense thrown its way after its early season loss to the Hawkeyes.  Ohio State, despite its noted offensive troubles, has managed to easily put some recent opponents away along with the fact that they field a formidable defense.  There's also Wisconsin, whose only losses came against aforementioned Iowa and OSU.

After the top four, though, there is a significant drop off.  There are five teams with between four and five wins in the middle of the pack, all carrying their own deficiencies that have kept them from standing out this year.

Minnesota struggled against tougher competition and had little offense without Eric Decker, at least until a breakout performance against MSU this past week.  Michigan State took Iowa down to the wire but has had high-scoring close losses against Central Michigan, Notre Dame, and Minnesota to keep them in check.  Northwestern hasn't been able to play 60 minutes, and have lost four despite holding a second half lead in every game this season.

Purdue just couldn't win a close one early in the year and got way behind the eight ball early.  Michigan can't play defense.  Indiana has blown double digit leads the past two weeks.  And last week, Illinois just decided to start playing football in 2009.

Those deficiencies have led to a rather large middle-of-the-pack, with eight teams garnering between one and three conference wins with just three Big Ten games left to play for most teams (Minnesota, Michigan State, and Illinois have just two remaining).  Down the stretch, all eyes will likely be on this Saturday's Ohio State-Penn State game and next week's Iowa-Ohio State matchup.  Although an upset could still theoretically happen (keeping in mind that Purdue did beat OSU earlier in the year), most dismiss that possiblity and have narrowed their focus to just the top three teams.

Possible Scenario - Five 6-6 Teams?

What if the Big Ten had five 6-6 teams at the end of the year?  That seems like something that could happen only in the ACC, right?

Let's break down what would need to happen to finish with this situation, and as one can see, it's not that far-fetched:

Minnesota (5-4): Illinois (L), South Dakota St. (W), at Iowa (L). 6-6
Michigan State (4-5): Western Michigan (W), at Purdue (W), Penn State (L), 6-6
Northwestern (5-4): at Iowa (L), at Illinois (W), Wisconsin (L). 6-6
Michigan (5-4): Purdue (W), at Wisconsin (L), Ohio State (L). 6-6
Indiana (4-5): Wisconsin (W), at Penn State (L), Purdue (W). 6-6

Out of that slew of games, the most unlikely scenarios are Indiana beating Wisconsin (although the game is in Bloomington) and Illinois beating Minnesota (although the Illini seemingly found their stride against the Wolverines).

Note that Purdue also has a shot at getting to six wins as they now stand at 3-6 and have three win-able games remaining against Michigan, Michigan State, and Indiana (although how they looked in their most recent loss doesn't put much confidence in those chances).  And Illinois is in a very precarious situation with just one loss eliminating them from bowl contention and fifth ranked Cincinnati awaiting them in December (at the very least).

Bowl Implications

In this scenario, it is very likely that the Big Ten would get two teams into BCS games: the winners of the OSU-PSU and Iowa-OSU games (with the second team being Iowa if OSU wins both).  This would put the team in the top three that doesn't make the BCS into the Capital One Bowl, while Wisconsin would seem destined for the Outback.

After that, prepare for bowl selection anarchy.  The best things that teams can do for themselves at this point is to reach seven wins, which would require bowls to select them in front of 6-6 squads (and it's very likely that there will be at least a couple .500 Big Ten squads).  If the 6-6 apocalypse occurs, though, it's basically a free-for-all.

This year's selection order after the Outback is: Champs Sports, Alamo, Insight, and Pizza.  Note that there is also the chance of an at-large berth after those have been exhausted, as there are 68 bowl spots available this year (last year, with the same number of spots, just four teams failed to get a berth, none of whom hailed from BCS conferences).

With only four slots for five teams, it could be rather interesting, though.  Expect Michigan and MSU to be snatched up.  I couldn't tell you what would happen between Minnesota, Northwestern, and Indiana, though, the teams with the three smallest fan bases in the conference.  Let's just say that there will be a lot of interesting discussions leading up to the December 6 bowl pairings announcements.


The fact is that outside of the top four teams in the Big Ten, the remaining teams have had glaring weaknesses and have all seemingly let wins slip away at some point in the year, including in nonconference play.  That has led to many teams with subpar out-of-conference records and .500 or worse records in conference play.

Inside the conference, many call this parity.  Outside of the conference, many say this is another indicator that the Big Ten is "down."  The fact is that it's probably some of both.

In any case, it does set up for an interesting finish that will feature two heavyweight bouts for the conference crown and a lot of intriguing matchups that will determine bowl eligibility and positioning.  Basically every game matters and if some teams hold to form, there could be some very exciting games to finish the 2009 Big Ten football season.

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.