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