Posted by Adam Jacobi
We're halfway through the regular season, so it's time for the Midseason Report. Who the real contenders are in the Big Ten is pretty clear. Who'll actually win the conference, however, is a little more muddled. This certainly looked like Ohio State's conference to lose seven days ago -- and it still might be -- but Wisconsin's superlative 31-18 upset of the Buckeyes in Madison muddled the picture somewhat. Here's a list of the contenders for the conference crown thus far.
Michigan State (7-0, 3-0): It's generally lazy analysis to assume that a current front-runner -- especially one without any recent history of success -- will maintain its place atop the conference. And yet, Michigan State has, essentially, a two-game schedule to sew up a trip to Pasadena. After all, of the Big Ten teams with one conference loss or fewer, Michigan State has already beaten one (Wisconsin), won't face another (Ohio State), and gets another at home (Purdue, who, yeah). The only games left are visits to Northwestern and Iowa in the next two weeks. If the Spartans win these, they'll have the tie-breaker over everyone in the conference. Add a loss anywhere, and the prospects get a little dicey -- especially since if it comes down to Michigan State and Ohio State both at 11-1. More on that in a bit.
Iowa (5-1, 2-0): If the Spartans are the new frontrunners to the Big Ten title, then the Hawkeyes are the gatekeepers. Iowa has three home games remaining, and they're against the other three teams on this list: Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Will the Hawkeyes beat all three of these teams? That'll depend on the leadership of Ricky Stanzi, the senior quarterback who's playing at a level few would have expected after last season. The Hawkeyes' defense, anchored by Adrian Clayborn and the rest of the line, is still their strong spot. But if Stanzi malfunctions like he did on occasion in 2008 and '09, the Hawkeyes could take a very damaging loss and (probably) watch their Big Ten title hopes evaporate.
Wisconsin (6-1, 2-1): Which Wisconsin team will show up in Iowa City on Saturday? The high-octane world-beaters that ran Ohio State out of the stadium last weekend? Or the semi-suspect squad that looked sluggish against plainly inferior non-conference competition and got outgained by 150 yards in a 10-point loss to the Spartans? Granted, 2009 Iowa demonstrated the folly of reading too much into low margins of victory against putative cupcakes, but Iowa won the majority of their games against upper-level Big Ten competition, and Wisconsin hasn't reached that plateau quite yet. A win in Iowa City changes that outlook substantially. Still, when the Badger rush offense is struggling, QB Scott Tolzien's track record isn't promising. It's probably wise to expect one more loss from the Badgers before the season's said and done.
Ohio State (6-1, 2-1): Ever thought you'd see the day when a 6-1 Ohio State had arguably the fourth-best chance to win the Big Ten crown? Here we are, though; for as good as Michigan State's prospects look, the Buckeyes' seem to be on the other end of the spectrum. Of the contenders, they've already lost to one (Wisconsin), they play another on the road (Iowa), and the last they miss entirely (Michigan State), which means OSU can't take matters into their own hands and put a loss in the Spartans' column. Essentially, to win the conference, Ohio State needs every other team to lose at least once -- and the Buckeyes only play Iowa in the second half of the season. That's a lot of help needed. The Buckeyes have the talent to keep up their own end of the bargain, of course; that defense is still stellar across all 11 positions, and OSU's offensive line will keep their offense humming. But for all his otherworldly physical talent, Terrelle Pryor still isn't taking over games at the level that, let's say, Cam Newton is. Further, this is Pryor's third year in Tressel's offense. It's Newton's first with Auburn OC Gus Malzahn. Either this trend gets corrected, or Pryor's collegiate career becomes a relative disappointment; it's not as if OSU's a seven-win team without Pryor at the helm, is it?
Any of these four teams could go to the Rose Bowl without any surprises; Wisconsin's an underdog at Iowa, but not prohibitively so. Yes, technically, Northwestern and Purdue are in the mix for now too, but they're definitely longshots next to these four teams. My prediction is that Iowa effectively eliminates the Badgers from the discussion by beating them this weekend, while MSU handles Northwestern. Iowa then hands Michigan State their first conference loss in Iowa City, all while Ohio State keeps winning. Then, Ohio State knocks off the Hawkeyes in Iowa City. All three teams win out otherwise, and there's a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings at 7-1. Tiebreaker time!
Iowa will be the first team to be eliminated from consideration, as the Hawkeyes will be 10-2 while OSU and Michigan State are 11-1. Now, a few years ago, the Big Ten had a Rose Bowl tiebreaker after head-to-head competition and overall record that gave the bid to the team that hadn't been to Pasadena in the longest amount of time. This would obviously be Michigan State. But! That tiebreaker was ditched a few years ago and replaced with a Big XII-style stipulation that the highest BCS ranking is awarded the bid. So here we go again. Ohio State, having been ranked ahead of Michigan State when both were undefeated and having an earlier loss than the Spartans, is likely ranked higher at the end of the regular season and sent to Pasadena. Spartan faithful cry foul, but they're rewarded with an Orange Bowl bid in consolation. Iowa represents the conference in the Capital One Bowl, and Wisconsin goes to the Outback for the third time in the last seven years.
Of course, watch Northwestern beat Michigan State this Saturday and render this entire prediction worthless.