Everyone these days is talking about the BCS. In Big 10 land, discussion is centered around the distinct possibility of a trio of 11-1 teams and which progam will get the short straw known as the Capital One Bowl. It’s not a diffucly scenario to envisions: No upsets, Iowa over MSU and OSU over Iowa would give us OSU, MSU and Wisconsin all 11-1 marks at the close of next month. In the end, isnt dicussion at the top of the Big 10 standings a bit lame, though? I mean, it’s all but figured out, isnt it? Iowa plays host to MSU this weekend and to OSU later next month. Those are the only two games between contenders left. It’s clearly a four-team race and teams will only drop off from that pack, rather than join them. The Big 10 this season looks like a standard English Premier League table in any year. Four strong teams at the top. Everybody else fighting for rather irrelevant position underneath them. But is it irrelevent. There are as many as five bowl bids that the other seven league teams are fighting for, with countless head to head matches between those schools remaining on the docket to help iron out eventual holiday destinations. While their might just be two matches left between league contenders the rest of the season, there are three games this weekend alone between teams vying for spots in the bowl pecking order beyond the Big Four. Let’s quickly take a look where we stand in those pursuits heading into the final weekend of October. They may not be big ticket bowls, but its more fun that breaking down five teams for one spot in the UEFA Cup.
Will The Big 10 Save Detroit
Just when the great midwestern city Detroit needed its local athletic conference the most, the Big 10 bailed on the Motor City. Begging for the tourism dollars with the down economy, the city really could use a post-Christmas boost with a large, fat and ready to gamble and spend money fan base from one of the Big 10 member institutions. They are supposed to be the backbone of support for the Pizza Pizza Bowl, nee Motor City Bowl, after all. But, the league has not taken care of business during the fall. They have not had enough teams earn bowl eligibility the last couple of seasons to fill this last spot in their postseason pecking order. As a result, Detroit has missed out on a wave of Big 10 fans feeding the slot machines with their holiday bonuses and we fans at home have been treated to Sun Belt and Confernce USA teams filling our local boys spots. This year? Expect more of the same as its not likely, given the expectation that, like in most years, the Big 10 will have a pair of BCS bowlers, the conference will go the necessary eight deep with bowl eligible teams to fill the Pizza Pizza requirement and qualify for a long weekend in Detroit Rock City.
That math behind that could all change for the better with wins this week by Indiana and Purdue. Both clubs are stuck on 4 wins and if either or both can notch a fifth win in the next couple of weeks, they will play each other in the season finale with bowl eligibility on the line. The Old Oaken Bucket. Winner goes to Detroit. Maybe not precisely the stakes Lee Corso had in mind when he slept with the revered trophy more than 30 years ago, but sometimes a rivalry game will take any drama it can find.
The Hoosiers host Northwestern this week. They beat the Cats on this field in 2008 and should have beaten them a year ago, but vommited up an early two-touchdown lead en route to a painful 29-28 loss. This has been a close series. The last three years, the games have been decided by 3, 2 and 1 point with the Cats winning two games, but the Hoosiers earning underdog covers in two. Each of the last 6 games between these clubs has been decided by a touchdown or less. With likely losses on deck against Iowa and Wisconsin, the Hoosiers need to spring the mild upset. And they need to rebound from a mistake filled, poorly coached loss to the Illini last weekend. If they dont, their bowl hopes will likely rest on sweeping thier final two games–Penn State on a nuetral field in Maryland and at Purdue, in order to get to six wins.
As for the Boilermakers, they are burning the tape from the debacle in Columbus this past weekend, not to mention trying to settle down a grumbling fan base. After a couple seasons without a bowl, you think fan focus would instead be on pulling for at least one win in their next four, in order to turn their home finale with the Hoosiers into a game with bowl stakes for the home side. Their slate over the next month is fairly challenging, however, with expected losses to Wisconsin and at Michigan State. Absent of an upset against one the league’s title contenders, the Boilers will need to scrape out two wins against the following trio of foes to go bowling: at Illinois and home games against Michigan and Indiana. Wins this week by Purdue or Indiana will add more possibilities to the Bog 10 bowl scheme. Losses would reduce those chances and make a Big 10 team in Detroit this postseason a pipe dream.
Every Program’s Dream: Gator Bowl Or Bust
The Gator Bowl has to be loving life these days. No longer forced to pair middle of the pack teams from the Big East and ACC to play in their bowl game, organizers have to be quite excited at stepping up with a Big 10/SEC matchup, but also have to be drooling at the current standings of both those leagues. With a little luck, who knows, they could be hosting a game between Penn State or Michigan and Florida or Georgia. That sure beats the West Virginia-Georgia Tech type matchups that nobody pays attention to early on New Year’s Day. With 2010 being neither program’s year to compete for league titles, this weekend’s match in Happy Valley between the Wolverines and Nittany Lions is really for one of the inside tracks to the Gator Bowl–argubably the top Big 10 postseason destination after the four contenders for the title divide up the two BCS, Capitol One and Outback bowl bids.
Trying to figure out eventual bowl destinations aside, both of these programs would be best served to actually, you know, become bowl eligible first. Rich Rodriguez is still looking for his first postseason appearance as Michigan head coach. He clinches a post season spot with a win over Penn State. That’s the good news. The bad news? He’s lost 7 straight games at Michigan with a chance to become bowl eligible including losses earlier this month at home to Michigan State and Iowa. Saturday begins a manageable three-game stretch of the Big 10 slate where he ought to be able to get his Wolverines off the postseason schnide: at Penn State, Illinois and at Purdue. Win one and its no worse than six wins and a berth in the Texas Bowl. Win two and its no worse than seven wins and a berth in the Insight or Dallas Football Classic. Win all three and its eight wins, a probable Gator Bowl bid with a chance to even move up a slot with an upset or two in the final two games against Wisconsin and Ohio State. Lose all three? Well, then Michigan would not only need at least one upset in those final two games to go bowling, but it would probably also be clean out your office time for Rodriguez at Schembechler Hall.
Penn State has their own run of three manageable games that they need to cash in to stabalize their postseason hopes. They do get their shots at heavyweights OSU and MSU next month, but I’ll believe those wins for the Nits when they happen. Otherwise, the host Michigan and Northwestern the next two Saturdays and play IU in Maryland next month. They need to win two out of those three to go bowling, or else pull an upset against the Bucks or Spartans. Should they lose to Michigan this weekend, there will be a ton of pressure on the Lions next week when they host Persa and the Wildcats next week. Somebody picked that as an upset special back in the summer. Penn State’s bowl hopes really come down to ensuring no worse than a home split against the Wolverines and Wildcats over the course of the next two Saturdays.
The Real Chalk For Jacksonville
Truthfully, the best bet for a trip to Jacksonville from these mid table clubs in the Big 10 are the Illinois Illini. Yes, the Fighting Ron Zookers. We can only hope if they make it as far as a Big 10/SEC bowl game that fate would put the Florida Gators on the other side of the field. But, that’s day dreaming for another day. Their schedule the rest of the way sets them up to be considered no worse than one of the favorites for the Gator Bowl. They dont play Iowa or Wisconsin at all, while they’ve already sparred with and lost to MSU and OSU. Everyone else in this second tier still faces challenges against a couple from the Big 4. Not the Illini, who are playing no better than league equals the rest of the way: Purdue, at Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern and at Fresno. They’re going to be favored to win all those games, except for the Michigan contest. And, they are hardly in a mismatch there. The Illini will be a mini-version of the MSU and Iowa teams that smoked Michigan earlier this month with the rushing of Mikel LeShoure and a pounding defense. That Illini defense has been punishing quarterbacks all season, with their latest victim being Ben Chappell and the Hoosiers last weekend. Do I think the Illini can run the table and end with nine wins? Yes, I think they can. Do I think the Scheelhase kid will cost them a game at some point at the QB position? Yes, I do. Will Zook will screw something up? Book It! You can make a case for 5-0. But you could also make a case for 2-3. They have the easiest slate and should they drop a winnable game, unlike the others, they wont have to make that win up against a league power broker. That’s why they’re in the favorite seat. For now.
Northwestern is probably still licking their wounds, tyring to figure out how in the world they actually lost that game Saturday to MSU. Tell me about it. I’m still trying to figure out I didnt win my bet on the Cats +7. Seriously. I had to remind myself a couple times on Sunday that that one was a loser. Such a cruel world. I have time to dwell and cry and be all Sad Panda. The Fighting Fiztgeralds? No way, man. They need to focus and get down to work. They are starting a business trip. They need to tuck Indiana away and into the win column for that sixth, bowl clinching win of the season. If not, they face about a tough a November slate as anyone in the league: at Penn State, Iowa, Illinois, at Wisconsin. They wont be favored to win any of those games. When October began, there was legit talk of starting out the season 8-0. Now, with a loss to IU, October will end with us wondering if Cats have enough in the tank to even become bowl eligible. Hard to believe Northwestern would crash like that and pull an 0-fer in November. But, just to be on the safe side, they should just take care of business in Bloomington this weekend. We were whispering 9-10 wins a couple of weeks ago. Now we’re whispering doubts and wondering if they can even get to 6-7 wins. My friends, that’s a the thin line dividing success and failure at a place like Northwestern. Not to mention the thin line between bowloing on January 1 and relegated to be home for the holidays.