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Off the Tracks Big Ten Preview

Now that the individual previews are done and I know a little bit more about each team we are facing it is time to look at the conference as a whole. When I was comparing schedules yesterday I couldn't help but noticed that the Big Ten as a whole has some really weak non-conference competition this year. As a result, we could see about nine teams get the six wins necessary in order to qualify for a bowl game, as many of the teams that would be right on the edge have super soft non-conference schedules and would therefore only need two wins to get to a bowl game. This is good because it means more money for the conference, especially if we get two teams into the BCS yet again, but bad because we could have some teams playing in the postseason that have no business being there.

Notre Dame is the strongest opponent played outside of the conference by any team, and they are shared by of course Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State. The highest rated opponent a Big Ten team is facing outside the conference is Missouri, who opens in St. Louis against Illinois and is ranked at the top of the "Others receiving votes" category of the AP poll. Other games that look good on paper but in practice don't look so well are both Iowa and Illinois playing Syracuse, who has been at the bottom of the Big East for years. Michigan hosts an Oregon team that could be tricky, but the Ducks aren't as dangerous as when they beat the Wolverines a few years back at Autzen Stadium. Wisconsin has an opener against Washington State that could be a little dicey, but I expect the Badgers to take care of business in Madison. Other than that and the aforementioned Notre Dame games it is series of schedules that features a ton of guaranteed wins.

Only Michigan State, Iowa, and Penn State do not have games against 1-AA teams. Everyone has at least one game against the MAC, while Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Iowa, and Minnesota each have two and Indiana has three. Nearly everyone should be able to come up with at least a pair of non-conference victories, and most should get at least three. Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern hope to get a huge boost by having four very easy non-conference game, meaning just two conference wins could have them playing in December. Since these three all play each other as well that means at least one of them will likely sneak into a bowl game depending on how their games pan out.

With all that being said, what follows is my prediction on how the Big Ten Standings will finish up, with projected bowl games and records, from the bottom up. We begin with the end, 11th place.

11. Michigan State (2-10, 0-8)

It's going to be a looooooong year in East Lansing as they get used to a new system, struggle to find a passing game, and try to build a defense where there wasn't much of a defense before. Mike Dantanio is a pretty good coach and has a better head on his shoulders than John L. Smith, but I honestly am not expecting much from Sparty this year.

The best chances for a couple of wins come against Bowling Green and UAB at home, but outside of that it will be a struggle. Northwestern and Indiana are the best hope for a conference win, but a cruel twist of fate sees Michigan State not playing Illinois or Minnesota, and that's not good for a team like this. The home game against Pittsburgh is another chance for a win, but I'm picking the Panthers in that one. Northwestern and Indiana are both better than last year, and if not for an epic collapse by Northwestern both would have beaten the Spartans.

They are about a year away, and with Dantonio's new defensive style they could pull an upset, but don't expect a bowl game this year from them.

10. Illinois (4-8, 1-7)

This is one of the hardest teams to call because all that talent has to pull off a few victories, but there are two things that keep holding me back. First of all, Ron Zook can recruit, but couldn't lead a team to consistent W's with a map, a compass, an Indian guide, and a GPS system. Secondly, when I saw Illinois last year they consistently had trouble with the simple concept of holding on to the football in critical situations. Against us last year they fumbled the ball so many times I began to wonder if they ever knew how to hold onto the thing. All those fumbles directly led to us winning the game since we kept getting good field position from them, and even recovered one for a touchdown.

I look for Illinois to beat 1-AA Western Illinois, Syracuse, and probably Ball State, but don't count the Cardinals out this year as they should be pretty good in the MAC. I have a hard time seeing the Illini beating Missouri out of conference though, putting a strike against them before they even get started. Inside the Big Ten I think they can beat Northwestern to finish the season at home, and I have a feeling they can grab another game somewhere, but I am just not sure where yet. Minnesota is a good chance, so is Indiana, but I like the Hoosiers and Gophers in both right now. What sucks for them is that three of their four home games, where they could make some noise, are against three of the toughest teams in the conference in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State.

If Illinois is feisty they could surprise in one of those games, but that's a rough stretch to expect more than one. Iowa and Ohio State on the road are near certain losses as well, leaving only Minnesota and Indiana as other potential wins. If they get both though the Northwestern game could be for a bowl bid, and that would be a good step for this team.

9. Minnesota (5-7, 1-7)

This is another new coach, new quarterback team that is probably about a year away from having a good year. Minnesota really struggled at times last season and this year will be more of the same once they get inside the conference. Still, they will be right there for a bowl game with a very easy non-conference slate. If Minnesota can't go 4-0 against Bowling Green, Miami (OH), Florida Atlantic, and North Dakota State then they have no hope of doing much in the conference.

Once there things get a little tricky, however. Missing Michigan State is bad while missing Penn State is good. Ohio State and Wisconsin at home aren't good games to have, and will probably be losses, as will trips to Michigan and Iowa. That leaves home games against Purdue and Illinois and road trips to Indiana and Northwestern. The games against Indiana and Northwestern will likely be bowl elimination games, while I think Purdue will be favored against the Gophers.

This team is certainly capable of getting two wins in the conference against that schedule, but Northwestern and Indiana will need it more to get to bowl games. If they were at home in the Dome I would give them to Minnesota. The game at Indiana will be critical because if Minnesota runs all over the Hoosiers again I'll move Minnesota up and Indiana down.

8. Northwestern (6-6, 2-6) Motor City Bowl

Northwestern has an almost identical schedule to Minnesota, but I will give them the edge against the Gophers at home and therefore the last bowl bid. Northeastern, Nevada, Duke, and Eastern Michigan is about as easy as you can get, but Nevada was a bowl team a year ago, beat the Wildcats in Reno, and could be tricky.

Once you get into the conference schedule having Michigan State and Minnesota early is a big factor. Northwestern won't beat Michigan or Ohio State the previous two weeks, but having the Spartans and Gophers next makes for a 5-2 start and several good chances to get win #6. That win should come the very next week in a pseudo-road game against Eastern Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit.

Northwestern always bites someone unexpectedly though, and the back half of the schedule presents several opportunities. I expect Iowa to win, but the Hawkeyes have struggle mightily with Northwestern recently and I could see them leaving Evanston with a loss. Indiana and Illinois are good candidates as well, while Purdue certainly can't count them as a win. This could be the type of Northwestern team that gets on a roll and, without Penn State or Wisconsin on the schedule, have a very high conference finish.

7. Indiana (7-5, 3-5) Bowl

And honestly, this type of a finish would and should be met with celebration and a parade in Bloomington. If Hep were still coach I'd be tempted to go even higher, but I am not swayed by Bill Lynch's coaching abilities. The non-conference slate has a guaranteed win against Indiana State and a probable win against Akron. A trip to Western Michigan isn't easy, but the Hoosiers should win, while getting Ball State late in the season could be dangerous.

If Indiana can become more than a two man team on both sides of the ball this is the year they will get a few more conference wins. Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota at home look like great chances to win, while they have a trip to play Michigan State, whom they throttled last year. No team has an easier home conference slate than the Hoosiers, and they need to take advantage of it and defend the Rock.

6. Iowa (9-3, 5-3) Champs Sports Bowl

Yet another team with a fairly easy schedule this year, as they miss Ohio State and Michigan and have a fairly weak non-conference schedule. Northern Illinois, Syracuse, Iowa State, and a season finale against Western Michigan should all be wins. How well Iowa does will be determined by three games: Purdue, Penn State, and Wisconsin.

Iowa is also breaking in a relatively new quarterback, albeit one with some starting experience. He's a little more polished than the new signal callers at Michigan State and Minnesota, and has more talent behind him thanks to a solid running game. Unfortunately their toughest three games are all on the road. Iowa will be good, but I don't think they have quite enough to get those three wins on the road. Don't be surprised if they get one though.

5. Purdue (9-3, 5-3) Alamo Bowl

It's time for the excuses to stop and to actually have results. There are a hundred reasons why this team can't finish this well, but there's also enough talent for them to do this well if not better. It's quite a simple formula: win the five non-Ohio State/Notre Dame home games, win the three road games that aren't Michigan or Ohio State.

Anything less than that is a disappointment with what we have coming back offensively. Defensively we have to be better simply from experience. The defense will still be the key to a season this good. The non-conference schedule has a surprising amount of teeth with Central Michigan and of course Notre Dame, but Toledo and Eastern Illinois need to be wins. Trips to Minnesota and Indiana in the conference are tough, but not overwhelming.

Really, we have a shot in every game except Michigan, at least as far as I see. Whether we do it or not remains to be seen.

4. Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2) Outback Bowl

Of the top four teams in the conference I think Wisconsin has the best shot to underperform just a bit. The season opener against Washington State could be a little tougher than expected, and with a new quarterback it's not the type of opponent you want to open against. A trip to UNLV, The Citadel, and Northern Illinois aren't so tough.

It could end up being a two game season for the Badgers if they get past Penn State in game number seven, but I like the Nittany Lions to win in Happy Valley. A loss there and a loss to Ohio State on November 3rd would mean Wisconsin doesn't have much to play for when Michigan comes to town the next week, but I still think Wisconsin will beat the Wolverines and knock them out of the national title game.

No one else should be able to touch Wisconsin on their schedule.

3. Ohio State (10-2, 6-2) Capital One Bowl

The defense is too good for Ohio State to lose more than three games, but the offense is too bad for them to think about another undefeated season. Still, there is plenty of time to tune things up before any big games. Only Purdue provides a significant test in the first eight games, and I still like the Buckeyes in that one. Youngstown State, Akron, a trip to Washington, and Kent State form an easy non-conference schedule.

The last four games have, in my opinion, the three best teams in the conference, and two of them are on the road. Only Wisconsin comes to the Horseshoe, and that is why I am picking the Buckeyes over the Badgers in a battle of reds. Don't be surprised if Wisconsin gets the win on the road though.

2. Penn State (11-1, 7-1) BCS Bowl

Florida International, Notre Dame, Buffalo, and Temple: one of these things is not like the others. If Penn State goes 3-1 outside of the conference and the one loss isn't to Notre Dame it will be one of the biggest upsets of the season. Inside the Big Ten two of the three toughest games are at home, and I like Penn State over both Ohio State and Wisconsin in Happy Valley.

Unfortunately for JoePa and co., they have to go to Michigan, and I think it will be a repeat of two years ago when the Wolverines won on the final play to prevent a perfect season. It will also be the difference in the Big Ten championship, as it will give Michigan the edge via tiebreaker.

Historically Penn State has not played Michigan well, but a win this year and the Nittany Lions can seriously entertain thoughts of a National Championship.

1. Michigan (11-1, 7-1) Rose Bowl

Yawn, another trip to Pasadena for the Michigan faithful. If this team stays focused there is no reason they can't make it this far, if not further. They open the season with the number one team in the country…in Division 1-AA. At least Appalachian State is a 1-AA team with some chest hair. Oregon and Notre Dame provide strength of schedule boosts out of conference.

Penn State and Ohio State come to the Big House, and the toughest game is at Wisconsin, which is the only place I predict a loss. If Wisconsin beats Ohio State then we may have a round-robin three way tie for first place between Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan. Since, for the sake of this prediction, they would all be 1-1 against the other two, the tiebreaker would go to Wisconsin based on length of time since they got the Big Ten's automatic BCS bid.

No one else is really a threat to Michigan other than Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State, and it would be a major upset if they lost a game outside of those three. Still, this is the team that nearly dropped one to Ball State late last year.

So that is that, just one man's prediction of the Big Ten this year. I very easily could and probably will be wrong, but that's what makes life fun.