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Big Ten week 10 in review

I covered the bowl scenarios in Sunday’s wrap of the Penn State game, but for all intents and purposes things are beginning to look very clear for the Big Ten bowl picture. If Michigan beats Ohio State two teams will take up BCS spots. Wisconsin can lock up a New Year’s Day bowl by beating Michigan, and so can Penn State if they win out. In my opinion Purdue should be ahead of Illinois because of a likely better overall record and equal conference record, but the Illini wins over Wisconsin and Penn State may give them an edge. Iowa now holds the edge for the final bowl slot if they win out, but Indiana can take it right back by beating Northwestern this week. With two games to go things are projecting nicely.

I find it disappointing that in a year when Ohio State was supposed to take a step back while Wisconsin and Penn State were supposed to make the top half of the conference very strong we find ourselves knowing that Michigan and Ohio State are the only to left with a chance at the conference title. I really thought those four teams would be fairly evenly matched and that Purdue, with no Wisconsin on the schedule and a seemingly weakened Ohio State team at home would challenge to be a fifth. Instead we have seen everyone beat everyone else up, and Ohio State and Michigan just beat everyone. As a result, even though all 10 aside from Minnesota could still win seven games it is a "down year". I guess if that happens the Big Ten would just need to go 10-0 in the bowl season.

Personally I think everyone in the conference should cheer hard for Michigan against Ohio State because a win would automatically move everyone up a spot. Financially it makes sense for the whole conference, as another BCS check distributed evenly amongst everyone and another chance for a conference bowl win is more important that a national title.

All that being said, what can we expect out of these teams next year? Call it filler for a rather boring week, but I want to take a very early look at what each team has coming back and schedules for next season as I go up and down the power rankings.

1. (1) Ohio State (10-0, 6-0)

Ohio State will not lose to Illinois this week. Playing at home in the home finale with a brutally tough run defense means the Buckeyes won’t have much trouble. Once Ohio State shuts down what really will be the best running game it will face in the regular season they will have little to worry about since Juice Williams is not a passing threat. Illinois doesn’t have the experience or balance to pull off a big road win yet.

The scary thing is that Ohio State could be even better next year, but faces a much more difficult non-conference schedule by visiting USC. The defense loses some talent, but will probably reload as usual. There are only 12 seniors on the entire roster, but there could be the usual loss of junior talent to the NFL draft. Right now this is a dynasty in the making, especially if Ohio State gets past USC.

2. (2) Michigan (8-2, 6-0)

Credit must be given where credit is due, as Michigan has somehow held things together with duct tape and super glue to get through some pretty tough league games so far. The Oregon loss certainly doesn’t look that bad right now, and if not for a pair of blocked field goals in the season opener that shall not be spoken of the Wolverines could be steaming toward a possible rematch with the Ducks for the national title. Most recently Chad Henne ripped out Michigan State’s soul Saturday night.

Henne will get one last shot to beat Ohio State in a few weeks, but he will be the hardest player to replace along with Jake Long. The Mike Hart injury has been a blessing in disguise as backups Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor have gotten valuable experience. The schedule is not bad with only a trip to Notre Dame marginally difficult non-conference-wise. The Wolverines lose more in their 15 seniors and possible early departure of Mario Manningham than Ohio State, raising more questions than the Buckeyes.

3. (6) Penn State (7-3, 4-3)

The game with Purdue was fairly evenly matched, but the Nittany Lions finally finding their running game was one of the difference makers. Penn State made Purdue pay for every mistake and still only came out with a seven point win. That makes me feel somewhat good as a Purdue fan because we were able to compete with a good team for once, but good teams take advantage of every mistake. Penn State really isn’t that far off in losing to the big two and having an off day against Illinois.

Penn State’s non-conference schedule next year would do Minnesota or Kansas State proud with Arkansas State, at Syracuse, and Coastal Carolina plus an open date. I’m sure they are waiting for a call from Sisters of the Poor and Blind. After last week’s blog trade the potential for a JoePa farewell tour seems high, so you cannot count out the emotion that will come from that, and returning 31 members of a junior class that will be hungry helps. There will be no experience at quarterback, however.

4. (3) Wisconsin (7-3, 3-3)

I thought Wisconsin was coming into its own and it was able to throw a bit of a scare into Ohio State, but it wasn’t enough. I place them here because even with the loss to Illinois I am not convinced the Illini are the better team. They could play nine more times this year and I would pick Wisconsin every time. I was really surprised to see them right there through three quarters against Ohio State, but the Badgers ran out of gas defensively.

Right now the Badgers still have an open date, and they also have a most interesting trip out west to Fresno State. Wisconsin has been one of the few Big Ten teams not afraid to go on the road for a tough non-conference game, and more than one team has not come out of the Valley alive. A completely healthy P.J. Hill will anchor the team though and be primed for a potential Heisman campaign. The senior class is 21 strong this year.

5. (4) Purdue (7-3, 3-3)

We lost a great opportunity this week, and because of that I’m not sure if we will be picked ahead of Illinois. I don’t care if it was a moral victory, we had a very good chance at a real victory and couldn’t finish the job. Even nine wins could banish us to Phoenix and the NFL Network. Sure it would be nice to go out there and have a great shot at a tenth win assuming we win these next two, but we would be virtually ignored as a 10 win team. Ah well, let’s keep playing and win these last three games so we can at least reach that lofty goal.

Another reason why the loss hurts is that we may have the most difficult schedule in the conference next year. Should Oregon win the Pac-10 we could play three of the 10 BCS teams from this season. Even though we don’t lose a ton of players and we have some good experience coming back in key spots the schedule will be very difficult with Notre Dame getting better and a dangerous Central Michigan team on the non-conference schedule. Even eight wins could be a challenge as a 2-2 split in the non-conference portion is possible, and anything more should be considered one of Tiller’s best coaching jobs ever.

6. (5) Illinois (7-3, 4-2)

I am not sold on Illinois yet. Their two best wins came against good teams who might have had their worst games of the season on the road. They are so one-dimensional it is not funny and while I think Purdue would lose to Wisconsin, I am confident we could beat Illinois easily. The loss to Iowa speaks volumes, and the wins the past two weeks have been nothing to write home about. Depending on what Northwestern does this week Illinois could be in trouble against the Wildcats.

Illinois has taken advantage of the 12th game to get a good season-opening series with Missouri going in St. Louis, and there are actually two open dates still there for next year to compliment Eastern Illinois. It will also be year three for the Zooker and time for all that talent to step forward. I really like how well their defense is developing. As I have said repeatedly this year though, they need to learn to pass the ball and not turn it over. If they do those things they will be very tough.

7. (8) Indiana (6-4, 2-4)

Well, I doubted the Hoosiers against Ball State but they did it and now they are bowl eligible. Now they face Northwestern on the road with the Wildcats fighting for their bowl lives. For selfish reasons I want to see Indiana win so they relax a bit for the Bucket game with a bowl bid already in hand. Since it looks like seven wins will be necessary for the Hoosiers this is a great chance to get it. Six wins though is looking a bit more secure now with Michigan State fading and Northwestern in trouble as well, and as the Hoosiers are now big Wolverine fans should they be that eighth team.

Indiana also has two open dates next year, but Ball State and Nate Davis will be looking for another upset in Bloomington. Transitional Division 1-A member Western Kentucky does not pose a threat. They, like Iowa, also have no Michigan or Ohio State on the Big Ten schedule, so could consecutive bowl bids be in order? There are only 14 seniors on the roster, and who knows how well the youngsters will respond to the extra bowl practices. The coaching situation will need to be addressed as well.

8. (9) Iowa (5-5, 3-4)

That was a great win by Iowa last week, as not only did they systematically damage Northwestern’s bowl hopes as direct competition, they also positioned themselves to get an amazing seven wins after disastrous beginning to the season. There’s no reason now they cannot win their final two games, and in the process develop more of a passing game. Jake Christensen finally broke through against the Wildcats, and he should do more of the same this week against Minnesota.

A trip to Pittsburgh is the most difficult non-conference game outside of the annual demon that is Iowa State. Maine and Florida International are not threats to the Hawkeyes. They also get no Ohio State or Michigan and need to take advantage of it for what could potentially be a big year. If Christensen and the young receivers develop with a brand new running game Iowa could be in line for a great year with all the difficult conference games at home.

9. (7) Northwestern (5-5, 2-4)

What looked to be a sure bowl game for the Wildcats will now be incredibly difficult to achieve, but if the offense can get back on track they certainly can beat both Indiana and Illinois to sneak into a bowl. Considering how up and down the Wildcats have been that would be a huge accomplishment. Both games should be fun shootouts to watch as much as the Wildcat defense has struggled this year.

After speaking with Lake the Posts a few weeks ago he seems to think next year could be another run to the top for Northwestern, but the question is which surprising non-conference game will be the loss. Syracuse, Duke, Southern Illinois, and Ohio are all certainly not world beaters, especially with a healthy Tyrell Sutton complemented by Omar Conteh. C.J. Bacher will also be back.

10. (10) Michigan State (5-5, 1-5)

I like that we are playing Michigan State this week, as they appear on the verge of coming out very lifeless and flat after such a crushing loss at home. Can this team ever catch a break? Purdue has always played well against Michigan State under Tiller, with the only loss ironically coming during the Rose Bowl year. How can you have a positive outlook now if you’re a Spartan fan? A 4-0 start could lead to a 1-7, no bowl finish very easily evn with a new coach and new attitude. At least there’s basketball to look forward to after a great exhibition win over Grand Valley State… Oh, wait.

Michigan State opens at California to start next season before home games with Eastern Michigan, an improving Florida Atlantic, and Notre Dame out of conference. Some key pieces in Jonal Saint-Dic and Jehuu Caulcrick leave, but Mark Dantonio will be in year two trying to write a ship that seems to sink each year in the Big Ten. Can he change the attitude enough though?

11. (11) Minnesota (1-8, 0-6)

Minnesota can only hope to severely ruin Iowa and Wisconsin’s seasons and get a trophy back in a rivalry game to boot, but that’s not a ton to look forward to this year. Gopher fans have been looking forward to Tubby Smith’s basketball season for awhile now. There are enough pieces coming back on offense for some hope, but the defense must vastly improve.

Minnesota has an open date on next year’s non-conference schedule, and more importantly no North Dakota State. They must go to Bowling Green and move further west to invite Montana State and Florida Atlantic to the Metrodome. Still, wait has Minnesota done this year to inspire hope for a quick turnaround?