As a Purdue fan, Pasadena has always been the goal. It is the Shangra-la that has been promised at the end of the season if everything to come together. It has only happened for us twice, but the two quarterbacks that led those teams are absolute legends in West Lafayette who went on to win Super Bowls and (likely in Drew Brees' case) make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Until next year, the process was always the same. There would be an eight game schedule (seven or even six in the old days). You wouldn't play one or two of the other teams in the league, and at the end, a champion would be declared and they would head off to California. This is the last season of that, and the final season in which the schedule can send a team that may not be as deserving as others.
Purdue made its big jump in 1997 and 1998 partially because Ohio State and Michigan were off the schedule. In 2005 we were picked as a dark horse national title contender because we had a stocked team and, once again, no Michigan or Ohio State. Northwestern won the league in 1995 without having to play a very good Ohio State team. Those days will be over next year. No team in the conference will be able to dodge a heavyweight team because of the new conference championship game. Even if a team gets through its division, there will be a good-to-great team left in the title game.
That is what has made the Big Ten so exciting in some years. There has been little drama of late with Ohio State crushing everyone else, but fans remember the years when a team makes an unexpected run to Pasadena. It is also what makes this year's Big Ten race very interesting. Ohio State, as a favorite, has to go on the road to Iowa and Wisconsin, two of the better teams in the conference. They also host Penn State. If they win the conference, they will have earned it because they will play the consensus next best three teams. One or two stumbles, however, could open the door for a team that does not have as difficult of a schedule. As a result, our Rose Bowl representative may not necessarily be the best team.
So who has the advantage? Who could pair a season where a team overperforms (like Illinois in 2007) with a schedule that allows them to dodge a good team or two. Here are the top candidates:
Purdue - Now, I am not putting Purdue here solely because this is a Purdue-centric blog. Last year's schedule, especially in the non-conference, ruined Purdue's season. This year it could be the opposite. It could set the stage for a surprising Boiler run if a few pieces (secondary and running game) have players become answers instead of questions.
Purdue went to Pasadena 10 years ago, but going this season would be a bigger shock.
First, Purdue has a huge break by missing Penn State and Iowa. They travel to Ohio State (whom they beat last year) and host Wisconsin. A trip to Michigan State could be tricky, but Purdue absolutely has the talent to beat Michigan, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana in the other five games. A Boilermaker win in those five would not be an upset, though it is unlikely they run the table through that group. If Purdue can win its opener at Notre Dame (not a stretch) they could be on quite a run heading to Columbus. Getting two of three with Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State, while unlikely, would have them right there. Getting one of those three with a little chaos could have them there too. It is a longshot, but it is a door that is there simply because Purdue does not face Iowa or Penn State.
Michigan State - The Spartans have a big advantage in that they don't play Ohio State. They don't play outside the state of Michigan in their first seven games. They must go to Iowa and Penn State, but Wisconsin comes to East Lansing for a big early conference game. Michigan State has some solid talent and a decent returning quarterback. The running game was a little suspect, as was the pass defense, but this is a sleeper team that could take that missing game against the Buckeyes and run with it.
Of these four teams Michigan State may have the best chance at making a surprise run.
I would favor Michigan State in home games against Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue. Really, the biggest thing going against Michigan State is history. Even under Mark Dantonio they have yet to totally rid themselves of their traditional gaffe. Last year Minnesota got them. This year a trip to Northwestern is far from an automatic win.
Illinois - The Fighting Illini have done this before, and they have a schedule similar to Purdue's. They could do it again. The talent is clearly there because of Ron Zook's efforts, but will it be a good thing in the long run if the Zooker pulls this one off? The Illini have only six home games because of the neutral site game with Missouri and season ending trip to Fresno State. Northern Illinois could be tricky, and an epically bad Illinois team could get surprised by a Southern Illinois team that is usually a 1-AA playoff team.
Illinois' only two bowl games of the past nine years have been BCS bowls.
The Big Ten schedule is surprisingly light. There is no Iowa or Wisconsin. If Illinois shocks one or both of at Penn State and home against Ohio State in its first two conference games the schedule gets much easier the rest of the way. This is the ultimate case of one shocking upset possibly building a team's confidence. They finish with a five game conference slate of Indiana, Purdue, at Michigan, Minnesota, and at Northwestern.
Northwestern - The Wildcats are the last team on this list, but with no Ohio State and a backloaded Big Ten schedule they could get off to a hot start and be right there in the end. Their first four conference games of at Minnesota, Purdue, Michigan State, and at Indiana is very manageable. The two home games in that stretch are the toughest. They finish at Penn State, they host Iowa, play Illinois at Wrigley Field, then travel to Wisconsin. They also beat the Hawkeyes and Badgers last season, so who knows.
Who can forget the shocking Purple run to Pasadena
Northwestern has a habit of surprise Big Ten titles too. Their 1995 title was probably the most shocking in conference history. They shared the title in 2000 with Michigan and Purdue because of a series of late wins.
While I know all four of these teams are likely longshots to win the conference title, this is the last year that one of these teams can take advantage of some chaos and a schedule break. Chaos caused by an upset or two can result in some odd finishes. Purdue went to the 2001 Rose Bowl because of tiebreakers and shocking late season results. Illinois won the Big Ten the following season because of a hot streak and no dominant conference team. Northwestern is the king of going on a run. One of the clear favorites will probably win, but don't discount these four teams if they get on a run.