The College Football Notebook

November 4, 2009 2:07 PM

Big Ten Breakdown

It hasn’t been a banner year for the Big Ten, but as we get set to head into bowl season in about six weeks, there will be chances to correct this. The conference still gets two January 1 showdowns with the SEC, they still have a team that’s undefeated and they still have a shot at an at-large bid to a BCS bowl. And the contender for that latter honor will emerge from one of Saturday’s juiciest games.

At 3:30 ET on ABC, Penn State will play host to Ohio State. These two teams settled the Rose Bowl bid a year ago in a tense slugfest in Columbus that the Lions won 13-6 after a fumble by Terrelle Pryor set up the winning touchdown. The Buckeyes were still able to tie for the conference championship and get a major bowl spot themselves, but in a rivalry like this and with Jim Tressel starting to take some heat, this is a game the program needs.

Whether Ohio State is good enough to win a game like this on the road remains to be seen. Pryor has been a decent quarterback and made some athletic plays, but his body of work overall lags considerably behind the hype he gets. His weapons are one-dimensional, primarily focusing on wideout Devier Posey. The famed Buckeye running game hasn’t taken off, with Pryor being the team’s leading rusher. Defensively, they’ve been tough, for the most part. But not dominating.

That might not be the resume of a team about to win a big road test, but Penn State hasn’t really shown the resume of an overpowering team ready to defend its homefield. They’ve already lost here to Iowa. And while PSU is 8-1 and enjoying a nice season, their win at Michigan last week was the most impressive they’ve had. I know UM has a big name and that winning in Ann Arbor had great cathartic value to Nittany Nation, legitimately so, but it can’t change the ugly fact that beating a program who is 1-4 in the conference is your top scalp in early November.

Both teams still have a good overall record, they are attractive to television and have fan bases that will travel. Presuming that Iowa will win the conference, the winner of this game will be a very attractive option for a major bowl game. As the landscape shapes up right now, I see the Orange Bowl as being a very likely destination for the winner of this game. Who will it be?

At the start of the season, I liked Ohio State better, but have been very unimpressed with the way they have sleepwalked through the season. The loss at home to USC no longer looks impressive, regardless of how close it was. At the start of the year I had Penn State as a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. I’m not all that sold I was wrong about them, but if nothing else I overestimated their competition, enabling them to rise by default. Evan Royster is a tough runner, consistently over 100 yards and the Tom Bradley-coached defense is more than a match for Ohio State. As long as PSU doesn’t beat themselves, they’ll win a tough one. And Joe Paterno will call a game that ensures they avoid mistakes. Penn State wins a 17-13 decision.

At the start of the season I told anyone who would listen (not the biggest demographic out there) that Iowa was poised to win 10 or 11 games and go to the Rose Bowl. Now if I say they’ll win 11 and still go to Pasadena, I’m knocking them. Such is life with the way Kirk Ferentz’s gutty team keeps finding a way and is 9-0.

Before looking at Iowa’s national title hopes, let’s first emphasize that they are in extremely strong position to go to the Rose Bowl. If Ohio State loses on Saturday, that means Iowa can falter in Columbus on the 14th and would still win a tiebreaker with Penn State (one loss apiece) based on the head-to-head. If Ohio State wins, then Iowa can still take care of business by beating the Buckeyes. It’s not a done deal, but there are more scenarios that favor the Hawks than not.

As far as the national title picture goes, we’ll go into this in more detail over the next couple weeks and things sort out. But right now, there is really no argument for lifting Iowa past Texas or the Florida/Alabama winner. The debate will come if one of those teams loses. Where does Iowa stand amidst the other unbeatens, Cincinnati, TCU, Boise State?

I don’t think the Hawks can be the first choice. Cincinnati has a quality win at Oregon State and the Big East has played pretty well this season. If they beat West Virginia and Pitt and then take care of a non-conference game with Illinois, the Bearcats resume is stronger than Iowa’s, who struggled past Northern Iowa and Arkansas State. I would also have to give TCU a slight edge, given that the Mountain West has stood up reasonably well, although in this case a really impressive Hawkeye win at Ohio State could change my mind. Boise State’s the tougher call-they have a huge win over Oregon, but the WAC just doesn’t offer any sort of competition week-in, week-out. So I would place Iowa third in this four-team pecking order right now.

That doesn’t factor in one-loss teams, and this column won’t focus on that. Right now, my opinion of Iowa is the same as it was at the start of the year. A good team and the best in the Big Ten. But not national championship-caliber. A loss at Ohio State will keep them out of the title game, but not out of the Rose Bowl where they will have a chance to play a truly credible game.

After the BCS is filled up, the Big Ten sends it next two teams to the Capital One and Outback Bowl, both games on January 1 against the SEC. If I’m right and the Penn State-Ohio State winner goes BCS along with Iowa, the loser will go Cap One. If only the champion makes the BCS, then Buckeyes and Lions will fill both of these slots.

Should a fourth wheel be needed to fill up the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Wisconsin is the lead candidate. With two conference losses, they are in sole possession of fourth place. They have a road game coming up with Indiana, followed by a home date with Michigan and will be favored in each of their last four conference games. Even if they only win three, they will be Tampa-bound.

After these prime bowl dates are filled, the remaining bids are the Alamo, Champs Sports, Insight and Motor City, in that order. And it’s a crazy race to see who will get them. Minnesota, Northwestern and Michigan are both 5-4. But the Wolverines still have Wisconsin and Ohio State ahead of them. With eight conference commitments, the league will actually need to produce nine bowl-eligible teams if they get that at-large to the BCS. Michigan State, at 4-5 may get there, but does anyone have confidence that Indiana at 4-5 can win two more? Purdue and Illinois both have to win out to make .500. The Big Ten may fall short of filling its spots this year. Those MAC losses—Michigan State to Central Michigan and Purdue to Northern Illinois—are looming very large in November.

There’s not a lot in the way of Heisman material here right now. For conference MVP, I imagine Pryor will get attention just because of his name. And he’ll have a chance to truly earn it the next two weeks against Penn State and Iowa. But there’s no way he’s MVP if we had to vote right now. Ricky Stanzi at Iowa will get votes, just because he’s leading up the first-place team, but he threw five interceptions against Indiana and the Hawks don’t win games with the passing attack. Running back John Clay at Wisconsin is having a big year, and Penn State’s Royster has four 100-yard games in five league games. I’d have to lean to either of these two right now.

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