The College Football Notebook

November 19, 2009 2:00 PM

The Big Ten & The BCS

If it’s the Saturday before Thanksgiving, that can only mean two things. It’s time to go over to my in-laws and spend the morning making homemade Polish sausage, a great ethnic tradition and fabulous sausage for the next year to boot. And it means its Big Ten Rivalry Day, a tradition that lasts one more year before Jim Delaney’s league caves to modernity and pushes the season back to the holiday weekend.

There’s not a lot of hype surrounding this weekend’s games in the Big Ten, after Ohio State locked up the Rose Bowl bid. But there are four games that remain very consequential. Ohio State has not yet secured an outright league championship and Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin can still get a piece of the hardware. This is a big deal to Midwesterners, as I can tell you from personal experience. And it matters in the scope of history. Few people cared last year when the Buckeyes tied Penn State for the championship, even as PSU went to Pasadena. But when Ohio State won last Saturday, the news reports led with headlines to the effect of “Ohio State clinches fifth straight Big Ten championship.” That streak was kept alive by two co-championships in years where they didn’t get the league’s automatic BCS spot. Right now this race probably matters more to the three trailing teams than Ohio State, but it is significant nonetheless.

Can Michigan beat Ohio State in Ann Arbor? A lot of things make me want to say yes. The Wolverines can score points, they are playing at home, they are playing to be bowl-eligible and perhaps playing to save their coach’s job. Ohio State has every reason to be flat, at least as flat as these teams can be when they are playing each other. For all of these reasons, I think UM will make a game of it. But I don’t trust teams that fail to play defense. Ohio State does, and that can carry them through flat stretches. Michigan doesn’t, and I see Brandon Saine and Daniel Herron being able to run and Terrelle Pryor making just enough plays to DeVier Posey for the Buckeyes to survive an early rush from emotion-charged Michigan and then pull away late.

Iowa hosts Minnesota in another rivalry game. Flatness may be an issue here as well, and one wonders if James Vandeberg can play well two weeks in a row. But Iowa is at home, and they are vastly better coached. If Minnesota still had Glen Mason at helm, I’d expect him to bring in a prepared Gopher team that would control the ground and pull the upset in a ripe spot. This Minny team won’t do it and the Hawks will be another team pulling away late.

Both of these games are at noon EST. In the 3:30 window, you have Wisconsin-Northwestern and Michigan State-Penn State. This is a tough opponent for the Badgers to have to take out and NU’s Pat Fitzgerald is having his name floated as a dark horse for the Notre Dame job. Wisconsin’s offense is ahead of their defense and that is dangerous when you’re in spots for a road upset. The 7-4 Wildcats spring a surprise in this game, call it 31-21.

If there’s a game that will affect the fates of more teams than Penn State-Michigan State, I’d like to know which one it is. The race for the four at-large bids to the BCS was given some clarity when USC lost to Stanford. It would seem to me you can pencil in the Florida-Alabama loser, TCU & Boise State for three of the bids. It would further seem that you can say Penn State controls its own destiny for the fourth slot if they win this game and get to 10-2. But if they lose, they open up hope for whole host of teams. Iowa & Wisconsin could leapfrog them as the Big Ten’s top candidate. Virginia Tech & Miami would be three-loss teams that played good non-conference opponents. The runner-up in the Pac-10 mix might be 9-3. What about Pitt at 10-2, presuming they beat West Virginia and lose to Cincinnati? All of these teams have a case to make for the final bid and it would be the Sugar Bowl, with the final pick in the BCS draft selection, that would be judge and jury.

Perhaps the team with the best case to move ahead of Penn State isn’t any of the above though—it might just be Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have just two losses. Both are respectable, to Houston & Texas. If they win out, that would presume collecting the scalp of Oklahoma in Norman. Finally, Stillwater’s not far from New Orleans and a lot of fans would surely travel. Oklahoma State will be the Thursday night feature, hosting Colorado. That game won’t be a problem for them, and come Saturday they should have a watchful eye on the doings in East Lansing. Because the pick here is that Michigan State upsets the Nittany Lions in the range of 33-24, and gives hope to all of the above teams, especially Okie State.

There are other big games in the Big 12 on Saturday. Kansas goes to Texas. This will be a difficult stretch for the Longhorns—to complete their perfect regular season, they need to win this one and then come right back on Thanksgiving Night against Texas A&M. Two games in six days is a tough row to hoe. A&M has the same problem and there’s no way the Longhorns would look past their archrival and last step in the process. But they might be caught looking ahead here and it will be interesting to see if Todd Reesing can put some points on the board and make this one a game. And there’s a big showdown in the Big 12 North, as Kansas State visits Nebraska. The winner will lock up this division title and the right to play Texas come December 5. Right now, Nebraska is 4-2 in league play, while K-State is 4-3. Everyone else has at least four losses. A Husker win clinches first place outright. A Wildcat assures a tie and winning the tiebreaker. So a chaotic year in this division comes to a head in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers should win it easily. If they blow it, Bo Pellini can join the list of coaches on the hot seat.

The SEC doesn’t have a lot of action this week, with Alabama and Florida playing non-conference cupcakes before their rivalry games next week (Auburn & Florida State). LSU-Ole Miss will be a key game in positioning for bowl games, and if I thought Ole Miss had any sort of chance, I’d have given this game more hype. But Jevan Snead has been a huge disappointment and I liked the way the Tigers played at Alabama enough to believe they’ll get it done in Oxford. In the world of the midmajors, TCU goes to Wyoming, while Boise plays Friday night at Utah State. Finally, UConn visits Notre Dame, as the Fighting Irish try desperately to not only get Charlie Weis another year, but to avoid falling further down the bowl ladder.

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