Tie-breaker scenarios are all the rage among Big Ten fans right now, because the conference has a dynamic four-team race that looks destined to end in at least a two-way tie and probably three before all is said and done. Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State all have just one conference loss and the only head-to-head matchup among them remaining is the Buckeyes' visit to Iowa City coming up next week. For the record, the tie-breakers are head-to-head, overall winning percentage and BCS ranking. The biggest wild-card in this scenario is that Ohio State and Michigan State did not play this year, and any tie that involves both of them automatically sees head-to-head thrown out. Iowa is the one who suffers from the overall record tiebreaker, as they are the only ones with a non-conference loss, to Arizona. I've grown up in Big Ten Country and am still a big Wisconsin fan, but I've never figured out why a conference picks a tiebreaker in which Iowa is punished for playing Arizona and Iowa State, while UW is rewarded for playing San Jose & Austin Peay.
The Big Ten has a strong bowl package for its runner-ups, so the drop-off from league championship to consolation prize isn't as steep as is the case in the Pac-10 or ACC. The conference has also typically received an at-large bid to the BCS. That may be a problem this year--right now the front-runners for the four extra spots would have to be Boise, the SEC runner-up and the respective winners of TCU-Utah and Arizona-Stanford this week. But things have a way of changing in November and the Big Ten's runner-up is realistically next in line. If that should happen the four contenders will fill the Rose Bowl, another BCS game, along with the January 1 Capital One & Outback Bowls, both against high-level SEC teams. Bottom line--if the Big Four take care of business, they're going to play somewhere nice in January.
Illinois heads up the mid-level teams with two conference losses and while it would be a huge longshot for them to even win a share of the championship, it's certainly realistic for them to get one of the good bowl dates at the top. Ron Zook has a done a fantastic job turning this program back around and saving his job in the process. Northwestern has yet to really look impressive, but all they do is win. Sitting at 6-2, we may have a situation where the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry finale is for a January 1 bowl bid. Penn State separated itself from Michigan last week, and one has to think the Gator Bowl would find the Nittany Lions an attractive proposition to play a Big 12 team. The Wolverines only need one more win to get bowl-eligible for the first time under Rich Rodriguez and their status is the key swing factor for how many teams make it to postseason play. Purdue and Indiana are realistically not going anywhere, while Minnesota is in complete chaos, as their ill-advised firing of Glen Mason following the 2006 season has finally hit its end-game.
Terrelle Pryor is the individual player who gets all the ink, but put me in the group of skeptics who think he's overrated and gets most of his numbers against bad teams. In fact, I question whether Pryor is even among the top five quarterbacks in his own league. You have Denard Robinson at Michigan, Kirk Cousins at Michigan State, Ricky Stanzi at Iowa, Scott Tolzien at Wisconsin and Dan Persa at Northwestern. I'm probably being a bit of a homer in putting Tolzien on the list and Persa may be a stretch, but I would certainly stand behind the first three on that list as being better than Pryor. (Indiana fans, I didn't forget Ben Chappell--he just throws too many interceptions). UW running back John Clay was another one with preseason Heisman talk around him, and he's been very good when healthy, but a nagging ankle injury has slowed him just enough to end any discussion of an individual award. The Big Ten MVP will be a quarterback.
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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily MLB playoff coverage and game analysis in college football and the NFL. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.