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Wisconsin quarterbak Joel Stave.

Nati Harnik, Associated Press

Phil Miller's College Football Insider: Leaders Division on the line Saturday?

  • Article by: phil miller'sfootball insider
  • October 11, 2012 - 9:28 PM

I don't know where Jim Delany plans to spend Saturday, but West Lafayette, Ind., might be a good spot. It would give him a chance to ask the winner of the Leaders Division championship game -- which is how Wisconsin at Purdue might as well be billed -- for a favor: Please, play like a champion.

An embarrassing season for the Big Ten has the potential to pollute its most prized possession -- its Rose Bowl berth -- if the Badgers or Boilermakers fluke their way to Pasadena.

That PR nightmare scenario is a result of the postseason ban imposed on Ohio State and Penn State -- you know, the only 2-0 teams in the entire conference at the moment -- and the split into two divisions, which awards a trip to Pasadena to the winner of the Big Ten championship game, record notwithstanding.

The worst-case story line goes like this: The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions beat up on the rest of the Leaders Division, then step aside in December for a 5-3, 4-4 or even, gulp, 3-5 team to advance to Indianapolis. Then that team pulls an upset in the title game against the Legends Division champ and totes its four, five or six losses (Wisconsin and Purdue each lost a nonconference game) into a BCS appointment on New Year's Day against a Pacific-12 powerhouse such as Oregon, USC or Stanford.

Think it can't happen? It's a long shot, certainly. But the BCS system has a way of working out in unexpected ways, doesn't it?

Which is why it would be helpful if Saturday's game in Ross-Ade Stadium served as a springboard for the winner.

The coaches are trying to downplay the postseason implications, pointing out that more than half the season remains. "Believe me, I understand that at the end of the year, you can look back and say" it's the decisive game in the division, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Right now, it's just about Purdue and the task and opportunity that's in front of us. ... There's just a lot of football still out there."

True, but with the eighth-ranked Buckeyes and the surging Nittany Lions ineligible, and Indiana and Illinois already 0-2 and unlikely to challenge, Purdue and Wisconsin, both 4-2 overall, are the only realistic Leaders Division teams competing for that game in Indy. And the first tiebreaker is head-to-head competition, giving Saturday's winner a clear path.

Trouble is, both teams have had days where they don't look much like championship contenders. The Boilermakers were dismantled by Denard Robinson and Michigan 44-7 last week, allowing the Wolverines to roll up 304 rushing yards.

Sounds like a perfect foil for the Badgers and their running game, right? Except Wisconsin ranks last in the Big Ten total offense this year, 11th in rushing yardage, and looked offensively inept in last month's loss to Oregon State and near-miss against Utah State.

The Badgers seemed to pull out of their funk at Nebraska, though they lost 30-27, and last week steamrolled Illinois 31-14. But who knows if the Badgers are back?

"I still see a lot of the same things -- the jumbo-size offensive line, the strong [running backs who] break tackles," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. "It's certainly a game that could impact our team and our season. ... It's a huge game, one that both teams will be up for and excited to play in."

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