Hard times in Big Ten

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 14, 2011 - 6:25 AM

Scandal has rocked powerhouses Penn State and Ohio State, and this week's highest-ranked team in BCS standings is Michigan State at 15.

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Fans in the Penn State student section reacted after Nebraska defeated Penn State 17-14 Saturday. Penn State was playing for the first time in decades without former head coach Joe Paterno, after he was fired in the wake of a child sex abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach.

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Let's hear it for the middle class.

That's where the Big Ten finds itself today, an unfamiliar place for a conference that has long considered itself football's elite, though perhaps a notch below the Southeastern Conference lately.

But Saturday's losses by Ohio State and especially Penn State, not to mention the increasing prospect of the Nittany Lions' program crumbling under the weight of the Sandusky fallout, has reduced the Big Ten to an afterthought in the national consciousness.

The highest-ranked team in the latest BCS standings released Sunday is Michigan State at No. 15, the lowest the conference has ever fallen. That's behind three Big 12 teams, two Pac-12 teams, two from the ACC and an amazing five teams from the SEC.

On the bright side, it appears possible, even likely, that 10 teams will be bowl-eligible. That's great news for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, but the Big Ten is in jeopardy of sending only one team to a BCS bowl for the first time since the 2004-05 season. In fact, the league has put itself in the odd position where teams may be better off not winning a division title.

Five Big Ten teams have 8-2 records (and the six-time defending champs aren't one of them), but thanks to the division format, the seemingly jumbled races are actually quite clear: Michigan State will win the Legends Division if it can survive a home game with last-place Indiana and a season finale at Northwestern. And as long as Wisconsin wins at Illinois next week, the Leaders division will be decided by a final-day showdown between the Badgers and Nittany Lions in Madison.

That sets up a potential rematch in the inaugural Big Ten title game Dec. 3 of Michigan State's Hail Mary upset of Wisconsin last month, with a Rose Bowl berth at stake. But as far as the BCS is concerned, the loser of that game, guaranteed to have three losses, will have little appeal for an at-large berth, and may not even be eligible; Big Ten teams must be ranked among the top 14 teams in the BCS standings to be selected.

If the Big Ten is to earn a second BCS berth for the seventh season in a row, the lone possibility is the winner of next Saturday's game in Ann Arbor between Michigan and Nebraska. The team that survives that game could finish the season 10-2 and ranked in the top dozen or so teams, but not have to risk a third loss in the championship game. Nebraska and Michigan both have good fan bases that travel well, which may give them an advantage over, say, Boise State or the loser of the ACC title game (Clemson or Virginia Tech) for the final at-large invitation.

It's interesting to consider how different the conference standings would appear without the divisions; in that case, Michigan State, which doesn't play Penn State this season, would seem the heavy favorite for the Rose Bowl, and Northwestern's victory over Nebraska would have been the most important upset of the season, the game that kept the Huskers out of Pasadena.

The bowl considerations mean little to the Gophers, of course, in Year 1 of Jerry Kill's rebuilding effort. But if the relative decline of the Big Ten overall -- remember, the league's lone nonconference victory over a BCS opponent is Illinois' narrow win over Arizona State, now 6-4 -- is a trend that holds up over the next few seasons, that could benefit Minnesota.

It could benefit Wisconsin, too, assuming the Badgers can find an effective replacement for senior quarterback Russell Wilson. How's this for timing? Just as the Big Ten splits into divisions, Wisconsin's most formidable Leaders Division challengers, Ohio State and Penn State, undergo scandal-driven meltdowns that will almost certainly force coaching changes and house-cleaning efforts this winter. Ask Michigan what that might mean: Upheaval tends to keep teams from contending for championships for a few years.

The Badgers gave the Gophers a good view of the mountain they're attempting to scale on Saturday, when Wisconsin dismantled the progress their western neighbors thought they had made in the previous two weeks. "They're the best team we've played this year, by far," Kill said Sunday, pointing out that the Badgers' offensive execution was nearly perfect on several drives, and its defense held the Gophers to a season-low 156 yards. Wisconsin is the template for Minnesota's growth, the coach said, "and we'll get there."

Badgers coach Bret Bielema sounded convinced, too.

"Jerry Kill's a phenomenal football coach. ... You've seen them getting better over the past month," Bielema said. "You'll see them getting better and better here in Minnesota."

Phil Miller • phil.miller@startribune.com

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