There's two weeks to go in conference races around the nation. The Big Ten seems headed towards a split championship for the first time since a four-way train wreck in 2002. Since then, the league has crowned an outright champ for five straight years (Wisconsin, Illinois back-to-back, and a Ohio State twin killing). With the Badgers, Indiana and Purdue all deadlocked in the loss column, who's got the advantage?
Right now, Wisconsin looks to be in the driver's seat. A huge win in Columbus over the weekend moved Bo Ryan's team to 13-2. If nothing else, the Badgers have only three games to win these next couple weeks while their rivals have four (UW is off over the weekend). They also do not have a significant road test left. A big game on Thursday night awaits in the Kohl Center against Michigan State. If Ryan's troops defend their home floor they need only win at home against Penn State and on the road against Northwestern. Then they're sitting at home with at least a share of the crown while hoping their rivals fall by the wayside.
Indiana and Purdue are both sitting on 12-2. The Hoosiers have the toughest row to hoe due to a road trip to East Lansing that awaits this weekend. Of all the games the trio of contenders have, this is the only one where you have to presume against the contender winning. The home slate isn't a cakewalk either, with Ohio State coming in tonight and Minnesota next week.
Matt Painter's Cinderella story is still on track, but he will have to navigate a difficult road trip to Columbus next week. Thus far, Indiana and Wisconsin have both survived their visits to the two-time defending champs and Purdue will have to match that. They conclude the season in Michigan. While that's probably a win, the Wolverines have played better in recent weeks and it could be set up as a prelude of things to come kind of win--much like Ohio State delivered against Illinois in the 2005 finale when they wrecked Illinois' perfect season and set the stage for two straight championships of their own.
The schedule has played a role in the race. Indiana got the biggest advantage, being able to miss a road trip to Purdue. But overall, kudos to the Big Ten for increasing the regular season schedule back to 18 games and minimizing the impact scheduling would have on crowning a champion.
Michigan State still has an outside shot, although it's about as outside as you can get. The Spartans are two games back of all three teams in the loss column, but they can still beat Wisconsin and Indiana on their own. Then they'd need both teams to lose another one, while Purdue lost two (presumably two of three against Minnesota at home, and the road trips to Ohio State and Michigan). But pulling that off would make the Giants' Super Bowl run look predictable by comparison.
One team that's been accustomed to being in this conversation in recent years is Illinois. The Illini are on hard times this year. Herb Gould of The Chicago Sun-Times looks at the team's ugly loss in Michigan as a sign of the offensive gridlock that bogs them down.