The race for the Big Ten's New Year's Day bowl bids in Orlando and Tampa looks as wide-open as it will be all season. At the start of the year, I saw the the trio of Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State being head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league. The Big Ten can reasonably assume an at-large bid to the BCS will go to its second-place team (for reasons that will be elaborated on when we get into regular bowl projections in a few weeks), so that allows room for a fourth team to jump into the New Year's party. Wisconsin's 0-2 start has knocked them off the pedestal, and while they remain a contender for either Capital One or Outback, they have fallen back into the pack.
Ohio State and Penn State look headed into the BCS, and that holds true even if the Lions falter in Madison & Columbus (can anyone really picture a 10-2 Lion team not getting a major bowl bid?). On the opposite side of the conference, Indiana looks locked into the #11 spot this year. Minnesota has clearly progressed, but it would be a big stretch to put them in Florida on January 1. Northwestern is sitting on 5-0, but against a soft schedule and their season is going to be defined by a scramble to get the extra wins they need just to make any bowl. Iowa & Purdue haven't played at the level that would justify any confidence in their ability to make a major run. That leaves four teams in a race for two spots. Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois.
Wisconsin can re-assert itself as the leader of this foursome with a win over the Nittany Lions on Saturday night. The Badgers have only played one bad quarter since Big Ten play started (albeit perhaps one of the worst quarters in the history of Michigan Stadium). If their psyche stays in good shape, they could easily win out, or at least get to 5-3 in the conference (9-3 overall). With their good reputation for travel and what would be a strong finish, they'd be an attractive team to a bowl. But the way they lost to Michigan and Ohio State won't be easily overcome. Jeff Potrykus of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that defensive chaos prevented the defense from stopping OSU's winning touchdown.
Illinois has its offense in full gear, an achievment that makes Juice Williams an MVP candidate. With 69 points against Penn State & Michigan, no lead will be safe against the Illini. They have two easy home games against Minnesota and Indiana coming up and can continue the roll they started in Ann Arbor. But they will need to start playing D, or they will fall victim to the kind of unexpected loss that puts a team in the Champs Sports Bowl rather then the Capital One. Herb Gould of The Chicago Sun-Times says the players aren't looking ahead. They have the Gophers on their minds.
Michigan State is taking on the personality of its coach. Mark Dantonio is gritty and hard-nosed, and he's turned the Spartans into the same. The talent base is not yet high enough to avoid losing a few games in league play, but previous MSU teams would have lost in the face of a strong challenge at Indiana and not been able to slug past Iowa. An interesting test case will be when they host Wisconsin (interesting for both teams). Overall, the Spartans have to be consistent enough to outlast a more explosive Illinois team in the race and to finally overcome their problems against Michigan. One team MSU couldn't stop last year was Northwestern. Shannon Shelton of The Detroit Free Press looks at the D's preparation for the rematch on Saturday.
Michigan is only in this group based on reputation, quite frankly. They've played one noteworthy quarter since the season started and still have games with Ohio State & Penn State ahead. If they lose those two, they'd have to sweep the rest to get into the New Year's party. As troublesome as the offense is, given the transition to the spread, I'm waiting to see the defense play a good game against conference competition. They did not play well against Wisconsin, though they made enough key stops to make the comeback possible. And they were blistered by Illinois.
The prediction? I'll say Wisconsin and Michigan State get onto January 1. The Spartans are able to outlast Illinois in a close race for the Outback slot, while the Badgers go Capital One.
Both bowls are Big Ten vs. SEC matchups. If you look at prospective SEC opponents, you can also assume two teams from that league will go to the BCS, and then Cap One and Outback start making their picks. Right now, we can look at LSU, Alabama, Florida and Georgia as being the lead candidates to fill the BCS & New Year's slots. Auburn would be right on the outside looking to break in. Right now, I'd project Florida in the Cap One and Georgia in the Outback.