When Penn State joined the Big Ten back in 1990 (starting play for the 1993 football season), Michigan State was one of the schools that welcomed them with open arms. The Spartans offered to play a rivalry game with the Lions at the end of every year. And thus, the Land Grant Trophy game was born. This one has a ways to go before it gets on a par with the Old Oaken Bucket, the Little Brown Jug or Paul Bunyan's Axe, but it's off to a start. And Saturday in Happy Valley, the game will get what any prospective rivalry really needs to heat up--a championship game. The winner of this game clinches a share of the Big Ten title, and could still win it outright if Michigan pulls out a miracle in Columbus.
Both teams have reason for concern as they head into the game. Penn State has been sluggish ever since their Ohio State win, only waking up in the second half against Indiana last week. And let's be honest, their offense didn't exactly set the world on fire in the Buckeye win to begin with. PSU can't take a half to get started in this one. If Michigan State gets a lead, they have the ability to salt it away with Javon Ringer on the ground. But the Spartans have to be a little concerned as well. They didn't match up at all with Ohio State in a 45-7 loss and that game was in East Lansing. MSU also struggled to beat Wisconsin and they don't have any wins that make you go "Wow!". To be fair, this wasn't a team expected to compete for a championship this season and they have unquestionably exceeded expectations. But it is fair to look at the record and doubt that they're ready to go one level higher.
Michigan State is several levels higher then their hated rival from Michigan. The Wolverines conclude their most miserable season in most of our lifetimes. Just as Notre Dame did one year ago, UM has put up a season that I would have thought literally impossible. It's tempting to think they'll show up ready to go in Columbus and at least give Ohio State a fight. But I've been waiting for that all year, and only for a brief spurt against Wisconsin and an entire game against Minnesota did Michigan look like a cohesive unit. Whatever burst of emotion might come out for the start of Saturday's rivalry tilt can't be expected to last without the building blocks of consistency in place. Look for the Buckeyes to spend the balance of the early afternoon celebrating their co-championship. They go to the Rose Bowl if they tie with Michigan State, and will be hoping for a BCS at-large should the tie be with Penn State.
Northwestern is looking for its ninth win against Illinois, while the Illini are fighting for the bowl lives. These teams are two complete contrasts. The Wildcats are the overachievers, who never look like they should be winning, but somehow manage to make enough plays to pull games out. Their stunner in Minnesota a couple weeks ago was a microcosm of the season. Illinois has the feel of a team that could run you out of the building at any point, but they keep shooting themselves in the foot. This one's in the Illini's hands. Can they get the running game going, Juice Williams in gear and do it without turnover problems?
Iowa goes to Minnesota in 7 EST game on the Big Ten Network. Both of these archrivals are still in position for the Outback Bowl, provided the Big Ten gets an at-large bid to the BCS. The Gophers are attempting to stop a three-game losing streak. Two of the losses (Northwestern & Wisconsin) came in large part because Tim Brewster got too aggressive. In one case, it resulted in a game-winning interception return for a touchdown, in another it set up a safety that proved decisive. Brewster should be cut a break for these mistakes, as he is no doubt trying to instill a philosophy of aggressiveness. But a mark of excellence is understanding those situations where your philosophy needs to be trimmed back. This game will be the final showcase for Iowa running back Shonn Greene, as he looks to put an exclamation point on an MVP season, and it marks what's been a good comeback year for Kirk Ferentz's program after they missed a bowl game last year.
The main story in the Purdue-Indiana game is Joe Tiller's retirement, which was discussed in the post below. This game will determine who ends up in last place for the season, but I think a case can be made for this one as the conference's best rivalry. Before Michigan & Ohio State fans rise in rebellion, let me continue. The Wolverines-Buckeyes has the most significance, but the rivalry has risen in large part because of that significance, not because there's any intrinsic natural hate there. As evidence, I would cite the fact that the two schools don't have the same animosity in basketball. But with the Hoosiers and Boilers, they haven't needed their game to be for the Big Ten title or for major bowls to work up the hatred. They hate purely for the healthy Christian joy of hating your fellow man, as he would hate unto you. Or something along those lines. There is a difference between a game being big because its for first place, and it being big simply because you want to beat the other team for the innate pleasure of doing so. When you have the latter, you have a serious rivalry. And that's what IU and Purdue have.