Every Thursday, Pickin' On the Big Ten tries to describe football action in the conference everyone else calls "overrated."
RIGHT: The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, which won't be missed by very many people in the Big Ten.
And so it has come to this, the ultimate weekend of the penultimate season when Big Ten football ends before Thanksgiving. Starting in 2010, the Turkey Day tables will be a little less crowded as everyone's season extends to the last weekend of November. But that's two years from now. This weekend we say goodbye to the conference's second-longest serving coach, and bid a fond farewell to its least-loved stadium. Along the way we sort out who's going where when, and how all the teams will be positioned for next year.
Before we get on to the games, a note about the Big Ten's bowl selection process. The conference does not require bowls to select teams in order of their finish, but requires that a selected team have no more than one fewer win than the remaining team with the best record. Thus, a seven-win team can be picked before an eight-win team, but not a nine-win team. Oh, and if the league gets two teams into the BCS, some of the non-BCS bowls get to ignore all the rules.
This year the bowls pick in this order: Capital One, Outback, Alamo, Champs Sports, Insight, Motor City.
I'm departing from my usual format this week and looking at the games in their order of importance for the bowl selection process. That means we start with the one upon which everything else depends.
MICHIGAN STATE @ PENN STATE
This is the big game this week, because Penn State wins the conference outright if they beat the Spartans. That might have sent them to the BCS Title game but for the Iowa loss, so the Nits are playing for the Rose Bowl. So are the Spartans, but they'll need help from their in-state rival to make it.
I actually called this game a couple weeks ago, saying that Michigan State didn't have enough on defense to go into Happy Valley and walk out with a victory. I haven't seen anything since which has changed my mind. Yes, Penn State was flat in the first half against Indiana, but what would you expect after a close, difficult win in Columbus and the nightmare in Iowa City? Of course they were going to come out tentative. Eventually they started throwing the Hoosiers around the backyard; I expect them to come out aggressively against the Spartans. They smell roses, and they're not going to be denied.
|EVERYTHING'S COMING UP CREDIT CARDS||17|
|MIGHTY LIKE A ROSE||31|
MICHIGAN @ OHIO STATE
I have to qualify this: This game actually only means something if Penn State loses. Should that happen, an OSU victory sends the Buckeyes to Pasadena, while a Michigan victory means Sparty goes to the Rose Bowl. If Penn State loses, that is. Which they're not going to.
Strange things happen in this series, but they're more along the lines of "that was an unlikely outcome" strange, not "Mike Greenberg juggling two Saint Bernards and a lawn tractor" strange. A Michigan victory would be much closer to the latter than the former, I fear. While I think it's too early to pull the ripcord on RichRod's golden parachute, he will not leave the Michigan faithful with anything upon which to build next year's dreams.
|PIECES OF DREAMS||10|
|START THE FIESTA||37|
ILLINOIS @ NORTHWESTERN
This game determines how many bowl teams the Big Ten will have. Illinois needs a win to become bowl-eligible, though if they should win, they're likely to return to Ford Field for the Motor City Bowl. I don't think the Illini ever want to go back to Detroit again after getting cubed by Western Michigan a couple weeks ago.
For Northwestern, this win would be a big deal because it would be their ninth on the year. Not only does that make for a pretty good year, it also guarantees the Wildcats have to get a bowl bid before any seven-win team from the Big Ten can. Unless, of course, the Big Ten gets two teams in the BCS, in which case the Alamo and Champs Sports bowls are free to pick whomever they wish.
What's interesting to me is how many bowl projections I've seen which assume the Illini are going to win this game. Why? Why, at this point, would you think that? All year long, Ron Zook's team has had all the consistency of whale vomit. Northwestern may have lost to Indiana, but that was the only game all season where they just never got off the bus. They're solid, and Illinois isn't. Zook is known as a great recruiter, but right now the person he really needs to recruit is Juice Williams. With Mike Locksley, the Illini's offensive coordinator, a top candidate to get a head coaching gig, Williams might decide he doesn't want to come back to Champaign for one year under a new system with a new coordinator.
Anyway, the game. Ryan Field isn't exactly a snakepit, but the Wildcats have all the momentum, equal talent, superior coaching, and the home field advantage. It's Rose Bowl to no bowl for the Illini. Somewhere a jorts-wearing pundit is laughing.
|PLAYING FOR KEEPS||23|
|WE MUST DEFEND THIS HOUSE||24|
IOWA @ MINNESOTA
This is the last game ever in the Metrodome for the Gophers. TCF Bank Stadium opens on the U of M campus next September. Iowa is not the opponent the Gophers would like to draw for that last game. The Hawkeyes have won 7 of the 13 times they've played in the HHH, largely because there have usually been more Hawkeye fans than Gopher fans in the Dome. In fact, in 2002, Hawkeye fans were so amped about clinching an 11-win season and a share of the Big Ten title that they stormed the field and tore down the Metrodome goalposts.
This year is the first year in a while that both teams have been equally matched without them both being pretty bad. If you believe that the Gophers are still pretty good, that is, and I think you should. All-everything wideout Eric Decker returns for Tim Brewster's team and, while the Minnesota defense is still fairly wobbly, so is the Hawkeye offense once you get past Shonn Greene.
But if you can't run on the Gophers, you can certainly throw on them. They're ninth in the league in pass defense, and I think that will be enough of a weak spot for the Hawkeyes to make sure Gopher fans will never, ever miss the Metrodome.
|KISS ME ON THE BUS||31|
CAL POLY @ WISCONSIN
I know, I know, who scheduled this for the last game of the season?
This game has little to do with the Big Ten bowl picture, except that a win for the Badgers would be their seventh, guaranteeing they would have to be picked before Illinois could get a bid. Of course, that likely would have happened anyway, so let's just say this game doesn't have any bearing on the bowl bids.
The question is, can the Badgers win it? For a university whose best-known alumnus is "Weird Al" Yankovic, Cal Poly has a solid football team. The Mustangs are 8-1 and ranked third in Division 1-AA the Football Championship Subdivision. In fact, if the Badgers should soil the bed, it wouldn't even be the first time this season Cal Poly beat a big-boy team. In their opening game, the Mustangs beat San Diego State, 29-27. Thus the Badgers shouldn't get over-confident; Cal Poly won't be afraid of them, and certainly has what it ... wait a minute. They beat San Diego State by two points?
|CAN'T TALK, SHIVERING||17|
|TAKE OUR TEMPE-RATURE||28|
INDIANA @ PURDUE
It's the end of the line for Joe Tiller, who by this time next week will probably be back in the Rocky Mountains, ready to begin a life of not going to work any more. Both the Boilermakers and Hoosiers have been eliminated from the postseason, so this game is strictly for pride.
Well, pride and positioning for next year. Bill Lynch's job is safe, but it would be good for him to give the remaining IU faithful something to look forward to next fall. For Purdue, there's the obvious desire to send Coach Tiller out a winner. They shouldn't have too much trouble doing so; Indiana's defense is mostly theoretical these days.
Oh, and now that Tiller's gone, who replaces him as the Big Ten's second-longest-serving coach? Kirk Ferentz. Bet you weren't expecting that, were you?
|SISTER DON'T CRY||27|
|GOOD NIGHT, GOOD GUY||37|
So, when it's all over, here's how I predict the bowl bids will go: Penn State to the Rose, Ohio State to the Fiesta, Michigan State to Capital One, Iowa to the Outback, Northwestern to the Alamo, Wisconsin to Champs Sports, and Minnesota to the Insight Bowl, with the Motor City berth given up for a team that might actually be excited about playing in it. If Oregon State wins out, however, bump everybody down one bowl from Ohio State on.