The way people in Madison are talking, we may as well forget about Big Ten football until the holiday season, when we anxiously pray for anything close to a return to respectability in bowl games. Inevitably, the negative sentiment goes, our Midwestern teams will fail us again on the sunny stages, and we'll have nothing left to do but drown our sorrows in another stiff glass of egg nog.
Oh, you haven't heard? It's a foregone conclusion. Once Ohio State beats Iowa and its backup quarterback, James Vandenberg, Saturday, Wisconsin will essentially finish in fourth place in the conference, as far as bowl selection committees are concerned. The Buckeyes will head to Pasadena, Iowa and Penn State will face SEC teams in the Capital One and Outback bowls and, in a cruel twist of fate, the Badgers will return to the Champs Sports Bowl, which this year makes its Big Ten selection before the Valero Alamo Bowl. Hard-luck Wisconsin will revisit the site of its 42-13 defeat at the hands of Florida State, and a ten-win team will have nothing to show for its improvement of three victories over a season ago. Even this very website has joined in on the doomsday forecasting, calling Orlando our "second home" as Badger fans.
Um, this is still college football we're talking about, right? The sport in which anything - anything - can happen? With two full weekends left of Big Ten play, and even more for the rest of the national contenders, how anyone can consider the ending already written for the Badgers is incredible. Come to think of it, has much of anything happened the way we thought it would when it comes to sorting out the postseason mess in the BCS era? I'm tempted to say I'd be more surprised if Wisconsin's season actually did end in exactly the way described above than if something entirely different were to happen.
Let's take a look at some of the premature assumptions that have been asserted as facts about how this Big Ten season will conclude:
1) The winner of the Iowa-Ohio State game Saturday will finish with one conference loss and win the Big Ten outright. The sole conference crown is not, by any means, a given for whichever team wins Saturday's showdown in Columbus. If Ohio State wins, as predicted, the Buckeyes still need to go to Ann Arbor for their annual bloodbath with Michigan. Michigan is 1-5 in Big Ten play; that's a fact. It's also a fact that this is one of the most heated and tradition-rich rivalries in all of sports, a true "throw out the records" affair if there is one. The mutual hatred between these teams is so deep that a victory over Ohio State would make a hellish season worth the trouble for many Michigan players and fans. Wolverines defensive back Troy Woolfolk even shrugged off a question about his team's upcoming game against the Badgers, saying a win over the Buckeyes was the end-all, be-all for Michigan at this point. Add to that the fact that the Wolverines may very well be playing for bowl eligibility in this game, if they lose to Wisconsin Saturday. With the seat under head coach Rich Rodriguez getting warmer, Michigan will at least give Ohio State all it can possibly handle November 21, and it could mean the Buckeyes finish with two conference losses, even if they beat Iowa.
If the Hawkeyes pull off the upset Saturday, the scenario becomes even more favorable. Iowa concludes its season against a decent Minnesota team and will still be playing its backup quarterback. The Hawkeyes have already lost once at home under similar circumstances. Who is to say it can't happen again? And what if Iowa loses each of its next two games, a distinct possibility? Suddenly, a 10-2 Badger team will have leapfrogged the Hawkeyes for third place. Wisconsin fans know all too well how easily an undefeated start can turn sour, having watched a 9-0 team in 2004 drop its last two regular season games and then lose in the Outback Bowl to finish 9-3.
2) Penn State will win its last two games, finish in a tie with the Badgers at 10-2 and be selected ahead of Wisconsin. Again, are we forgetting the nature of college football? The Nittany Lions' last two games are against Indiana and Michigan State. Indiana is 1-5, and Penn State gets them at home. Still, give the Hoosiers a fighting chance. They have held fourth-quarter leads in three opposing Big Ten venues this season and certainly gave Wisconsin a scare last week. The finale at Michigan State is extremely intriguing. Spartan Stadium can be a tough place to play, and this is a rivalry game. The Spartans have caught some tough breaks this year, but there is no reason they cannot provide legitimate competition to Penn State.
Have the Nittany Lions done anything that impressive this season? Even with a record identical to that of the Badgers, I'm not ready to close the book on a bowl selection committee taking Wisconsin first. If both squads win out, the teams will have lost to the same two opponents. The difference might be that Penn State lost to both Iowa and Ohio State at home, whereas the Badgers had to travel to Columbus. The Nittany Lions scored a combined 13 points in those losses. Mock Wisconsin's non-conference schedule all you want, but Penn State's is actually worse. Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois, all at home? At least the Badgers played Fresno State, travel to Hawaii and beat a better MAC team in Northern Illinois. On paper, Wisconsin's resume is better.
3) Wisconsin has no chance of obtaining an at-large BCS bid, nor does any team from the Big Ten. This one makes me laugh. It's as if the perception of the Big Ten being relatively weak is a concept introduced this season. People have been ridiculing the conference for years, yet it still consistently receives two bids in BCS games. Call it one of the system's many flaws if you want but, last I checked, the system will again be used this winter. There are a number of reasons the Big Ten routinely sneaks an extra team in. A big part of it has to do with tradition, prestige and fan bases. Within some loose restrictions, the bowl selection committees can pretty much choose any contenders they want to fill at-large slots. These committees look at Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin, and they see dollar signs. If any of those four teams are on the table and there is any way of justifying it, I would bank on one being taken. These universities have huge alumni networks, rabid fan bases and an impressive record of traveling to bowl destinations and producing monster TV ratings. If it's a tossup between a Big Ten team and, say, TCU, I think we know who wins that battle.
But the real advantage is one the Big Ten will be enjoying for the final time this year, and that is its early conclusion. Yes, you read that right. The conference finishing play one or even two weeks before the rest of college football has long been blamed for its poor performance in bowl games. However, it unquestionably helps the Big Ten when it comes to BCS bowl selection. Come November 21, other top teams will have to maintain their winning ways and prevail in difficult conference championship games. Big Ten teams will sit back, relax and watch the others lose their grips on the bids. Consequently, by remaining idle, they will rise in the BCS standings and take the spots of the losing teams. There is very little to gain and a whole lot to lose by playing later in the season. The BCS tends to view late-season losses very unfavorably, while rewarding teams whose defeats are less fresh in the minds of fans and pollsters. Is it fair? Absolutely not. But the point is that teams similar to Wisconsin record-wise, like USC, LSU, Miami, Notre Dame, TCU and Boise State will all have opportunities to lose conference games, while the Badgers will have wrapped up their slate.
4) The Badgers will win the remainder of their games and finish 10-2. Now that I've given everyone diabetes with all of this optimism, the reality still remains that Wisconsin could very easily drop one or more of its remaining games. Michigan is desperate for a victory to become bowl-eligible. And that trip to Evanston to face a decent Northwestern team is always daunting for the Badgers. Hawaii comes with its share of distractions. In order for any of the above scenarios to become realistic for Wisconsin, the team must take care of its own business and defeat the very beatable opponents left on its schedule.