As November rolls on, we're getting closer and closer to figuring out who is heading to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship. We already know a handful of teams who won't be making that journey: Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State, and Ohio State. That leaves five teams still in the hunt, and four of them face off today. Indiana hosts Wisconsin in a crucial Leaders Division matchup, and Michigan takes on Northwestern in an important Legends Division clash. Nebraska, the fifth contender, is not out of the woods either, hosting ineligible-but-pesky Penn State. None of them are marquee matchups, but that is the plight of the Big Ten in 2012. However exciting you find these three games should give you an idea of how excited you'll get over the Big Ten Championship game.
The theme for this week of games is 'Spoiler Week.' As in, one team in all of these match-ups will try to play the spoiler role today. Wisconsin will try to spoil Indiana's cinderella story. Penn State wants to take away Nebraska's frontrunning position in the Legends Division. Purdue hopes to put a dent in Iowa's chances of becoming bowl eligible. Illinois will try to do the same to Minnesota. And Northwestern wants to spoil Brady Hoke's perfect record at Michigan Stadium. Let's take a look at which spoilers can get it done and which ones will fall short.
Week 11 (all games on Saturday):
11 AM CT:
#24 Northwestern Wildcats (7-2 overall, 3-2 Big Ten) at Michigan Wolverines (6-3, 4-1) [ESPN]: Neither of these teams control their own destiny in the Legends Division because both have already lost to Nebraska. Though they've combined for a 7-3 conference record, neither really have a victory worth bragging about. Michigan defeating Michigan State 12-10? Northwestern beating Iowa 28-17? As a result, this game will become the best win on the resume of the winner. Michigan QB Denard Robinson should be back in action, but even if he remains out, Devin Gardner has proven to be a suitable replacement. As I already mentioned, Brady Hoke has yet to lose at home since he took the head coaching job in Ann Arbor. It should be a hotly contested game with both teams desperately needing this win, but Northwestern's defense just isn't talented enough to contain all of Michigan's playmakers, and what has been a consistent home field advantage will put the Wolverines over the top.
Line: Michigan -9. Prediction: Michigan 31, Northwestern 20.
Wisconsin Badgers (6-3, 3-2) at Indiana Hoosiers (4-5, 2-3) [ESPN2]: There's two ways this game can go. One possibility is that Wisconsin runs the ball down Indiana's throat and the Badgers' defense pulls out yet another stellar performance. New Wisconsin starting quarterback Curt Phillips proves to be a master at handing the ball off. The other possibility is that Indiana carves up the Badger secondary through the air and shuts down a one-dimensional UW offense. And though either one of these could very well happen, the game has a high likelihood of coming down to the wire in both cases. I see Wisconsin getting the running game going and grinding out a victory eerily like the one over Indiana in 2009.
Line: Wisconsin -7. Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Indiana 20.
Purdue Boilermakers (3-6, 0-5) at Iowa Hawkeyes (4-5, 2-3) [BTN]: Purdue has been in free-fall ever since they were unable to hold onto that late lead over Ohio State. Or has it been since Big Ten Conference play kicked off? Either way, the Boilermakers are a sight for sore Hawk-eyes. Iowa has lost three straight games and will need to win 2 of their final 3 games to become bowl eligible. Of course, the Hawkeyes' biggest problems are on the offensive side of the ball, but Purdue's defense has been used and abused on many occasions this season. Meanwhile, Purdue still can't settle on one quarterback, and the offensive instability under center has been a major issue. It won't be a pretty game, but Iowa gets a much-needed win at Kinnick.
Line: Iowa -5. Prediction: Iowa 31, Purdue 17.
2:30 PM CT:
Penn State Nittany Lions (6-3, 4-1) at #16 Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-2, 4-1) [ABC/ESPN2]: The team with a top-20 offense hosts the team with a top-20 defense. Penn State knows that defense wins championships, but Nebraska believes that you can't win if you don't score. I often feel that a great defense trumps a great offense, but I don't think that will be the case today in Lincoln. Nebraska's offense is relentless, and it will be difficult for Penn State to bottle up Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah for the entire game. The Lions haven't yet played in a road environment as intimidating as Memorial Stadium. This should be an enjoyable game to watch, and I see the Cornhuskers taking care of business to remain in the Legends Division driver's seat.
Line: Nebraska -8.5. Prediction: Nebraska 27, Penn State 21.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-4, 1-4) at Illinois Fighting Illini (2-7, 0-5) [BTN]: The two division cellar-dwellers meet up for a game that excites few. It is a very important game for Minnesota, who would get back into a bowl game for the first time since 2009 with a victory. And if the Gophers don't win this one, a 5-7 finish and no bowl is a major possibility. Illinois just wants to get a Big Ten victory or two to close out a forgettable season in Champaign. I shudder to think how cheap the tickets are going for at this game. If you do make the decision to watch this one, keep your eye on Gopher freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. He has created a buzz with his play in the past couple of weeks, and his future is bright. Be that as it may, I like Illinois to pull off the home upset today.
Line: Minnesota -3.5. Prediction: Illinois 27, Minnesota 20.
Season to Date:
Overall Record: 60-19 (75.9%); Last Week: 5-0.
Record Against the Spread: 45-33-1 (57.6%); Last Week: 4-1.