We're only three weeks into the 2012 season, and it's already time to start worrying about the postseason. That's not "worrying" as in "thinking about who's going where," mind you—we're talking about full-on worrying. That's because the Big Ten is in real danger of not being able to fulfill all its bowl requirements.
What's worse, the Big Ten might not even come close.
The Big Ten has eight bowl agreements for the 2012 season, starting with the Rose Bowl and working all the way down to the Little Caesar's Bowl. There's also the possibility that the Big Ten sends another team to a BCS bowl with an at-large bid. It took 20 minutes to type that sentence the whole way through without laughing.
Eight bids for 12 teams is eminently reasonable. Heck, that's why the Big Ten has that deal. It's just that the Big Ten doesn't have its full assortment of teams it can send, with Ohio State and Penn State both barred from postseason play. And eight bowl bids for 10 teams? There it gets dicey.
The Big Ten is losing a sure bowl team in Ohio State. The Buckeyes are probably going to end up winners of the Leaders Division by the end of the regular season, and that means whoever ends up in the Big Ten Championship from that division won't exactly have earned it. Regardless, that's one team down.
If Penn State gets its act together and gets to six wins or more on the year, that's another bowl team down the drain—and at least four more conference victories that the rest of the conference won't have en route to becoming bowl-eligible.
So let's look at the rest of the conference and see how close we can get to eight. There's a measure of irony in the fact that the Big Ten is so bad that there's little chance of sending another team to a BCS bowl—thus getting the conference closer to filling its bowl obligations. College football, y'all!
Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska are all virtual locks to get to six wins or more. Odds are also very good that one of these teams gets to the Rose Bowl and that the other two members of this power trio take the Big Ten's next two bowl bids in the Capital One Bowl and Outback Bowl.
On the other side of the conference, Purdue is the strongest contender for a bowl bid in the Leaders Division, not to mention a Big Ten Championship berth. The Boilermakers are unlikely to actually get to Pasadena, but the Gator Bowl is a fine goal.
And then it starts to get dicey.
Northwestern looks better and better every week, but a buzz-saw of a Big Ten schedule awaits. Still, barring a horror show against South Dakota this week, the Wildcats come into the Big Ten schedule at 4-0 and should get to at least seven wins. Northwestern isn't a sexy invite for bowl committees, so unless the 'Cats rip off a huge year, the Meineke Car Care Bowl is a likely destination.
One hopes desperately that Wisconsin will get to six wins for the sake of not embarrassing the conference, but the Badgers offense has been an absolute wreck, one of the worst in the entire nation—and not against strong competition, either.
Let's get generous and say this is a 7-5 team, though. The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl will likely come calling, with its tiny wings, inedible hamburgers and overpriced beer. I hope that place isn't a sponsor. Whatever, its food is horrible.
Illinois? The Illini have the benefit of coming into the conference slate with a likely 3-1 record, though if they stumble against Louisiana Tech—and mind you, that team's 2-0 and is third to only Oklahoma State and Florida State in points per game thus far—a bowl bid becomes much less assured. If Illinois beats Louisiana Tech, sure, pencil it in for a bowl bid. If not? 50-50 at best.
Iowa is another 50-50 bowl team, one that like Wisconsin has looked utterly miserable on offense at times. The Hawkeyes have barely any gimmes on the rest of the schedule—even lowly Central Michigan is only a 15.5-point underdog to Iowa this week, per VegasInsider.com—and barring a dramatic improvement, six wins looks like a ceiling for this team.
We'll tell you when to start thinking about Indiana and Minnesota as bowl teams. That time is not now.
So there you go. The Big Ten's best hopes are for filling the bare minimum of its bowl obligations, and those best hopes revolve around Illinois' ability to string wins together and Wisconsin and Iowa playing like different teams entirely. Best of luck with that, Big Ten. You will need it.