The Big Ten conference season is just about to get underway, and although everyone's still a blemish-free 0-0 in conference play, we can already get a pretty good sense of what it'll be that everyone's playing for in November. Yes, Minnesota and Northwestern are undefeated, but let's not kid ourselves: Those trains don't run to Pasadena.
So while we don't know exactly where everyone's ending up come December (and let's be honest, nobody knows that in September), we can get a sense of what's in play and what isn't. So let's take a look.
Yes, in case you've been living under a rock, Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the postseason in 2012. And if you found a rock in which you could live without having to hear about Penn State's offseason, please please take us there with you because that must be the greatest place on the entire planet.
It's a shame Ohio State isn't playing for a Big Ten Championship this year, because with Wisconsin tumbling from the top so fast it's leaving a vapor trail, the Buckeyes would be prohibitive favorites for a trip to Indianapolis from the Leaders Division as of today. An at-large BCS bid would also be in play, especially if Ohio State could get to 11 wins without a conference championship.
As for Penn State, well...at least it's football we're talking about right now.
How are things, Tim Beckman?
In any normal year, the Fighting Illini would be strong candidates for the Big Ten cellar after a non-conference season that saw two blowout losses against teams that weren't exactly heavy favorites. Arizona State shredded the Illini defense in a 45-14 laugher, then in Week 4 Louisiana Tech came to Champaign and incinerated Illinois, 52-24.
However, this is the Big Ten in 2012, and being that the conference will almost certainly struggle to meet its bowl obligations, if you get to six wins you're going bowling, no questions asked.
That's the best we can say about Illinois: The rest of the conference is bad.
Still, it's hard to see where four conference wins come from, even in a top-heavy division like the Leaders. Top-heavy doesn't mean lots of easy wins when you're not part of that top.
Possibilities: Meineke Car Care Bowl, TicketCity Bowl, Little Caesar's Bowl, Staycation
How are things, Kevin Wilson?
Indiana's got a slightly easier path to a bowl game than Illinois simply by way of catching one loss so far against a cake-easy non-conference schedule. Yes, a Navy game still awaits, and who knows how that'll end up.
And while 3-9 is a likely destination for these Hoosiers, there are enough "maybe" games left on the schedule (@Northwestern, Navy, Iowa, @Penn State) that six wins isn't completely out of the picture.
That being said, no bowl wants to take a team like Indiana. Not in the middle of basketball season. Indiana would sell roughly four tickets. Thus, rest assured that any bowl invitation would be begrudging at best.
Possibilities: Rose Bowl, TicketCity Bowl, Little Caesar's Bowl, Staycation
How are things, Kirk Ferentz?
Yes, we've mentioned five teams in the conference so far—four of whom went to bowls in 2011—and staying home come bowl season is either a serious possibility or an NCAA mandate for all of them. The Big Ten, everybody!
The Iowa Hawkeyes have looked purely incompetent thus far (not a normal look for this program) in a 2-2 start, and although Iowa's reputation says it'll improve as the Big Ten season goes on, one still has to wonder where the wins will come from. Every other Legends Division team has looked substantially better, and if Central Michigan can come into Kinnick and steal a win, then a road game with Indiana is hardly a gimme.
The only thing Iowa has going for it is a sterling bowl reputation, one that let the Hawkeyes sneak into the Alamo Bowl (the fourth Big Ten bowl affiliate at the time) at 6-6 (2-6) in 2006. Two straight trips to the Insight Bowl (now the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl) probably preclude the Hawkeyes from making a third straight trip to Tempe, but the Gator Bowl shares the fourth and fifth pick with the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, so there's a remote possibility of some wheeling and dealing there.
Yes, it'd be weird to see Iowa in the Gator Bowl against the SEC's sixth-best team (that would be a bloodbath), the fact remains that all Iowa needs is six wins to get bowl committees hot and bothered all over again.
The six wins need to happen first, though.
Possibilities: Gator Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, TicketCity.com Bowl, Little Caesar's Bowl, Staycation
How are things, Brady Hoke?
Finally, we've got a near-lock to go to a bowl...and it's a 2-2 team, meaning even a 3-5 trip through the conference is a one-way ticket to a staycation (why would you even buy a ticket to do that?).
Now, we don't think Michigan goes 3-5 in the Big Ten. Let's get that one out of the way real quick. But even getting two road wins against the likes of Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska and Ohio State is going to be a legitimate challenge for the Wolverines, who struggle mightily away from Ann Arbor.
Still, if there's one team in the Big Ten bowls want to invite, it's storied, illustrious Michigan. That'll help come December when it's time to jockey for bowl bids. No pizza pizza for the Wolverines if anyone can help it. Plus, come on: It's still Michigan. running the table won't happen, but 6-2 and somehow winning a tiebreaker with Nebraska and/or Michigan State is eminently plausible still.
And if Michigan gets to Indianapolis, let's be honest: It's probably going to Pasadena next. Sorry, Leaders Division, but you are horrible.
Possibilities: Rose Bowl, Capital One Bowl, Outback Bowl, Gator Bowl, Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl
How are things, Mark Dantonio?
One of the Legends Division's strongest contenders for the Rose Bowl already has a 17-point loss on the books and just trailed at the half at home against Eastern Michigan. So things are going really well in the Big Ten.
Michigan State is still in pretty good shape for a Big Ten run, though, because again: It's just the Big Ten. There aren't a ton of teams who have linebackers that can match up well with a nightmare like Dion Sims at TE, and Le'Veon Bell is going to pass 1,500 yards rushing with ease this year. 2,000 yards is on the table, even if Mark Dantonio has to rush him over 400 times to get there. Hey, do you have a better idea for this offense?
The Capital One Bowl might not be thrilled about taking Michigan State for the third time in five years, but it could have no reasonable alternative if Nebraska edges the Spartans for the Legends Division title and nobody steps up with a big year from the Leaders. Combine that with a four-loss season for Michigan (not a guarantee, we're just talking scenarios here) and it's pretty much by default that Michigan State goes back to Orlando.
Possibilities: Rose Bowl, Capital One Bowl, Outback Bowl, Gator Bowl, Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
How are things, Jerry Kill? Oh wait, they're good?
Hey, finally a team with things going its way. Minnesota rolls into conference play at 4-0 and needing only two conference wins to get to bowl eligibility. The Gophers have done it with a surprisingly stiff defense (one that was one of the worst in not only the Big Ten but the entire nation last year) and steady play from backup QB Max Shortell as MarQueis Gray comes back from injury.
That all said, we'll know a lot more about this Gopher team after its trip to Iowa this week. If Minnesota's good enough to start winning road games against decent competition, it's time to upgrade the bowl prospects. If not, well, good job, good effort.
Possibilities: Meineke Car Care Bowl, TicketCity Bowl, Little Caesar's Bowl, Staycation
How are things, Bo Pelini?
Don't get too amped up by a victory over Idaho State—not even by 66 points—but don't dismiss this Nebraska team as the team that just gets annihilated by anyone with a pulse on offense either.
That loss to UCLA is probably killer for Nebraska's at-large BCS chances, as there aren't many scenarios in which Nebraska puts together a sufficient resume but can't win the conference (or even the division), but this is a Rose Bowl-caliber team in a conference that doesn't have a lot of those.
Right now, Nebraska leads the Big Ten in total offense. Don't expect that to change much, if at all. The defense is getting it together too. And with Brett Maher manning the kicker and punter spots, Nebraska may well have all the pieces in place for a run at a special year.
Add in the fact that bowl committees adore the Huskers, and this is perhaps the most attractive bowl team in the conference this year.
Possibilities: Rose Bowl, at-large BCS bid, Capital One Bowl, Outback Bowl, Gator Bowl
How are things, Pat Fitzgerald?
Northwestern is the only other Big Ten team with a sterling record at this point, and leaving aside the South Dakota snooze-fest, that's a pretty big deal.
There are signs of impending distress in Evanston, from a rough passing game to a secondary that's still giving up too much yardage (though the defensive efficiency is getting there).
Nobody's as thirsty for a bowl win as Northwestern, who has waited 60 years and counting and has bowl losses in each of the last four seasons (by an average of seven points, no less). The Wildcats have been all over the place in terms of where they end up in the bowl ladder, so not only are the bowl committees warming to the 'Cats, there's also nobody except maybe the Meineke Car Care Bowl (the 2011 host) who wouldn't want to see Northwestern back this year.
So between that and perhaps the best non-conference resume in the Big Ten, this should be a pretty decent year of bowling for Northwestern.
Possibilities: Outback Bowl, Gator Bowl, Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, TicketCity Bowl
How are things, Danny Hope? (NOTE: this counts as smiling for him)
Purdue might be the Leaders Division, um, leader. It's been that kind of year.
The Boilermakers' season resume is getting sneaky good at this point, and if it can handle Marshall with any ease it might have the best non-conference resume of anyone in the Big Ten this year. Yes, there's a three-point loss to Notre Dame in there. But that game was in South Bend for one, and secondly ask Michigan and Michigan State how easy it is to score touchdowns on Notre Dame. Purdue scored two.
Purdue's depth isn't great, but the starters are good enough that the Boilermakers will be competitive in every game they play this year. Combined with a laughably weak Leaders Division in terms of bowl-eligible teams, a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship seems in the cards.
That being said, Purdue's bowl stature doesn't match up terribly well against the top three teams of the Leaders Division, so if Pasadena doesn't work out we don't exactly expect the Capital One Bowl to come calling. And if a return to mediocrity is in Purdue's cards, well, that bowl stock could stumble significantly.
Possibilities: Rose Bowl, Gator Bowl, Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, TicketCity Bowl, Little Caesar's Bowl
How are things, Bret Bielema?
There's no team that's harder to get one's head around than Wisconsin. On one hand, the Badgers have looked like a borderline bowl team in 2012, far worse than anyone could have reasonably suspected. On the other, we're talking about a two-time returning Rose Bowl team and a Heisman finalist tailback.
So in a weak Big Ten and an especially weak Leaders Division, a return to ground-based dominance is totally possible. But Wisconsin's one of the main reasons why the Big Ten's weak, and if the Badgers keep up this level of play they're not going anywhere in December. This could end basically anywhere for Wisconsin.
Possibilities: Rose Bowl, Capital One Bowl, Outback Bowl, Gator Bowl, Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, TicketCity Bowl, Staycation