We're heading into the stretch run of the season now, and for plenty of Big Ten teams the goals have shifted from "win the conference" to something still feasible—namely, "get to a bowl game." Just get your six wins (or more if you can—more is good), get to the postseason, get the extra practices and retool for next year.
That's most teams' modus operandi come late October and November, and the Big Ten is no exception. With Wisconsin essentially a prohibitive favorite to make the Big Ten Championship out of the Leaders Division and only Michigan and Nebraska as serious candidates to get to Indianapolis out of the Legends Division, we've got a whole lot of teams who just want to get that bowl bid.
How many bowl slots will the Big Ten be able to fill this season?
Here's the problem, though: there are too many bowl bids.
The Big Ten won't be filling all eight bowl slots this year. Eight bowl bids is fine for a 12-team league and the Big Ten shouldn't feel bad about making those deals, but we're not dealing with a 12-team league this year. The Big Ten's only got 10 bowl-eligible teams this season, and filling eight bowl bids in a 10-team conference is a monumental challenge.
Ah, but it gets worse.
If the Big Ten were just a 10-team league, there would be 40 wins and 40 losses in conference play to divvy up between the teams. But there are two rebel forces, two postseason-ineligible teams hard at work gobbling up valuable conference wins and handing out crippling losses to the other teams who would otherwise be in bowl consideration.
How bad is it? The postseason-ineligible teams are 7-0 in Big Ten play thus far. Everyone else is 13-20.
Combine that 13-20 with one of the most dismal non-conference efforts the Big Ten has ever put forth en masse, and you see why Jerry Palm at CBSSports.com projects a fat lot of nobody to take the Heart of Dallas Bowl slot, the Big Ten's seventh bowl bid.
Palm has Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, Michigan in the Capital One, Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, Purdue (?!) in the Gator Bowl, Northwestern in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and Michigan State in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
So Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota? Palm says enjoy the holidays at home.
We're still of the mindset that either Iowa or Minnesota can get to six wins (though they've already played, so there's no automatic win that gets one of the two teams to the brink with five wins), but both would be a stretch. So even in our optimistic eyes the Big Ten's not filling its bids.
And that's all on Ohio State and Penn State, because both of those teams are getting to at least six wins (and probably well past) this year. If both teams were bowl-eligible, we'd be having a vastly different discussion right about now.