The initial BCS Standings have been released for the final time before college football moves to a playoff, and the table has officially been set for the back half of the 2013 season.
How does that affect the Big Ten, a conference with a lonely single team within the Top 20 of the initial BCS Standings? Glad you asked!
Even with a lot of football left, the path to high-caliber bowl games is now clear for every team contending for conference titles. If nothing else, teams need to be somewhere on the BCS radar now in order to jump into position later for BCS bowls.
Of the Big Ten teams, only five can be said to be on the BCS radar, and only one has a legitimate shot at the final BCS Championship. Let's start with the Buckeyes and then come back to the teams with a lot of work left to do to get into the Rose Bowl or BCS at-large discussion.
Ohio State (4th in BCS Standings, 0.8553)
Although it really should come as no surprise following the absolute licking Florida State put on Maryland and then Clemson, Buckeye Nation was disappointed with the showing in the initial BCS Standings. It is clear from the much stronger computer numbers of Alabama, Oregon, FSU and Missouri that two of those three teams (counting Missouri and Alabama as a single team since they would play each other) need to lose to open the door for the Buckeyes to the big game in Pasadena.
Of course, the first order of business for the Buckeyes is to win every game remaining. Penn State will not provide much of a bump thanks to postseason ineligibility, and then Purdue, Illinois and Indiana will hurt the computer rankings even more.
The closing games against Michigan and the Legends Division champion could provide two wins against BCS-ranked opponents right at the end of the season. However, each of the teams ahead of OSU will also have strong (perhaps even stronger) closing stretches.
Even Baylor could be a legitimate threat if Ohio State does not start winning games convincingly, which could cause the Bears to start stealing votes from the Buckeyes. There's no guarantee the voters and the computers would favor Baylor over an OSU team that would have won 25 in a row by that point, but it is something to be noted early on.
The most important game remaining for Ohio State is the Big Ten Championship. Win that game, and the Buckeyes will be in Pasadena for one of the two huge bowl games there. A loss there would be devastating and could even knock the Buckeyes out of the BCS, especially if Michigan knocks off Ohio State.
Stay tuned to your televisions, Buckeye Nation. It's time to cheer on the NC States and Auburns of the world, every single week.
Michigan (22nd in BCS Standings, 0.1637)
Michigan surprisingly finds itself in pole position compared to all the other contenders for the Big Ten title in the Legends Division. The Wolverines still control their own destiny in that division by having games remaining against Michigan State and Nebraska, which are above Michigan in the division standings.
The closing stretch actually provides numerous solid games, as the Spartans and Cornhuskers are joined by Ohio State on the November schedule. The biggest opportunity for Michigan to jump up the BCS Standings will be the back-to-back games against Ohio State that would likely happen if Michigan wins out.
Defeating a potentially top-two team in the BCS two weeks in a row would obviously put Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Of course, that is the easiest path to the BCS.
However, just beating the Buckeyes once in those two weeks would likely provide a significant upward bump in the computer numbers and the polls, as the loss would not be penalized nearly as much as the win would be rewarded.
All Michigan has to do is climb to about the 12-14 range in the BCS Standings before those two games occur against OSU. That would all but guarantee an at large berth, even if Michigan beats Ohio State in Ann Arbor and then cannot do it again in Indianapolis.
The first BCS Standings may not look good for the Big Ten at large, but they actually work well for the Wolverines. Just keep winning and Michigan will only need one win in two games against Ohio State to likely make the BCS bowls.
Not bad for a team that looks so lost at times, such as in overtime against Penn State. Michigan is one of two teams with the best shot at a BCS at large, even if Ohio State wins the Big Ten championship.
Nebraska (24th in BCS Standings, 0.1354)
The Cornhuskers are being carried by the poll voters to this point, as none of the six computers used in the BCS have Nebraska anywhere in the Top 25. Nebraska has six more games in the next six weeks, including each other team in the Legends Division plus Penn State.
Although Nebraska looks good sitting in first place of the division and with a 5-1 record, the only team with a legitimate pulse on the first half of the schedule was UCLA. The Bruins dominated Nebraska at Lincoln, so there is a lot left to prove before the computers and even the poll voters move Nebraska up into contention.
The opportunities will be there with games against Michigan State and Michigan. However, both those teams play each other before the games against Nebraska, so one of those games may not carry the same pop for voters and computers than it would otherwise.
That means an 11-1 Nebraska team may struggle to break into the Top 10 of the BCS Standings, especially if the wins against division opponents are not impressive. It is hard to see how Nebraska's computer numbers will improve drastically with the likes of Purdue and Southern Mississippi dragging those numbers down.
All of this equals bad news, as it sets up a scenario where Nebraska perhaps must defeat Ohio State in Indianapolis just to stay in the Top 14.
In addition, Nebraska does not carry the same national cachet as Michigan when it comes to bowl representatives reaching down to grab them, so even a Nebraska team ranked in the 12-14 range at 11-2 (following a loss to Ohio State) may not be picked by the Rose Bowl if the Buckeyes then advance to the championship.
It looks like Rose Bowl or nothing for Nebraska. Wins over Michigan, MSU and the Buckeyes will be the recipe for that to happen.
Michigan State (Unranked in BCS Standings)
The Spartans are 6-1 and remain just off the radar in the polls as well as the BCS Standings. just like Nebraska, Michigan State looks good at 3-0 in conference but has some serious schedule weakness problems to overcome.
Playing the weak trio of Indiana, Illinois and Purdue from the Leaders Division will not help when added to non-conference games against struggling teams like Western Michigan (0-8) and South Florida (2-4)
If the Spartans and the lockdown defense cannot be respected at this point in the season, it is unlikely that this will change even with wins over Nebraska and Michigan. An 11-1 MSU team heading to Indianapolis would almost certainly not end up ranked in the Top 10, which means the win over Ohio State (or Wisconsin) would be required to stay BCS eligible.
Even more assertively than Nebraska, it is Rose Bowl or nothing for Mark Dantonio's team. When a team wins ugly and plays a bad schedule, this is what happens.
If the Spartans defeat Nebraska, the win over Michigan might not even be required to make the Big Ten Championship. Michigan State would have a good chance with that defense to have a legitimate shot should the team make it to Indianapolis.
Plus, let's face it: a Rose Bowl would be a dream for this program, and anything else would be a false imitation.
Wisconsin (Unranked in BCS Standings)
Certainly part of why the Big Ten is disrespected in national perception right now are the continued losses in bowl games, but the lack of opportunities to win big games in non-conference play is also hampering the league. The Badgers are a perfect example, with three total loser games joining the loss at Arizona State on the non-conference schedule.
That freak loss in the desert will not be held against Wisconsin if the Badgers keep obliterating teams and look like the best or second-best team in the conference. The Badgers have traveled well to Pasadena three straight years, and that means other BCS bowls will take a serious look at inviting a 10-2 Badgers team.
The good news about Wisconsin's closing schedule is that the toughest games are at home and do not look that imposing (BYU, Penn State). The bad news about that schedule is that it will not help the computer numbers lift the Badgers into the Top 14.
Still, there's a lot to be said for winning games convincingly, and Wisconsin continues to do that in Big Ten play. When it is a legitimate debate whether a team that was effectively dominated in a head-to-head match up with a Top 5 team (OSU) is actually better, then there is a good chance voters will finally take notice and reward the Badgers for good play.
Ignoring the Badgers has proven dangerous—just ask Nebraska from last December. While it stinks that Wisconsin likely will be locked out of the Big Ten Championship by the loss to Ohio State, the lack of having to play the Buckeyes again could prove to be critical to staying in the Top 14 of the final BCS Standings.
At this time, I'd say Wisconsin has just as much chance as Michigan at an at-large BCS berth. But while Michigan has to win a game against Ohio State to get there, Wisconsin can coast on cupcake lane and finish the season strong to get there.
As far-fetched as it may seem after the first BCS Standings, Michigan and Wisconsin are set up relatively well to put a second team from the Big Ten into the BCS. Of course, the easiest (and cheapest) way to guarantee two slots in BCS bowls is for the Legends Division champion to win in Indianapolis.
However, there is a chance for two appearances by Big Ten teams in Pasadena, one in the Rose Bowl and OSU in the BCS Championship. If that occurs, we will have to hope that these teams step up and finally impress the country instead of the normal letdowns.
Thanks for reading! Please comment on how you feel about the first BCS Standings and how they affect the Big Ten chances at the BCS in the comments below. Also feel free to follow me on Twitter and continue the conversation there.
I should be back tomorrow with some analysis for the other side of the conference, namely, what's left on the table for those teams left out in the BCS chase. I will also be grading Ohio State's performance against Penn State this weekend. See you then!