Big Ten Football Division Race Primer: How It All Breaks Down with 4 Weeks Left

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Big Ten Football Division Race Primer: How It All Breaks Down with 4 Weeks Left
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

There are just four weeks left in the regular season, and as the calendar turned to November this past weekend, thoughts of division titles and a trip to Indianapolis became a reality for some and a fleeting hope for others.

Ohio State took care of a team that has challenged it greatly in recent memory, beating Purdue 56-0 to stay undefeated. The other team without a loss in conference play, Michigan State, handled in-state rivals Michigan, 29-6, to win the Paul Bunyan Trophy. 

After this past weekend's results, the thought of Ohio State vs. Michigan State in Indianapolis has become closer to reality, but can both finish the deal?

With a full month left to go, there is plenty of football to be played in both division races and especially in the Legends Division, where it seems as if anything goes on a week-by-week basis. 

How do the two divisions and the conference race look heading into the final four weeks? 

Legends Division Standings
Team Conference Record Overall Record
Michigan State 5-0 8-1
Nebraska 3-1 6-2
Minnesota 3-2 7-2
Michigan 2-2 6-2
Iowa 2-3 5-4
Northwestern 0-5 4-5

bigten.org

 

Legends Division

Favorite: Michigan State

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend's win over Michigan was big for many reasons, but most importantly it gave the Spartans (8-1, 5-0) a massive advantage over their hated rivals. Michigan State not only is up two games in the standings, but it would take MSU losing all three of its remaining Big Ten games for the Wolverines to overtake it in the standings. 

The Spartans can't afford to rest on their win from this past weekend, though, as they have a trip to Nebraska and its miracle-working ways coming up after the bye week. History suggests this won't be an easy task for Michigan State, who has never beaten the Huskers (0-7), yet these two teams aren't the same as the past few seasons either. 

Saturday's game in Lincoln also gives the Spartans a chance to wrap up the division with a win. Just like what happened after the Michigan game, it would take three MSU losses for Nebraska to catch up; and there aren't three games left for that to happen. 

Following the Nebraska game there is a badly snake-bitten Northwestern team and an ever-improving Minnesota squad left on the slate. Michigan State should be heavy favorites in both. 

More importantly, Michigan State has a chance to keep climbing in the BCS Standings—where they currently sit at No. 17. 

Can Michigan State continue to win and become the second BCS team for the Big Ten? 

 

The Contender: Nebraska

Eric Francis/Getty Images

Nebraska sits here almost solely based on the process of elimination within the division, yet counting the Huskers out of this race may be a bit premature. 

Have the Huskers lost a game they shouldn't have to Minnesota? Maybe, but since then its been hard to argue the Gophers aren't the better overall team.

Then, what makes Nebraska a contender? The fact is that they are the only team that can fully control its own destiny outside of Michigan State in the division.

A win on Saturday against Michigan State and the Huskers are at the top of the standings in the division. 

Trusting the Huskers to hold on to that lead, should they get it, is a bit much considering the remaining schedule isn't easy—with Penn State and Iowa to follow the Spartans on the schedule.

Anything could happen with this team and that's half the fun of the Legends Division race. 

 

Outside Looking In: Minnesota

Yes, you are reading that correctly, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-2, 3-2) have an outside shot at the Big Ten title. 

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It's a real thing and not just some reprint of headlines from 1967, which is the last time Minnesota actually won a Big Ten championship—in a three-way tie with Indiana and Purdue (how the heck did that combo ever happen?).

The problem is the scenario that Minnesota needs to win the division is something that only Hollywood could write. 

Minnesota needs Nebraska to win this weekend and lose the rest of its games, while the Gophers face a three-game stretch of Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. 

There may not be a harder final stretch of the season than what the Gophers face. 

Giving them hope against these three is the fact that Minnesota has found its identity as a power-running team. 

Now it has begun to build off of that. This past weekend quarterback Philip Nelson finally had a great game passing, going for 298 yards and four touchdowns. 

 

And The Winner Will Be: Michigan State

If there is one truth about winning a Big Ten championship, it's that defense wins said championship. 

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Michigan State not only happens to have the best overall defense in the Big Ten, but also the country. It leads the nation in rushing defense (43.4 yards per game), is fourth in passing defense (166.8 yards per game) and is third in scoring defense (11.6 points per game). 

It helps that they've also found a solid enough offense to allow the defense to do its thing and not have to carry the team on its back. 

Quarterback Connor Cook is the best example of this, considering he's thrown for 1,079 of his 1,490 yards in conference play this season. That's 72.4 percent of all of his yards in Big Ten action, a ridiculous percentage for any quarterback. 

This team is good enough to outpace the rest of the conference and the scenarios that need to play out for it not to win a division title are so far-fetched it's also hard not to see how this doesn't happen.

Leaders Division Standings
Teams Conference Record Overall Record
Ohio State 5-0 9-0
Wisconsin 4-1 6-2
Penn State 2-2 5-3
Indiana 1-3 3-5
Illinois 0-4 3-5
Purdue 0-4 1-7

bigten.org

 

Leaders Division

The Favorite: Ohio State

Let's be honest, the chances of the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes not going to Indianapolis are about as great as Purdue winning a Big Ten game this season. 

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Braxton Miller has done nothing but steadily progress as a passer as the Big Ten season has gone along, and Carlos Hyde has emerged as potentially the first 1,000-yard rusher in Urban Meyer's career as a head coach. 

Oh and the defense has gotten better as the season has gone on as well. 

The Buckeyes have also been helped by a light schedule and only face one tough game the rest of the way—a trip to Ann Arbor for "The Game." 

Even that is looking like a very winnable game as we head into the final weeks of the season. 

Ohio State also happens to own the ninth best scoring defense in the country (17 points per game) and fifth-best scoring offense (48.2). 

With the Illibuck trophy game and Indiana also left on the schedule, one could assume a lot of points are going to be put up over the final three weeks of the season following the bye this week. 

 

The Contender: Wisconsin

Most assumed that it would come down to September 28, 2013 for the Leaders Division title, and, now that we're a month out of the Badgers losing to the Buckeyes, that thought has been all but proven 100 percent accurate. 

For the No. 24 Wisconsin Badgers, that means its chances are slipping away with every week. 

Wisconsin's chances of getting to Indianapolis hinge on Ohio State's ability to drop two games, and with the way OSU is playing at this point in time, that doesn't appear likely.

Unlike the Buckeyes though, they are done with their bye weeks and face a bit more daunting of a schedule—with BYU, Indiana, Minnesota and Penn State left on the schedule. 

Yes, that's right, Wisconsin is playing a non-conference game in early November. 

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It could serve as a catalyst to refresh a team that really doesn't need a lot of refreshing in Big Ten play. 

Wisconsin's biggest challenge outside of the the Cougars could well come from a team that they've dominated in recent memory—Minnesota. 

The Badgers haven't lost the longest played game in FBS history in their last nine tries, and their attempt to make it a decade won't be easy. 

However, the one thing that Wisconsin has going for it as a contender to Ohio State is easily the second best defense in the Big Ten. Add it to an offense that has the second leading rusher in all of college football and you have a recipe for success. 

If Ohio State drops two games, look for the Badgers to make it three in a row for them in Indianapolis. 

 

Outside Looking In: Penn State

Penn State could be considered for this category because they are technically eligible for the division title, but it isn't going to happen. 

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Nittany Lions would need Ohio State to lose all three of its games to end the year and win out against a schedule that features Purdue, Nebraska and Wisconsin. 

With how up-and-down this team has played this season, this scenario is the longest of long shots in the entire conference. 

Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been good, but he's also been plagued by bad offensive line play and a defense that can't stop the pass when needed either. 

Truthfully, there is no team that should be in contention besides Wisconsin as the Leaders Division just doesn't have the firepower to compete against the two-headed monster of Ohio State and Wisconsin. 

 

And the Winner Will Be: Ohio State Buckeyes

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State has a 21-game win streak coming into its second bye week of the season, and it's hard to see them losing any of the three remaining conference games. 

The hard-fought win at home against Wisconsin is likely the difference between a trip to Pasadena and a trip to Florida on New Year's Day. 

Ohio State could be sitting on the outside looking in at the BCS National Championship Game, but chaos in college football is nothing new. 

Look for order to rule the day in the Big Ten though, as Ohio State stays undefeated and heads to Indianapolis. 

That means it will be Ohio State vs. Michigan State in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Who doesn't want to see Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde take on the nation's best defense with one last shot to impress the BCS computers and voters? 

 

*Andy Coppens is the lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.

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