'Tis the season. The season to speculate about who is going where this holiday season.
No matter you think of the college football bowl system, this is the postseason we are stuck with for the time being. Teams are rewarded for excellence --- or in the case of a good 50 percent of the bowls: mediocrity. The Big Ten, through years of tradition as well as blatant corporate shilling, has eight bowl tie ins.
The bad news: The Big Ten rarely fills all of its bowl tie-ins because of a lack of bowl eligible teams to go to such wondrous destinations as Detroit in December.
The good new: The reason the Big Ten usually can't muster the teams to fill a slot in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl because most years the Big Ten is sending an at-large team to a BCS bowl.
How the new divisional alignment/title game will affect the at-large remains to be seen. While the benefits of the Big Ten title game are many, one of the drawbacks is that the second best team in the conference ends up with another loss on its record in the all important BCS at-large beauty pageant.
Let's take a look at how this author predicts each team finishes the season and where each team goes for the holidays.
Will your team manage six wins? If your favorite team fails to attain the high standard of perfect mediocrity, it will be relegated to the Couch Potato Bowl: namely a seat at home for the holidays while everyone else gets free trips and a couple extra weeks of practice.
Who will that be this year?
Minnesota for one. If the Gophers finish the year as strong as they have the last two games, there is a chance they can steal another win, most likely against at Northwestern or home against Illinois. Odds are this won't happen and Minnesota will finish the year 2-9 (1-7); not good enough for a bowl birth.
Indiana is another team that will be watching bowl season from the couch. The way the Hoosiers have played, 1-11 (0-8) is at this point an expected outcome. Not a good start to Kevin Wilson's tenure in Bloomington.
Purdue has four wins now, but with games against Ohio State and Iowa, it is hard to expect the Boilermakers to get the sixth win (the fifth, a win over Indiana, is likely). Therefore 5-7 (3-5) feels about right for out purposes, but not quite right for a Purdue team hoping for more coming into the season.
Northwestern 6-6 (3-5)
The Wildcats sneak into a bowl thanks to last weeks upset of Nebraska. Home games against Rice and Minnesota should fall in Northwestern's favor, getting Northwestern the requisite number of wins needed to a trip to sunny Detroit MI in December.
Pat Fitzgerald will be thrilled, I'm sure.
An upset against Michigan State is probably not enough to push the Wildcats higher on the bowl ladder unless a team like Illinois or Iowa collapses down the stretch.
Illinois 7-5 (3-5)
Illinois' mid-season collapse isn't big enough to keep the Illini from a trip to Houston for the newly minted TicketCity Bowl. Illinois has two tough games coming up against Michigan and Wisconsin, and a trip to Minnesota. The Fightin' Zookers' losing streak most likely runs to five games before Illinois picks up a seventh win against the Gophers.
If Illinois comes out of the bye week playing well enough to win two or three games instead of just one down the stretch, it isn't out of the question that Illinois could move to a more favorable New Year's Day bowl.
Iowa 7-5 (4-4)
The Hawkeyes control their own destiny in the Legend's division, but with a home game against Michigan State and a trip to Nebraska sandwiched around a game against Purdue, it looks like Iowa will stay at seven wins on the year and fall out of conference title contention.
Best case scenario? Iowa wins out, goes to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game, and gets to play for a Rose Bowl birth. However, they call it a "best case scenario" for a reason. Too much has to fall the Hawkeyes' way for something like this to happen.
Penn State 8-4 (5-3)
Not to pile on Penn State in what is quite possibly the worst week any college football program has ever experienced, but the last three weeks of the season were going to be challenging before Penn State became mired in the biggest scandal to hit college athletics while simultaneously losing the longest tenured, winningest coach in FBS history. Playing Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin will have that effect.
As it is, the off the field distractions, Penn State's lack of an offensive game, and the tough schedule are too much to overcome.
Penn State loses its last three and goes to Tempe to play in the Insight Bowl.
Penn State still has a chance to blaze its own path to the Rose Bowl, but it would require three wins over the next four weeks against four teams challenging for a Big Ten title. No easy road for any team, much less one in as much upheaval as Penn State.
Ohio State 8-4 (5-3)
A month ago people were speculating that Ohio State might not even make it to a bowl game this year. Now Ohio State is just one other Penn State loss from controlling its own destiny when the Nittany Lions come to town next weekend.
However, Ohio State still has to go to Michigan in the final week of the season. While a home game against Penn State should be a win given that it is at home and the circumstances surrounding Penn State, this is Michigan's best chance at a win in the rivalry since 2006, and the advantage goes to new coach Brady Hoke. Ohio State finishes with eight wins and a trip to Jacksonville.
Ohio State's path to a better bowl is simple: beat Michigan. Penn State is most likely going to stumble down the stretch and that puts Ohio State in the drivers seat for the division title.
Michigan 9-3 (5-3)
While last week's game against Iowa was disappointing, Michigan is still exceeding expectations for this year in a rather impressive fashion. The offense has been mostly good and the defense has made a huge turnaround from terrible to average.
That nine wins and a trip to the Outback Bowl feel disappointing at this point in the season is a testament to just what Brady Hoke has been able to do. Michigan gets an elusive late season Big Ten road win against Illinois, drops one to new conference mate, Nebraska, and finds a way to get back on the winning side of "The Game."
Michigan has an outside shot at a BCS at-large birth, but the Wolverines would need to be impressive on both sides of the ball over the next three weeks to finish 10-2. Even with that Michigan would need a bit of help.
Still, success is success, and Brady Hoke has done a good job building the basis for sustained success in Ann Arbor.
Wisconsin 10-3 (6-2)
While a relatively weak schedule would have hurt Wisconsin's chances at the BCS title game had the Badgers won out, a week schedule in this case helps Wisconsin in its redemption quest for this years: getting back to the BCS.
With games against Minnesota, Illinois, and Penn State, Wisconsin should be able to win out. By virtue of Penn State losing two games and Ohio State losing to Michigan, Wisconsin should be able to get to the Big Ten title game.
Problem is, Michigan State has the defense to fluster Russell Wilson, the special teams play to get big point swings, and a passing offense that Wisconsin can't stop.
A loss in the Big Ten title game gives Wisconsin one more loss overall and keeps the Badgers out of at-large discussions. That means a trip to Orlando for the Capital One Bowl.
Nebraska 10-2 (6-2)
Nebraska's maiden voyage through the Big Ten has a good chance to end in success this year after setbacks against Wisconsin and Northwestern earlier in the year. Michigan State is in prime position to win out and represent the Legend's division in the Big Ten title game, which shuts Nebraska out of the title game. But with a 10-2 Wisconsin team meeting the Spartans in Indy, one of the two teams will win a Rose Bowl birth and the other will pick up a third loss.
Nebraska could fall if Penn State only loses to Wisconsin and the 10-2 Badgers are left out of the title game to fight for the at-large bid (a fight that Wisconsin would probably win with its head to head victory, good bowl showing a year ago, and preseason hype). However, a Michigan State loss could put Nebraska in pole position for the Big Ten title game.
Still a lot to play for in corn country.
Michigan State 11-2 (7-1)
Michigan State's quest for redemption is complete after being snubbed last year because of Big Ten tiebreaker rules that didn't consider Michigan State's head to head win over Wisconsin.
A tough win in Iowa City is followed by back to back easy victories over Indiana and Northwestern. From there, all that stands in Michigan State's way is the Big Ten Title game, and Michigan State has already beaten two of the three contenders for the Leader's division crown.
If Michigan State slips up and allows Nebraska to take the lead in the Legend's division race, the Spartans might still have a shot at an at-large bid, but the Capital One Bowl is more likely.