Nittany Lions/Badgers Preview: Division On The Line

Jeff RobbinsContributor INovember 22, 2011

Even Sean Penn Is More Popular Than Penn State These Days.

OK, anyone over the age of five could question the logic of a conference with 12 teams continuing to call itself the “Big Ten.”

Likewise, anyone over the age of five could probably have come up with a better name for the conference’s two divisions, or at least names that didn’t immediately sound like titles of Pokémon series.

And, as Yahoo! Sports’s Dan Wetzel points out, for purposes of keeping a Big Ten team consistently in the hunt for a shot at a BCS title game, you could certainly question the recent moves of adding a strong program (Nebraska) and adding a title game that makes it far less likely for any Big Ten team to survive an entire season without a loss.

But for provincial Big Ten college football fans who choose to spend their Sundays following the NFL rather than breaking down tape from all 120 NCAA Division I FBS teams, the changes have worked out. And rather splendidly.

As suspected, the Cornhuskers have increased the competitiveness, visibility, and profitability of the conference’s football season. Even better, they’ve been an interesting wild card team all year, capable of beating conference powerhouses Michigan State and Penn State while losing to a mediocre (though improving) team like Northwestern.

But for the Big Ten fan, the best part of Nebraska joining the conference was the subsequent splitting of the now-12 teams into equal six-team divisions and the addition of the Big Ten Championship Game, which will have its inaugural contest on December 3 in Indianapolis.

While admittedly the title game may have negative national BCS implications for the conference, for the fan focused on the Big Ten, its existence makes the regular season much more interesting.

Now instead of leaving the conference champion to be determined by an arbitrary ranking that can make the voting process for American Idol seem extraordinarily scientific, the true champion of the conference will be determined – as it should be – on the field.

But even at 9-2, Wisconsin can’t start thinking about the Big Ten Championship Game just yet. They’ve got to first get past the 9-2 Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall this Saturday. The winner of the regular-season finale will win the Big Ten’s Leaders Division and, in what would be a revenge game for the Badgers, face Legends Division winner Michigan State (they wrapped up the division just last week) on December 3.

It’s a game that has a ton of plotlines. Here are just five of them:

1. Dashed Expectations. It seems almost unfathomable that a team as dominant as the Badgers have been this season might not play in the conference championship. After all, of the Badgers’ nine victories, eight have been complete blowouts, with only last week’s 28-17 victory over a gutsy and determined Illinois team ever in doubt. In comparison, Michigan State dropped two stinkers, a 31-13 loss at Notre Dame and a 24-3 beatdown at the hands of Nebraska, while Penn State’s less prolific offense has squeaked out victories but very tight victories. No matter what happens Saturday, the Badgers are a lock for a high-profile bowl game, but after meeting and even surpassing the high expectations most people had of them going into this season, not playing in the Big Ten Championship Game would sting.

2. Ultimate Underdog. It’s hard to feel sorry for the Penn State football program. I know I don’t. But the fact is that the current players and the staff that remains behind – I think, I hope – have nothing to do with the sordid events that resulted in the ouster of head coach Joe Paterno, university president Graham Spanier, and athletic director Tim Curley. Nevertheless, those in the football program are in the ultimate “us against the world” scenario. They know that everyone – including the NCAA, who don’t want the disgraced program soiling their inaugural Big Ten Championship Game – is rooting against them. But as they proved last week against Ohio State, they are not going to fulfill everyone’s wishes by quietly going away. Their determination, combined with the fact that they are a very good football team with the third-best defense in the country, cannot be taken lightly.

3. In The Trenches. Penn State has had trouble at quarterback all year. Using a two-quarterback scheme for much of the season, the team refused to commit to either Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden until mid-November. There’s a good reason for that waffling: Neither are very good. If Penn State is going to pose a serious challenge to the Badgers, they’re going to have to rely on backs Silas Redd and Stephfon Green, who combined for 163 yards and almost 7 yards per carry last week against Ohio State. Meanwhile, how much Wisconsin relies on Montee Ball for its offense is already well known. Who wins or loses this game is going to be determined largely on who has better success running the football.

4. He’s Got Legs. Penn State has struggled with mobile quarterbacks: Last week Ohio State’s Braxton Miller had 105 yards rushing, while three weeks ago Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase got loose for 89 yards on the ground at Happy Valley. Russell Wilson, who averages more yards per carry than either Miller or Scheelhause, could have a big rushing day.

5. Offense Less Offensive? Held to under 300 yards, the Badgers’ offense struggled mightily Saturday against Illinois, and may have lost the game had their defense not forced four turnovers, which consistently gave the Badgers’ offense a short field. (They scored on drives of 44, 39, 30, and 2 yards.) Illinois’ defense is solid, but Penn State’s is much better. Since they won’t be able to rely on their defense to get them four turnovers again, Wisconsin’s offense will have to do a better job sustaining drives and wearing out the Nittany Lion defense if they want to clinch their spot in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Final prediction: Wisconsin 20, Penn State 13.