Nothing is settled in the Big Ten with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
Michigan State leads the Legends Division and Penn State is at the top of the Leaders Division. They will meet on Dec. 4 in Indianapolis for the conference title if they win out.
But the conference has been unpredictable all season. Wisconsin looked like a national title contender, but lost to Michigan State and Ohio State. Penn State was cruising, but now coach Joe Paterno is out, and the Nittany Lions will have to hold off Wisconsin.
“Anything can happen in this game,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “That's why you've got to prepare so well from a mental standpoint.”
In all, eight teams are in the hunt to win their divisions. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said the element of a conference title game will make the final weeks of the season more interesting than usual.
“I think it does add an excitement,” he said. “I thought that going into the season, with two divisions now in the conference that there were going to be teams jockeying for position at the end.”
Michigan State (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) appears to have the easiest road of any conference team, closing at home against Indiana and at Northwestern. Dantonio has seen enough craziness in the conference to know he can't overlook anyone, so he's pushing his team to be focused Saturday against the struggling Hoosiers (1-9, 0-6).
“We've become a little bit of the hunted team because we stand on top right now,” he said. “There's a little added significance when people play against us, so we need to play big, and we need to understand that with where we're at, we need to respect each and every opponent.”
The league has been tough for newcomer Nebraska.
“It's a quality conference,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “There's a lot of depth. It's about what I expected. It's going to be a challenge year in and year out. There's a lot of good football teams, there's a lot of good football played in this conference.”
In the Legends Division, Michigan State leads Nebraska (8-2, 4-2) and Michigan (8-2, 4-2) by a game. Nebraska plays at Michigan on Saturday. Iowa (6-4, 3-3) is mathematically alive heading into Saturday's game at Purdue.
Nebraska controlled the Legends Division after beating Michigan State handily, but the Cornhuskers lost to Northwestern the next week and now will need help to reach the title game.
In the Leaders Division, Penn State (8-2, 5-1) still leads the pack, despite coming off a 17-14 loss at home to Nebraska. Wisconsin (8-2, 4-2) can get to Indy with wins over Illinois this week and Penn State next week.
Leaders Division contender Wisconsin rolled through the early part of its schedule, winning its first seven games by 31 or more points. Fourth-quarter defensive breakdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State cost the Badgers.
“Everybody wants to beat us up, `What's going on?”' Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “We played two very tough games on the road against two very good football teams. We didn't come out with a win. Things didn't play well for us down the stretch in the fourth quarter. We've got to take those examples and learn from them.”
Ohio State was positioned to make a move in the Leaders Division before losing at Purdue. Both Purdue (5-5, 3-3) and Ohio State (6-4, 3-3) are mathematically alive in the division race. Purdue would be bowl eligible with a win at home against Iowa on Saturday or a victory at Indiana the following week.
Illinois (6-4, 2-4) is out of the Leaders Division race but is already bowl eligible. Northwestern (5-5, 2-4) is out of the Legends Division race, but would be bowl eligible with one more win.
One thing is certain: the championship game has changed the way coaches view things late in the season.
“Our goal is to get to Indy, and if we can reach that goal, then at that point in time, our goals will switch,” Dantonio said. “Underlying goal, obviously, is to play in the Rose Bowl, but we need to cross one bridge first, and that's what we intend to do.”