By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) In one division, the Big Ten is getting exactly what it wanted when it added Nebraska and split the conference in two divisions to create a conference championship game.
In the other division, the Big Ten is seeing the negative consequence of doing so.
Wisconsin and Penn State will do battle in Madison Saturday to decide the Leaders Division while Michigan State heads to Evanston to play a meaningless game at Northwestern. The Spartans clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game last weekend and could rest key players if they choose to do so.
Meanwhile, another byproduct of the current division alignment is the decreased importance of the annual Ohio State-Michigan game. The Big Ten wanted to put the two schools in separate divisions to create the possibility of an OSU-Michigan Big Ten Championship Game — which the conference very well may get next season if Urban Meyer goes to Ohio State — but the result is a less meaningful regular season game. In the past, this game often decided the Big Ten title and the conference is missing out on the game deciding a division championship each season.
In reality, the Michigan-Michigan State game now has more meaning because the two schools are in the same division. In fact, that game — played Oct. 15 — ended up deciding the Legends Division this season and sent the Spartans to Indy. Now, many are calling for that game to be moved to the end of the regular season with the Michigan-Ohio State game being moved up.
For now, we’re stuck with “The Game” at the end of the season and this Saturday it will be overshadowed by the clash in Madison. The Big Ten strategically scheduled the Wisconsin-Penn State game to be played at the end of the regular season for the next four years and it is paying off right away as it is essentially a Leaders Division championship game this year.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure it will be close. The Badgers are outscoring opponents at home by 36.3 points, averaging 52.9 points per game. It’s going to be hard for Penn State to keep up with their sub-par offense, although the Lions’ defense is certainly the toughest Wisconsin has faced at Camp Randall all season.
It doesn’t help that Tom Bradley had to unload PSU’s new “Wild-lion” scheme against Ohio State last week as the Badgers now have it on tape. UW head coach Bret Bielema even admitted on Tuesday’s conference call that he was glad Penn State didn’t surprise the Badgers with that scheme this week.
My pick: Wisconsin 27, Penn State 13
On to the rest of my picks:
(Home teams in ALL CAPS)
NEBRASKA 38, Iowa 28 (Friday)
Two schools that traditionally pride themselves on defense, but I expect a lot of points in the first-ever Heroes Game. Iowa will be able to keep it close through the air, but in the end, the Hawkeyes defense has too many holes and Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead will run their way to victory. I love that this game is being played on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
NORTHWESTERN 24, Michigan State 17
Full disclosure as this is probably my least confident pick of the season. Mark Dantonio says he will play his starters with the intent of winning the game, but that doesn’t mean his players won’t already be looking forward to next week. The Spartans are playing really well, but I was already leaning toward the Wildcats in this one even before MSU had their division clinched.
MICHIGAN 24, Ohio State 14
If Ohio State loses this game, the Buckeyes will be 6-6 and can thank Wisconsin’s secondary for their bowl eligibility. Michigan is on a roll and has a lot at stake with a BCS bowl likely on the line. Ohio State’s defense will keep this game close, but I don’t see the Buckeyes having much success on offense. Michigan knows it can win this game for the first time since 2003 and they will put it all on the line Saturday.
Illinois 28, MINNESOTA 17
If the Illini didn’t have a bowl game left to play, I could see them folding completely in lieu of last week’s collapse against Wisconsin and Ron Zook’s likely departure. Instead, they go on the road for the first time in nearly a month, which will allow them to get away from all the negative talk. The Gophers show signs of life every once in a while, but they have a weak secondary and Zook said he will stick with Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback this week. That will allow wide receiver A.J. Jenkins to have a big game and end the five-game slide.
Purdue 31, INDIANA 28
The Boilermakers have bowl eligibility on the line in this game, while the Hoosiers will just be trying not to finish 0-8 in the Big Ten in Kevin Wilson’s first season in Bloomington. It might be a bad rivalry game, but it’s still a rivalry game, which will keep it close. I got Purdue winning on a last-second field goal, as kicker Carson Wiggs saves Danny Hope’s job.
Season record: 68-22 (33-10 Big Ten)
For more Big Ten coverage, follow Adam on Twitter (@AdamHogeCBS). He will have live coverage from Saturday’s game between Wisconsin and Penn State.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.