Ed. Note: Hate Week to come later, but first…
Last summer, the Big Ten was sitting on top of the world. For the first time in forever, the conference had a great bowl season. And after Jim Delany announced that they would be exploring expansion, every league was quaking in their boots. The Big Ten Network was an overwhelming success which had propelled league profits to the top of the college football heap. Add in the rich history and strong academic reputation, and it was easy to see that Big Ten status was the envy of the sport. After numerous doomsday scenarios, the league settled on just one team: Nebraska. Of all the "free agents" out there, only Notre Dame boasted a more impressive history. With the Cornhuskers in the fold, the Big Ten claims 4 of the Top 6 All-Time Winningest Programs in the College Football. Not too shabby.
Since granting Nebraska membership, the league has done every single thing wrong. Everything. The division break-up was tolerable until it was announced that Michigan-Ohio State would remain the last game of the year. Then the asinine "Leaders" and "Legends" names. We've pulled plenty of all-nighters in our day and that decision reeks of a 4:00 AM desperation move in a room full of empty Mountain Dew bottles and Funyuns wrappers. Finally the dumbest blunder of all: playing the championship game INDOORS in a sterile NFL stadium safe from the elements that surround the league's rich history.
These decisions have brought us into a new, strange era for the Big Ten. We realized this when we saw the Harrisburg Patriot-News' laughable prediction for the Leaders Division standings. David Jones, a normally reliable reviewer of the Big Ten game, predicts that the division will flush out in the following order.
3. Ohio State
4. Penn State
Here's how we at JPDH predict the division will end up.
3. Ohio $tate
4. Penn State
As you can see the Harrisburg paper has no idea what they're ta... Wait. Someone actually agrees line-by-line with our prediction?
Although we don't know the rationale, we were stunned to find that someone else has perceived the crazy twists and turns in this new world of divisional conference Big Ten football in the exact same way as us. Although we are of like mind, we think our rationale is far more crazy and less level-headed than that of the PN.
Here's why we think Illinois will win the Big Ten Leaders Division and the conference.
In a conference of eleven we now have two groups of six. If you've never seriously followed a conference race in terms of its divisions it's very different from the single table of standings. We also have the king of the conference, Ohio $tate, undergoing some of the most dramatic offseason transitions north of Coral Gables. This offseason has seen so much turmoil that to expect the same as last year feels inappropriate.
Let's consider the Buckeyes. It’s almost unfair (almost) that O$U head coach Luke Fickell has so many obstacles in his way. He might be a great coach, but we can’t seriously entertain the idea this team will pull off another eleven win season. His first five games will not include players responsible for over 90% of the total Buckeye offense last year. In week six Fickell will have to travel to Lincoln and choose between offensive players who haven’t started a game yet or guys who have played five games but likely would be backups without the sanctions. Lincoln isn't the kind of place you want to test out this sort of decision. Ohio $tate then has to head to Illinois. It’s at this point we bring up the old Big Ten proverb, “Into chaos shall Ron Zook feast.” Every year has upsets, and Ron Zook has proven to be a master of being on both the winning and losing end of lopsided expectations. We believe Illinois will beat the Buckeyes at home and Fickell will lose three straight conference games. Although this will guarantee Fickell’s pink slip in January, I think the Buckeyes do have the ability to go on a winning streak and finish 5-3 in conference.
If we consider the following plausible results:
Wisconsin beats Illinois
Illinois beats Penn State (again)
Illinois loses to Michigan (again)
Penn State beats Nebraska
Nebraska beats Wisconsin
Wisconsin beats Michigan State
It will lead to this final week of football: (conference standings in parentheses)
Ohio $tate (4-3) at Michigan (3-4)
Penn State (4-3) at Wisconsin (5-2)
Illinois (5-2) at Minnesota (0-7)
Ron Zook Success--or “Zook-cess” if you prefer--is predicated on the unexpected. 0-7 Minnesota will beat Illinois. PSU and O$U victories would mean Illinois, Ohio $tate, Penn State, and Wisconsin will all end up with 5-3 records.
The Indianapolis representative will go down to tiebreakers. Penn State and Wisconsin will be eliminated with 1-2 records against common opponents. Despite three consecutive losses to end the season Illinois will find their way into the conference game.
This is when Big Ten fans learn to adapt the old Big XII proverb: “When Nebraska is clearly favored in a conference championship game, pick the other guy.” Nebraska is good enough for an 11-1 record, but we think they will be a “beatable” 11-1 type of team. Pick Illinois to stun the Huskers and watch Zook lead his second team to the Rose Bowl.
If any of this sounds crazy, go back and look at preseason predictions for the 2007 and 2001 seasons, and see how they panned out. It's not crazy, it's just the magic of the Ron.