Mid-Season Division Arguments Part III: Let's Go Ahead and Call them Spoilers

To this point in the B1G, there are an amazing nine (9!) teams still mathematically in the running for B1G Champion. While many of the major media pundits have called this nothing more than the ACC Redux year, I think it shows how even and strong the middle of the conference is. Here at OTE we have run down the Legends and Leaders division races and looked at who still has a chance to take home the fancy new trophy that is making its rounds. If you missed either one, here is the Legends link, and here is the Leaders link. With those two out of the way, our staff wanted to take one more look at the division. This time, we are looking at the three mathematically eliminated teams and what we can expect from them at the Mid-season point. Obviously the questions we used in the past two sections are a little less useful, so ChadNUdj came up with the following adaptation:

1. Why is your team not going to Indianapolis?
2. What's the best chance for your team to play spoiler in the conference races?
3. What should we probably expect to happen?

So, in typical alphabetic order, the Non-contenders (mathematically).

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Illinois - KennardHusker

1. Why is your team not going to Indianapolis?

Three conference losses and no chance in catching Penn State. Even if PSU loses out, Illinois would still lose the head-to-head tiebreak. So how did we get from 6-0 to a potential 6-6 or 7-5? Well, it's probably two-fold. Part 1: If you're Illinois, you almost had to start off 6-0, right? Minus the Arizona State game, Illinois had an easy path to a strong start. Three point wins over ASU, Western Michigan, and NW did not instill confidence into voters. Still, the pounding of Indiana got a lot of us, and most of the media, on the bandwagon (and by on the bandwagon, I mean we all talked about Illinois... not sure if anyone thought they'd still win the conference). Then the more difficult games started coming fast and furious. They caught a surging Ohio State, a fired-up Purdue in the 'easiest upset call of the season' game, and then found out that snow, night games, and Penn State's defense are not a fun mix in what will easily be called the worst offensive output in the B1G this season. So yeah, there's that. Part 2: A man named Zook. I am not going to sit here and say I even know Illinois' history enough to comment on his overall performance, but the fact that fans openly understand that he is the most inconsistent and painful coach is probably a good place to start. In all fairness, I think he is doing a good job at Illinois, but man oh man is he a nightmare to watch. 

2. What's the best chance for your team to play spoiler in the conference race?

Here is where it gets a little better, depending on perspective, for the Fighting Zookers. They are still bowl-bound and they have the opportunity to knock off Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. While we all probably agree Minnesota will be out of the race by then, it still leaves home games against two contenders who will probably be overlooking them because of what comes next. We saw last week that Illinois can play some defense. Mercilus is a friggin' beast, and that run game has been pretty good this year. I just don't think Wisconsin will lose again this season, so let's say this weekend is the upset alert. Illinois can play some ball, and we need to see if Michigan can play on the road.

3. What should we probably expect to happen?

In looking at the schedule, I'm going with 1-2 with losses to both Michigan and Wisconsin and a win over Minnesota. That leaves Illinois at a wonderful 7-5, and is going to get the Zook hotseat a little bit hotter. 

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Indiana - Chadnudj

1. Why is your team not going to Indianapolis?

First, we're Indiana -- NO ONE expected us to make it to the B1G Championship Game this year. Second, we've already been there this year, to play Ball State (a loss for us), so we figured we'd share the wealth and allow someone else from our division a chance to visit Nappy Town.

But the biggest reason? We clearly were in need of the biggest overhaul of any team in the conference, which meant getting younger recruits meaningful playing time (at the expense of upperclassmen who had failed in the past). So far, mission accomplished -- as Paul Myerberg notes, we started TWELVE freshmen (8 true freshmen) in our loss to Northwestern on Saturday -- five on offense (including freshman QB Tre Roberson) and seven on defense.

Ask yourself -- how do you rebuild/repair the B1G's most moribund program? Wouldn't it involve throwing young players to the wolves in live game action, in the hopes that you'd (a) get them valuable experience early in their careers that would better prepare them in a year or two to compete, (b) send a message throughout your team that the most talented/hardest working players will play, regardless of class, and (c ) announce conclusively to all potential recruits that's there is playing time available on DAY ONE to anyone talented enough/hard-working enough?

And surprisingly, to a certain degree, it's worked -- Indiana has shown some promise on offense under Roberson (24 points against Iowa; 38 against Northwestern -- yeah, neither defense is world-class, but it's progress), they hung tight with Penn State (a 16-10 loss ), and fought back valiantly in losses against Virginia (came back from 23-3 deficit to take a 31-23 lead before ultimately losing 34-31) and North Texas (21 unanswered points in the 4th quarter of a 24-21 loss). Sure, they may have lost Gunner Kiel (undeniably a huge blow) due to their early season struggles....but don't you get the feeling that Kevin Wilson has this team headed the right way?

2. What's the best chance for your team to play spoiler in the conference race?

Indiana has games against three (at least theoretical) contenders: at Ohio State, at Michigan State, and Purdue. The obvious choice is and should be Purdue -- it's for the Old Oaken Bucket, Purdue may be playing for bowl eligibility itself at 5-6, and the game's at Bloomington. I pick that as the clear spoiler.....except is it really spoiling it if Purdue is already out of the race by the time they meet?

So for a darkhorse spoiler (note, I don't REALLY think this will happen at all, but go with it for purposes of dreaming of an upset), let's go with....a Hoosier upset of the Buckeyes this week. They've shown in their game against Penn State that they can hang with a questionable QB/running-based offense (see: 16-10 loss to the Nittany Lions), which is PRECISELY what Ohio State is. Throw in a bit of a "trap game" scenario for the host Buckeyes (they just beat division foes Illinois and Wisconsin, and they have games against Leaders contenders Purdue and Penn State immediately following the Hoosiers, plus the end-of-season Michigan game), and you get.....well, a huge Hoosier loss, but maybe the ONLY chance the Hoosiers have at really "spoiling" any team's realistic chance at making Indianapolis.

3. What should we probably expect to happen?

I'd say that the Hoosiers continue to play young (which they should)....but don't win another game. They might get amped up enough to beat Purdue in the end-of-season rivalry game (which would provide a solid foundation and some much needed enthusiasm going into the offseason), but this will likely be a 1-11 season in Bloomington. The good news? Pretty much the only way they CAN go is up....and Kevin Wilson is making the right moves to take them there.

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Northwestern - Chadnudj

1. Why is your team not going to Indianapolis?

Uh, have you seen Northwestern "play defense"? Individual pieces are there (Cornerback Jordan Maybin has frankly shut down whoever he covers most of the season; Safety Brian Peters has played tough; DE Tyler Scott provides hope for a competent D-line in the future), but collectively whether it's because of scheme, technique, mental lapses, or just lack of talent, the defense has been a train-wreck. They've had their moments -- holding Illinois to less than 100 yards rushing, holding PSU to just 7 second half points, intercepting Denard 3 times in the first half -- but have consistently managed to get burned on enough big plays every week (particularly on deep passes to wide open receivers) to lead to Northwestern losses.

And that's what's so frustrating about Northwestern this season: This offense deserves a MUCH better defense. Northwestern's offense has been as excellent as their defense is terrible. I posted this in a comment this week, but it bears repeating:

They've put up 35 points against Illinois (#5 scoring defense in the conference at 17.2 ppg). They put up 24 points against Michigan (#2 scoring defense in the conference at 14.6 ppg). They put up 31 points against Iowa (#9 scoring defense in the conference at 23.1 ppg). They put up 24 points against Penn State (#1 scoring defense in the conference at 12.4 ppg). And they put up 59 points against Indiana (#12 scoring defense in the conference at 36.2 ppg).

5 B1G games, 5 games in which the Northwestern offense beat the PPG average normally allowed by its opponent (including nearly doubling the points allowed average against 3 of the top 5 defenses in the conference).

By any measure, that's a phenomenal offense. In B1G conference games only, Persa leads the league in passing yards (1251), passing yards per game (250.2), TD passes (9), completion percentage (75.5%), and completions (114). Throw in Persa's improving mobility (he made some impressive scrambles against Indiana - yes, they're terrible on defense, but he was moving really well), Kain Colter as an emerging threat throwing/running/receiving, and the Dunsmore/Ebert threat at receiver, and it's a flat out dangerous offense, and maybe the best in the conference.

Seriously, an offense that is nearly scoring twice as many points as its opponents normally allowed should be making plans for, or have a realistic scenario for reaching, Indianapolis after 8 games. With even a mediocre defense, Northwestern would probably be in the discussion for Indy with this offense.....alas, Northwestern's defense has been almost comically/historically awful.

2. What's the best chance for your team to play spoiler in the conference race?

Tough question. We have 3 games left against contenders (if in name only): at Nebraska, and then hosting Minnesota and Michigan State. I'm not sure Northwestern over Minnesota would constitute "playing spoiler" in any fair definition of the term. Which leaves (a) beating a Nebraska team with a stellar running back in Rex Burkhead, and a phenomenal defense experienced in slowing down/beating spread attacks from their days in the Big 12, at Memorial Stadium, a week after they shut down then-B1G favorites MSU, and before big games against Penn State and Michigan; or (b) hosting a Michigan State team that has struggled on the road, in the last game of the season in Evanston on Senior Day (Fitz is 5-0 on Senior Days in his career), but which has had a lot of success against Northwestern recently, a pretty phenomenal defense and a play-action passing game that can totally destroy Northwestern (see: all those open wide receivers against Northwestern's porous secondary this year)?

Northwestern won't be favored in either game (rightfully so)....but they have a non-zero-percent shot of winning either. Nebraska because it could be a trap game for the Huskers, and if Northwestern's defense can slow down the Nebraska running game enough to force Taylor Martinez's lame-duck passing motion to beat them, the Northwestern offense should score enough to make it interesting. Michigan State could lose if they're eliminated already from winning the division, and because, frankly, Fitz doesn't lose on Senior Day and the Cats are due to beat the Spartans one of these years, and the Cats themselves could be playing for bowl eligibility.

So I'll flip a coin....and say the Spartans are the more likely upset victim.

3. What should we probably expect to happen?

We should expect 5-7, with the Cats losing at Nebraska and to Michigan State, while beating Rice and Minnesota....I think all the computers/Sagarin models, etc. would say the same.

But since I'm eternally optimistic -- 6-6. The Cats are due for winning a game they had no business winning, Persa is playing lights out, and they'll outscore one of Nebraska or Michigan State in a track-meet insane-type game. They then go to the Motor City Bowl/TicketCity.Com Bowl (depending on how the B1G bowl scenarios/BCS shakes out), and FINALLY win their first bowl game in 60+ years....giving a glimmer of hope to all of us 'Cats fans, and bringing a bit of pride to the B1G overall when bowl records are compared.

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