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Spanning The Empire--Your Saturday Conference Open Thread

As we approach the last few games of the regular season, this much seems clear:  There is still no prohibitive favorite as the season begins to draw to a close, and as many as four teams have a legitimate shot to claim at least a share of the title:  OSU, Iowa, WIsconsin, and Michigan State.  Looking at the games today, two of those four have pretty good opponents before they face off next week, one has as near a gimme as you can get, and one has a bye.

Quick Previews after the jump.

Iowa at Northwestern Janet Jackson's Vagina [BH Wuz Here], 11:00 CST, ESPN:  Iowa has a huge game next week in Iowa City against the Buckeyes, but Northwestern is a team that Iowa had better not look past.  Last season, Iowa was ranked #1 before Northwestern walked in to Iowa City and walked out with a win, leaving Iowa's National Championship dreams shattered for the 137th consecutive year.  The Hawkeyes ended the national title suspense for Hawkeye fans mercifully early by losing to Arizona back in September, but are still very much in contention for the Big Ten crown and a BCS bowl...just like last year.  Northwestern started strong and even made it into the top 25 twice thise season before they remembered 'hey, we're just Northwestern, we're not supposed to be THIS good', and promptly lost their way out of the top 25.  They're still a good team, and Iowa will have to bring their 'A' game to get out of Ryan Field with a win.  If nothing else, Iowa will probably be playing in front of their third largest home crowd of the season.

Indiana at Wisconsin, 11:00 CST, ESPN2:  For me, Indiana has been a disappointment this season.  I thought they were a bowl team, primarily because of Ben Chappell.  Eh, not so much.  They can play offense, but it's not as good as advertised coming in to the season, and a good defense can isolate Chappell.  And that would be okay if Indiana could run and play defense consistently.  Alas, they cannot, so Bill Lynch must start getting ready for next season.  Way back in August I got to do the season preview of the Badgers for OTE, and after doing due diligence I came away thinking that if Wisconsin got past OSU (they did) they would be the favorites to win the Big Ten.  They lost to MSU, but I still think they're the most balanced team in the conference.  They no longer control their own destiny in terms of winning the title outright, but as we hit the home stretch I think the Badgers are playing the best football in the conference.

Minnesota at Illinois, 11:00 CST, Big Ten Network:  There's really not much more that can be said about Gopher football other than they might not be as dysfunctional as their professional counterparts in Minnesota, the Vikings.  Um, that's NOT a compliment, by the way.  For Illinois, a win Saturday, which they'll get, and they become bowl eligible.  That's pretty remarkable in and of itself, considering that when we all looked at this game on the schedule in August most folks thought 'Toilet Bowl'.  I really like Nathan Scheelhaase, and I hope Ron Zook can develop him better than he did the last time he had a super talented freshman, Juice WIlliams.  The Illini defense is for real, and whoever they meet in the bowl season will have a difficult time moving the ball against them, and as we head into 2011, Illinois will be a darkhorse favorite.

Michigan at Purdue, 11:00 CST, Big Ten Network.  Michigan became bowl eligible last week, and I can't wait to see who they play, because depending on who it is, they over/under for that game might be 200 points.  I think they'll hang 50 on a depleted Purdue team, who, because of injuries, will scrape together an offense that consists of a couple of intramural flag football players, three cheerleaders, and the student manager--and they'll hang 31 on what might be the worst defense the Big Ten has seen since the 1983 Minnesota Golden Gopher 'Point A Minute' defense that gave up 84 to Nebraska, 69 to OSU, 58 to Michigan, and 61 to Iowa. 

Penn State at Ohio State, 2:30 CST, ABC.  Going in to the season, quarterback was the area that had questions surrounding both teams.  For the Nittany Lions, it was thought to be their achilles heel, but has become an embarrassment of riches.  Freshman phenom Rob Bolden went down with a concussion, and Matt McGloin has come in and played remarkably well, helping PSU come from behind last week to get Joe Paterno his 400th career win.  McGloin will have to play just as good against the Buckeyes if he gets JoePa to 401.  For the Buckeyes, the question was whether or not Terrelle Pryor could take the next step and become an athletic quarterback, as opposed to an athlete playing the quarterback position.  Other than one bad game at Wisconsin, Pryor has answered his critics, posting numbers that are every bit as impressive as any QB except Semi-Pro Cam Newton.  But Pryor has a penchant for not showing up when he has to, and he has to Saturday if OSU is to get a share of the title and a BCS bid. 

Enjoy the games!