INDIANAPOLIS – No. 4 Ohio State is chasing perfection and a chance play for a national championship. No. 18 Michigan State has the inside track to the Big Ten championship game.
Four other conference teams are bowl-eligible and Iowa could join that list with a win this weekend.
But with only four weeks left in the regular season, the Big Ten is looking at the possibility of coming up short in postseason play again – even before the bowl lineups are announced. With eight bowl tie-ins, six qualifiers and Iowa on the cusp, the last available spot will have to be filled by one of three teams that are a combined 1-12 in league play: Illinois, Indiana or Northwestern.
I think it’s pretty evident to our guys that our backs are against the wall, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said Tuesday. We’ve had every opportunity to win four out of our last five games, and unfortunately we haven’t coached our guys well enough or our guys haven’t executed well enough in games, especially in the fourth quarter, to win. It’s disappointing, but with games left ahead of us, we have opportunities, and really we just have to coach our guys to play better and if we do that, we’ll be all right.
For the Big Ten, this is not an unusual predicament.
The league failed to produce enough bowl-eligible teams to fill its allotment four times in the last five years.
We’re all trying to do that (win six), and we’re all trying to do better than that, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. I think we really just try to get our guys focused on the week at hand. I think most coaches do that. That’s what it’s all about, so if you want to be somewhere good at the end of the season, then you have to handle each step along the way. If you do that, the more apt you are to be in a good place at the end.
Most analysts expect the unbeaten Buckeyes and surging Spartans, the league’s two division leaders, to meet in Indianapolis on Dec. 7.
Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and surprising Minnesota all have at least six wins, enough to fill out the New Year’s Day allotment with one team left over for a non-New Year’s Day game. Iowa’s best chance to join the club comes Saturday when it travels to Purdue (1-7, 0-4).
But things could get tricky if the Boilermakers end a six-game losing streak. Iowa (5-4, 2-3) would then have to beat either Michigan at home or Nebraska on the road just to qualify.
The three others:
Northwestern (4-5, 0-5), once ranked in the top 20, is trying to get healthy during this week’s bye. It needs to win two of its last three with home games against Michigan and Michigan State and a trip to Illinois.
The Illini (3-5, 0-4) have lost 18 straight conference games, yet somehow still have a shot. How? If Illinois wins three of its last four – at Indiana, home against Ohio State, at Purdue and at Northwestern – it’s in.
Indiana’s best chance may have evaporated with a fumbled lateral in the final 30 seconds last weekend. That mistake dropped the Hoosiers to 3-5 (1-3), forcing them to win three of their last four – home against Illinois, at Wisconsin and Ohio State, and the home finale against Purdue – to reach six wins.