Big Ten Playbook: Badgers, Wildcats up. Sparty & Hawkeyes down.

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The Beauty, and the Beast, of college football is that one game can change your life.

We saw that last week in Iowa City and Bloomington, Ind.

Northwestern, which was facing a 1-4 precipice, pulled a season-changer out of its purple hat, doinking Iowa 38-31.

And Michigan State, which had been considered a dark horse in a division—gulp—that includes galactic stars Ohio State and Michigan, got its face rubbed in it by Indiana 24-21 in overtime. After whomping the Hoosiers seven straight times. . .

Just call that one the Enigma Bowl.

Want a classier example? We’re going to see the roller-coaster of a 12-game season on a grand stage on the night of Oct. 15, when unblemished, unassailable Ohio State travels to nocturnally raucous, unflappable Wisconsin.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

That should be a Beauty and a Beast.

On the same day, we’ll see a lesser version, when Northwestern travels to Michigan State for what is a quasi-elimination game in terms of season-salvaging. That too should have a playoff atmosphere—if the Wildcats and Spartans absorb what's at stake.

This week, we’ll merely see mini-versions of Beauty and the Beast when Purdue sputters to Illinois, Iowa limps up to Minnesota and BYU tries to administer last rites at Michigan State.

In reverse order, the Sparty-Cougar clash is more of a symbolic deal. Barring a pocketful of miracles, Michigan State already is headed for a messy season. The howls of a BYU setback wouldn’t change that. By the way, that seems as likely as. . . a Sparty loss at Indiana. More likely, MSU gets back on the horse, but still faces Big Ten peril, especially if injuries continue to dog it.

An Iowa loss would create similar yipping in the Hawkeye State. But Kirk Ferentz’ job is safe; his buyout includes all counties east of Des Moines.

True fact: Michigan State beat Iowa in the Big Ten championship game last December. Trust me. I looked it up.

In other words, Spartans fans and Hawkeyes fans, who are feeling pain now, knew great joy not long ago—and had good reasons to expect it to continue this fall.

Another rule of physics and college football: What goes up, must come down. (Offer void where prohibited by law—in Tuscaloosa and Columbus, Ohio.)

That leaves this week’s absolute must-win game as. . . Purdue at Illinois. Actually, though, it shapes up more like a ``somebody must win'' game.

True, this is a contest that only a mother who wears Orange and Blue, or Old Gold and Black, could love.

But it’s important for the forward progress of new Illini coach Lovie Smith. Illinois fans hate losing to Purdue, especially when Purdue is, um, struggling. And the Boilermakers, who have won eight of the last 11 in the series, have ticked off Illini Nation too often lately.

At Illinois, beating Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern is the gridiron equivalent of coming up with three recommendations on your resume. That hasn't happened nearly enough lately. And Lovie knows it's his job to change that.

The problem is, Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell needs to win some games this fall to save his job—if it’s savable at all. One Boilermaker fan site already is demanding that Hazell walk the plank. Right now.

And unlike Illinois, Purdue doesn’t have the luxury of Rutgers on its schedule, so Illinois is Hazell's best bet.

The Illini travel to High Point Solutions Stadium—hey, it’s Jersey—next Saturday. The last time Illinois was favored in back-to-back Big Ten games? It had to be at least three coaches ago.

Purdue-Illinois: It’s a somebody-must-win game.


Where did Northwestern’s suddenly determined performance at Iowa come from, you want to know? Coach Pat Fitzgerad made good on his promise to coach the Wildcats’ rear-ends off—his word choice not mine.

``These guys better figure it out pretty quick,’’ he said after Nebraska had dropped the Cats to 1-3, including wrenching losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State. ``They better get ready to get their rear ends coached off this week. That’s what’s going to happen. I’m not going to sit here and I’m not going to take it. They better buckle up and start hydrating. It’s not acceptable, the way we’re playing. It starts and ends with me. I’m going to fix it.’’

Fix it, Fitz did.

Now we’ll see if it stays fixed.


Yes, Wisconsin is much better than advertised. We all know that. That said, the whole world expects the Badgers to drop to 2-2 vs. top-10 teams when Ohio State comes to Madison on Oct. 15. It also would saddle the Badgers with a 1-2 start in Big Ten play.

So what exactly would that mean for Bucky’s chance of winning the West Divison?

It would mean Wisconsin doesn’t have much margin. But its hopes of playing in the Big Ten championship game, and securing the bowl booty that comes with a division title, would remain intact—as long as it continues to play the way it played in September.

The key threat is Nebraska, the only remaining West rival that is unbeaten in conference play.

The Badgers would need to handle the Cornhuskers in Madison on Oct. 29. And then, they would need Ohio State to handle the Cornhuskers in Columbus on Nov. 5. Neither of those is a big reach.

Wisconsin then would advance, courtesy of the head-to-head tie-breaker.

Iowa and Northwestern also are lurking at this point. But both have under-performed so far, leaving Nebraska as the key obstacle. Nebraska, which trailed Illinois in the fourth quarter at home last week. . .

Bottom line: In August, Wisconsin's schedule—which included LSU, trips to Michigan State and Michigan, and Ohio State in its first six games—looked like a back-breaker.

Today, it looks like Wisconsin did the back-breaking. Just ask Les Miles and the Spartans.

That, by the way, is not a lounge act at the Holiday Inn on Highway 151. But it could be soon.

The Beauty. And the Beast.[/membership]