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Big Ten Championship Roulette: Michigan State makes its move, by attrition

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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For a few hours last weekend, it looked like the chaos theory that seemed to govern the Big Ten race in October had advanced to startling new levels: At one point, Indiana was tied with Ohio State well into the third quarter, while Minnesota led at Michigan State at the start of the fourth, threatening to render the concept of a "champion" in this league obsolete. At the end of the day, though, the only casualty was in Lincoln, where Nebraska's secondary fell asleep and the Cornhuskers became victims of the Annual Northwestern Upset in a 28-25 loss that sent them tumbling from the top of the Legends Division.

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Into the void: More uncertainty, with seven teams still mathematically alive for the Big Ten title game on Dec. 3 and a dozen head-to-head collisions between them over the final three weeks of the regular season.

BET: Michigan State (Legends) and Wisconsin (Leaders).
I pegged Michigan State as the best bet in the Legends Division last week despite Nebraska's advantage in the head-to-head tiebreaker, on the grounds that the Spartans were much more likely to run the table over their final four games than the Cornhuskers. Looks like I was right, as it turns out, but I didn't expect to be proven right so soon: The 'Huskers' flop puts Michigan State in the driver's seat with the nation's No. 2 total defense and three very winnable games left at Iowa, at home against Indiana and at Northwestern. The division is theirs to lose.

Wisconsin may be a harder sell: The Badgers not only need to beat Leaders Division frontrunner Penn State to cap a 3-0 finish, but also need an additional loss by both Penn State and Ohio State to edge the Nittany Lions in a tiebreaker. Like the Spartans, though, they have the advantage of two imminently winnable games (road trips to Minnesota and Illinois) ahead of the finale, by which time at least one half of the tiebreaker equation will be in the books after Penn State's visit to Columbus on Nov. 19.

PASS: Nebraska (Legends) and Penn State (Leaders).
By contrast, the Cornhuskers and Nittany Lions are both staring down three very losable games in a row, beginning with one another this weekend in State College. Even with a win there, Nebraska is down to its last lifeline: With no margin of error and plenty of room for it against Michigan and Iowa, the 'Huskers' odds of winning out and getting the necessary help to overtake Michigan State are lower than Bo Pelini's odds of inviting a side judge and his wife on a cruise. (At least in Pelini's case, he could conceivably be plotting to throw the ref overboard.) {YSP:MORE}

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For Penn State's part, after the last three days the Lions may be the only first-place team in the nation that can't wait to put this season behind them. There's no way of knowing how they're going to respond to Joe Paterno's pending departure, but from a strictly football perspective, betting on an offense that's failed to reach 17 points against Temple, Indiana, Iowa or Illinois to take two of three against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin — the last two on the road — is not a winning proposition. Even with sending JoePa out on top as a rallying cry, there's still no viable quarterback.

WILD CARD: Iowa (Legends).
Through their first eight games, the Hawkeyes lost to Iowa State, were forced to mount an improbable rally to beat Pittsburgh, failed to score a touchdown at Penn State and sent their own fans hurling themselves over the edge with a loss to Minnesota — or, as you might know it, the Artist Previously Known As the worst team in Big Ten history. With last week's win over Michigan, though, Iowa remains in control of its destiny with a chance to take over first place in the division (via tiebreaker) this Saturday against Michigan State, in Iowa City.

If it plays out that way, the Nov. 25 finale at Nebraska (aka the Corn Bowl) could be for the division. And as everyone knows, when you're playing for "The Heroes," anything can happen.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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