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Anything is possible in Big Ten this year — even for Illinois schools

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 9:15 p.m. CST

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Could a team from Illinois play in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2008? The odds are better than they're likely to be again for years.

It's not that Northwestern and Illinois are world-beaters. The Wildcats are 2-0, but in their wild 42-41 opening win at Syracuse, their secondary didn't look capable of stopping anyone. The Fighting Illini lost 45-14 Saturday night at unranked Arizona State. Another long, potentially bowl-less season seems much more likely than Pasadena.

Someone has to represent the Big Ten Conference in the Rose Bowl, though, and the line of obvious candidates has shortened considerably in two short weeks. Only five conference teams are unbeaten thus far. One (Ohio State) might well be the best team in the Big Ten, but it's ineligible for postseason play. Two others (Indiana and Minnesota) are doormats who haven't exactly loaded up their early non-conference schedules.

Along with Northwestern, the other unbeaten is Michigan State, which has the pole position for the Big Ten title right now. The Spartans survived Boise State in its opener before drubbing Central Michigan in their second game. They've shot up to 10th in both the AP and USA Today polls, though I'm not sure if that's due entirely to merit or to voters feeling someone from the mighty Big Ten has to be ranked in the top dozen.

Sparty's ascent will certainly continue should it survive Norte Dame next week, but that doesn't have any bearing on the Big Ten Legends Division race. What does have bearing there is conference play, and the Spartans will face an immediate challenge there in Ohio State, which Northwestern doesn't have to play. The Wildcats' first three Big Ten games are home with Indiana, at Penn State and at Minnesota. It doesn't get much easier than that.

It is, of course, far too early to declare the Legends anything close to a two-horse race. Michigan is, I'm sure, still the favorite in the eyes of many, as shaky as the Wolverines have looked in getting smoked by Alabama and edging Air Force. But Michigan's conference crossover slate includes Purdue in its Big Ten opener and Ohio State in its regular-season finale.

Nebraska, which opened with a win over Southern Miss before being tripped up by UCLA, also can't be written off. The Cornhuskers, however, will be running through the gauntlet when conference play begins. They're home with Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Northwestern, home with Michigan and at Michigan State in the first five weeks. They might be on the verge of mathematical elimination when that stretch finally ends.

And I suppose I should include Iowa, though the Hawkeyes have narrowly beaten Northern Illinois and lost to Iowa State in their first two games. Their conference schedule is, however, comparable to the Wildcats' — no Ohio State, no Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes are averaging just 12 points and 572 yards per game against underwhelming non-conference opposition, though. I'd rate their chances significantly lower than Kane Colter and the Wildcats'.

I wouldn't call the Wildcats the Legends favorite by any means. I think Michigan State is that, and Michigan is very close behind. But the Wildcats are a not-terribly-distant third — and their odds have to be significantly better than Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.

As for the Illini, I can't write them off, either, even though I think they stink. They do, however, play in the Leaders Division, and someone from that steaming pile has to make the Big Ten Championship. Preseason favorite Wisconsin has looked lost through two games. Purdue has played well enough during its 1-1 start to have real hope, but it's hard to call an unranked team that can't decide on a quarterback a favorite. Indiana is Indiana, its two wins over Little Sisters of the Poor notwithstanding. Ohio State and Penn State — the latter of which looks terrible anyway — aren't eligible.

Who knows? Maybe Wisconsin's flaws are serious and lasting ones. Maybe Purdue loses a bunch of close games — they looked like the good-enough-to-compete-but-not-to-win type to me Saturday at Notre Dame. Maybe the Illini sneak into second place in the Leaders, behind just Ohio State, and play in the conference title game.

Maybe Northwestern is waiting for them there.

I wouldn't call it likely, but in what is shaping up as the most mediocre Big Ten football season in an era of mediocre Big Ten football seasons, it's possible.

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