Just a few weeks ago, it didn't seem likely that the Big Ten would be able to put two teams in the BCS. The winner of the first ever Big Ten Championship Game will obviously go to the Rose Bowl, but an at-large bid seemed like a stretch given the state of the conference.
A lot has changed in recent weeks, both in the conference and around the nation. Upsets have eliminated some teams from at-large contention, and during this time Michigan has won games in impressive fashion against Illinois and Nebraska. This has resulted in the Wolverines sitting at 9-2 with only Ohio State left on the schedule, and right now it looks like a win will vault Michigan into a BCS game.
The BCS is far from the only interesting bowl game storyline for the Big Ten. Other hot topics include where the Big Ten Championship Game loser will end up and how far Penn State will fall down the bowl lineup because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. In order to sort everything out, I put together bowl projections for the Big Ten based on where things stand right now and what I expect to happen in the final weeks of the season. Let's start with the BCS bowls.
Rose Bowl - Wisconsin vs. Oregon
The Badgers haven't even clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game yet, but I do think they will beat Penn State on Saturday to punch their ticket to Indy. At Lucas Oil Stadium a week from Saturday, I envision Wisconsin getting revenge on Michigan State and winning the first ever Big Ten Championship Game to clinch its second trip to the Rose Bowl in as many years. There, the likely opponent for Wisconsin is Oregon, which is expected to cruise to Pasadena over a mediocre opponent in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Sugar Bowl - Michigan vs. Houston
Just about every set of bowl projections this week has Michigan headed to the Sugar Bowl. A week ago, the Fiesta Bowl seemed like Michigan's likely BCS landing spot, but with LSU and Alabama set to have a rematch in the BCS National Championship, two at-large spots will need to be filled with non-SEC teams. If Michigan gets by Ohio State to finish the regular season 10-2, it's a pretty good bet that the Sugar Bowl will take the Wolverines. Michigan travels well and would be coming off of its best season in years, so you can bet the Wolverines wouldn't have any trouble selling tickets.
As for the Wolverines' opponent, Houston is set to clinch a spot in a BCS bowl if it beats Tulsa on Friday and then wins the Conference USA Championship Game next week. Led by Case Keenum, the Cougars appear to be a more attractive option than whichever team emerges from the mess that is the top of the Big East. I could see West Virginia being tabbed for the Sugar Bowl if it wins the Big East, but with Louisville currently favored to win the tiebreaker and end up in the BCS, I expect the folks in New Orleans to go with the undefeated team with a high-powered offense, setting up a Big Ten vs. Conference USA matchup in this projection.
Capital One Bowl - Nebraska vs. Arkansas
A lot of people expect Michigan State to land in Orlando if it loses in the Big Ten Championship Game. I don't see it happening, though. The Spartans have been to Orlando for a bowl game in three out of the previous four seasons, including last season. That's why I think the Capital One Bowl will choose Nebraska if Wisconsin and Michigan make the BCS. The Cornhuskers will travel, and this would be a new destination for them. I just don't see Michigan State fans being all that interested in returning to Orlando yet again, especially for a matchup against a top 10 team considering what happened against Alabama in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.
Outback Bowl - Michigan State vs. South Carolina
If the Capital One Bowl does take Nebraska, I expect the Spartans to land in Tampa for the Outback Bowl. All things considered, this would not be a bad consolation prize for MSU. This is a great bowl game, and Tampa is a nice city to visit, especially in late December/early January.
The Outback Bowl would certainly beat returning to Orlando for the fourth time in five seasons for Michigan State, and it would also certainly beat being matched up against a team like Arkansas. The Spartans have not yet won a bowl game under Mark Dantonio, and chances are that losing streak would continue if they face Arkansas. The Razorbacks would be on track to play in a BCS game if not for the two-team limit per conference, so I would much rather go up against South Carolina if I'm MSU. The Gamecocks wouldn't be a pushover by any means, but considering the alternative, the Spartans would have a much better chance of ending their bowl losing streak against South Carolina.
Insight Bowl - Ohio State vs. Baylor
Despite being predicted to finish 6-6, the Buckeyes remain an attractive option for bowl games. I don't see the Insight Bowl jumping at the chance to select Penn State considering all that is going on off the field, and I doubt the game would want to bring back Iowa for the second year in a row. As a result, the Buckeyes are really the best option as far as selling tickets and ratings go, especially if they are in the process of hiring somebody like Urban Meyer in the lead-up to the game. Couple Ohio State with an exciting Baylor team that has Robert Griffin III and you have a game worth watching for sure.
Gator Bowl - Iowa vs. Florida
Once again, this basically comes down to the Penn State scandal. Although Penn State's record is more impressive than Iowa's, do you really want to take the Nittany Lions and the issues that come with them when a viable alternative exists? I don't think so. Iowa will travel well and not bring a child sex scandal with them to Jacksonville, and it's not like selling tickets will be a problem anyway if Florida is the SEC representative in the game. This would be an intriguing matchup, and chances are Florida fans would be more than willing to make the drive to Jacksonville to see their team take on the Hawkeyes.
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas - Penn State vs. Texas
I think Penn State's slide down the bowl lineup will finally stop when the game formerly known as the Texas Bowl makes its selection. While the scandal is not the kind of publicity a bowl wants to be associated with, the alternatives are Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue. None of those teams are all that appealing, so even with the off the field stuff I believe Penn State is the logical choice here, especially with a storied program like Texas potentially being the Big 12 representative.
TicketCity Bowl - Illinois vs. Iowa State
Since Northwestern just played in the TicketCity Bowl last season, I scratched them off as a possibility for this game. That left Illinois and Purdue, and I went with the Fighting Illini. They seem like they will travel a bit better than Purdue, and considering you may have the storyline of Ron Zook coaching for his job, Illinois ultimately would provide a more intriguing matchup with Iowa State. (By the way, the Big Ten is supposed to play a Conference USA team in the TicketCity Bowl this year, but depending on what other bowls do, this spot could be left open. Since Iowa State could be left out of the Big 12 lineup, putting the Cyclones in a game affiliated with their conference would make sense.)
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl - Purdue vs. Toledo
The final Big Ten-affiliated bowl is right here in Detroit. This game has missed out on actually having a Big Ten team available to select in all but two years, but this year it could get to pick between Purdue and Northwestern. Interestingly enough, those are the only two Big Ten teams to have ever played in this bowl game (when it was known as the Motor City Bowl). Purdue beat Central Michigan in a wild game in 2007 in front of 60,624 people, a record crowd for the bowl game. Northwestern lost to Bowling Green in 2003 in front of 51,286 people.
This year, I think the folks at the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl will select Purdue to be the Big Ten's representative to take on Toledo from the MAC. The Rockets have an explosive offense and an iffy defense, and their second trip to Detroit for this bowl in as many years could result in a high-scoring affair that is fun to watch.
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl - Northwestern vs. California
Not every Big Ten team will end up in a Big Ten-affiliated bowl game this year assuming Purdue beats Indiana on Saturday to become bowl eligible. In my projections, Northwestern is the team on the outside looking in, but that's not a big deal at all. There will be a few games that won't have teams available to select through their usual affiliations, meaning Northwestern could land anywhere from Washington D.C. for the Military Bowl to Honolulu for the Hawaii Bowl. Ultimately, I think the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl out in San Francisco will be the Wildcats' landing spot. There they match up with California from the Pac-12 in my projection, and I'm sure Northwestern would have no problem with missing out on a trip to Detroit in favor of heading out west to San Francisco.