There are just a few weeks of regular season college football left for the Big Ten and the bowl picture is starting to take shape. A lot could obviously change in just a few weeks, but at this point we have a general idea of where teams will likely be spending the holidays. There is a basic range of games each Big Ten team could play in, so I figured I would take a stab at predicting where the bowl eligible teams from the conference will end up and who they will be playing.
To establish my bowl projections, I went through the final weeks of the season and predicted the winner of each game. Right off the bat I want to note that I predicted that Ohio State will go on the road and beat Iowa next week. This game is crucial to the Big Ten title picture and has a huge effect on how the conference's bowl lineup will shake out, so that was really the starting point for these projections. From there, I totaled up the final records for each team and went through the bowl selection process for the Big Ten. Let's start right at the top with the Big Ten's automatic-qualifying team.
Rose Bowl - Wisconsin vs. TCU
In my projection, I have Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State all finishing with one loss in the conference and overall records of 11-1. Because MSU and OSU don't play, the tiebreaker reverts to overall record. Since all of the teams are 11-1 in this projection, the deciding tiebreaker is the BCS standings. Although OSU could conceivably jump Wisconsin by beating Iowa, I think the Badgers will remain the top-ranked Big Ten team if they win out. They convincingly beat OSU earlier in the season and I doubt the voters will forget that (the computers are a different story, of course). As a result, Wisconsin gets the tiebreaker and represents the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
I have Oregon making it to the BCS title game, so the Rose Bowl loses one of its teams. One of the new provisions with the BCS this year is that the Rose Bowl is required to replace a team it loses to the title game with a team from a non-AQ conference (assuming one is eligible) once in the next few years. I expect both TCU and Boise State to be eligible, and I think the Horned Frogs will be the higher ranked team, so they are Wisconsin's opponent in my projection.
Sugar Bowl - Ohio State vs. LSU
If Ohio State wins out, it will for sure receive an at-large BCS bid. Based on how I have the BCS shaking out, I think the Buckeyes would end up in the Sugar Bowl against LSU for a rematch of the 2008 BCS title game. With the way the selection order goes for the BCS games, the Sugar Bowl would have a shot at pitting Boise State against LSU, but I think it would opt for OSU. The Buckeyes will travel well and I just think a rematch of the '08 title game would be more attractive then LSU vs. Boise State.
Capital One Bowl - Michigan State vs. Alabama
Unfortunately for MSU, the BCS allows a maximum of only two teams per conference. As a result, the Spartans could go 11-1, finish in the top ten in the BCS standings and still be shut out from not only the Rose Bowl, but the BCS in general. In this scenario, I would imagine the Capital One Bowl would jump at the chance of hosting the 11-1 Spartans, especially in a potential matchup against Alabama. If you thought the storylines for an OSU/LSU rematch would be interesting, imagine how intriguing a matchup would be featuring Nick Saban going against his former team. Mark Dantonio was actually an assistant under Saban at MSU, so this would be an extremely interesting game. It would feel like a bit of a disappointment for Michigan State since it's not a BCS game, but having a chance to beat Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide isn't a bad consolation prize.
Outback Bowl - Iowa vs. Florida
Looking at my projected Big Ten standings, there are three distinct tiers of teams. The first is the three 11-1 teams, which are on a plateau by themselves. The next tier is where Iowa stands, as it is the only team left that I don't have going 7-5. I have the Hawkeyes winning all of their games except the one against Ohio State, which would give them a record of 9-3. A record like that would make them the obvious choice for the Outback Bowl, which I actually think is becoming a better bowl game than the Capital One Bowl. It is now a 1 p.m. start and is going to be broadcast on ABC, and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay is much nicer than the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. I think Iowa fans would be more than happy with getting a chance to play the Florida Gators in this game if their Big Ten title hopes fall short.
Gator Bowl: Penn State vs. Arkansas
The other New Year's Day bowl game in Florida for the Big Ten is the Gator bowl, and this is where the bowl selection process gets to be a bit of a crapshoot. For starters, the four remaining bowl eligible teams are all 7-5 in my projection, meaning any could be selected regardless of their conference record. What's more, the Gator Bowl and Insight Bowl actually share the next selection, and if they both want the same team, a coin flip would determine who goes where.
When making the projection for this game, the two teams I considered were Penn State and Michigan. Both have bigger fan bases that are more willing to travel to a bowl game than Illinois and Northwestern, so I would expect PSU and U-M to end up in the Gator Bowl and Insight Bowl. As for which team goes where, that is where the randomness could come in.
I could certainly see the Gator Bowl just outright picking Penn State, but a possible matchup between Michigan and Arkansas would be very tough to pass up. After all, you have former Michigan quarterback Ryan Mallett now playing for Arkansas, and a game between the Wolverines and Razorbacks would likely be a shootout. Also, Michigan has quite a few players from the state of Florida, including Denard Robinson, so that could add to the intrigue of selecting Michigan.
At this point you're probably wondering why I put Penn State in this game after making such a strong case for Michigan, so let me explain. After missing out on a bowl game for the last two seasons, the Michigan fan base is ready to travel somewhere for the holidays to watch the Wolverines. Although Penn State beat Michigan in the regular season, I think the Wolverines are a more attractive team just because so many fans are expected to make the trip to whichever bowl game they end up in. As a result, I think both the Gator Bowl and the Insight Bowl would select Michigan, resulting in a coin flip to determine which bowl gets U-M. When I did the hypothetical coin flip, the Gator Bowl ended up with Penn State, so I put them in this game against Arkansas.
Insight Bowl: Michigan vs. Missouri
With Penn State ending up in the Gator Bowl, the Insight Bowl gets its projected first choice in Michigan. The Wolverines will make their first bowl appearance since the 2008 Capital One Bowl this holiday season, and because it's been a couple years since they went bowling, I don't think they will do any worse than the Insight Bowl, where I have them playing the Missouri Tigers. In my projection, I have Missouri finishing 10-2, which in some years might be good enough for an at-large BCS bid. With so many undefeated and one-loss teams projected to be up there in the rankings, the Tigers actually get pushed down to the Insight Bowl despite having a 10-2 record. Like a potential Michigan/Arkansas matchup, a game between the Wolverines and Tigers would likely be a shootout, although you can say that about any game involving Michigan.
Texas Bowl: Northwestern vs. Baylor
The next two bowl games in the selection process are both located in Texas. Fittingly, the first of the remaining games to choose is the Texas Bowl, which I think would pick Northwestern over Illinois. The Wildcats' projected opponent is Baylor, which has had a surprisingly great season. Baylor would definitely have the homefield advantage being just a few hours away from Houston, but the Wildcats would provide a tough matchup as they look to avenge last year's disappointing loss in the Outback Bowl.
TicketCity Bowl (formerly the Dallas Football Classic): Illinois vs. Texas
The final bowl eligible Big Ten team is Illinois, meaning it would end up in the TicketCity Bowl in this projection. The Fighting Illini's opponent is projected to be Texas, which I'm sure the folks in Dallas would love to host in the first edition of this bowl game. Although the Longhorns are having an awful year by their standards, playing in Cotton Bowl Stadium wouldn't be a bad way to finish the season. At the very least, pittingagainst Ron Zook would be interesting to watch and a good way to kick off the TicketCity Bowl.
Little Caesars Bowl: No Big Ten teams available
Once again, it looks like the Little Caesars Bowl (formerly the Motor City Bowl) will be shut out from hosting a Big Ten team. Unless a scenario plays out where only one Big Ten team makes the BCS or Purdue somehow gets bowl eligible, I can't see there being enough teams out there for the Little Caesars Bowl to avoid a MAC/Sun Belt matchup. Maybe with a 12th team coming in next year this bowl game will get to stop missing out on Big Ten teams.
Barring any upsets, the Big Ten's representative in the Rose Bowl will be determined next week when Ohio State plays at Iowa. An OSU victory could actually send Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl if both teams win out, whereas an Iowa win would put MSU on the inside track to Pasadena. If Iowa loses, the Spartans could end up playing in Orlando for the third time in four years while the Hawkeyes spend New Year's Day in Tampa Bay.
The teams not in contention for the Big Ten title likely won't end up being selected for bowl games based on their record, but rather for their drawing power. That is good news for Penn State and Michigan and bad news for Northwestern and Illinois, as a clear divide exists. The Nittany Lions and Wolverines will likely end up in the Gator and Insight Bowls, whereas the Wildcats and Fighting Illini will probably be in Texas for their bowl games. None of this is for sure, of course, as just about the only thing that can be predicted with certainty is that yet again the Little Caesars Bowl will miss out on a Big Ten team. Whatever the case, the Big Ten bowl picture is becoming quite clear even though there are still a few more weeks of football to be played.