This whole divisions thing in the Big Ten is still taking some getting used to. In the past, tracking the race for the Big Ten title was pretty simple. The team (or teams) with the best conference record took home the Big Ten title, and if there was a tie between two or more teams, whichever school won the tiebreaker got the automatic BCS bid. Of course, sometimes the tiebreaker scenarios got pretty complicated (see last year), but in general it wasn't usually all that difficult to forecast the title race.
This year, thanks both to the new division setup and the fact that there aren't any elite teams in the conference, the Big Ten race is wide open with four weeks to go. Although Penn State does hold a pretty comfortable lead in the Leaders Division, the Nittany Lions still have to play Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The latter two schools have hopes of winning the Leaders, and that division could be decided in the final week of the season. The same goes for the Legends Division, which has three teams tied atop the standings right now. Here's a look at the standings going into Week 10:
t-1. Nebraska (7-1, 3-1)
t-1. Michigan State (6-2, 3-1)
t-1. Michigan (7-1, 3-1)
4. Iowa (5-3, 2-2)
5. Minnesota (2-6, 1-3)
6. Northwestern (3-5, 1-4)
The Legends Division can be broken down into three tiers. Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan comprise the frontrunners tier. Each of the three teams has only one loss in the conference and is among the group that is likely to produce the eventual division champion. The second tier includes only Iowa and can be described as unlikely to win the division but still in the race. The Hawkeyes play all three teams from the top tier, which means they technically control their own destiny. At the same time, though, it's highly unlikely they will run the table, especially after falling to Minnesota this past Saturday. The Golden Gophers, along with Northwestern, comprise the bottom tier of the Legends Division. These two teams are essentially already out of the race.
The race for the Legends crown is so intriguing not only because three teams are currently tied for the division lead, but also because of how the schedules set up for the final month of the season. Some people think Nebraska has the inside track to the Big Ten title game after beating Michigan State, but others believe the Spartans are still in great position to end up in Indianapolis because of their very manageable schedule. And then Michigan is sitting there with key division games against Iowa and Nebraska, as well as cross-divisional games against Illinois and Ohio State. Here's a full breakdown of the remaining schedules for the top four teams in the division:
Nebraska: vs. Northwestern, at Penn State, at Michigan, vs. Iowa
Michigan State: vs. Minnesota, at Iowa, vs. Indiana, at Northwestern
Michigan: at Iowa, at Illinois, vs. Nebraska, vs. Ohio State
Iowa: vs. Michigan, vs. Michigan State, at Iowa, at Nebraska
Out of these four teams, only Nebraska and Iowa control their own destiny. This is because Nebraska holds the tiebreaker over Michigan State, meaning the Spartans could win out and be left out of the title game if the Cornhuskers also run the table. Iowa can make the title game simply by winning its four remaining games. The Hawkeyes could take out the top three teams in the division and take over all of the head-to-head tiebreakers in the process, giving them the edge for the Legends title if they win out.
This means both Michigan State and Michigan need help to make it to Indianapolis. If the Spartans do win out, they need Nebraska to slip up just once during the rest of the season. MSU already holds the tiebreaker against Michigan thanks to its win earlier this month, which means the Wolverines would need an MSU loss to make it to Indy if they win out.
If Michigan State or Michigan slips up along the way, they obviously will fall a step behind in the race for the Legends title, but all hope will not be lost by any means. Thanks to how the tiebreakers are set up, each team could still make it to Indianapolis even with two losses. In addition to the scenario where the rest of the teams in the division end up with at least three conference losses, scenarios exist where two or more teams could end up tied and a two-loss Michigan State or a two-loss Michigan could get the spot in Indy.
Because there are so many different scenarios out there, let's examine only a couple where ending up in a multi-team tie could actually work to a team's advantage. First, though, let's take a look at the Big Ten's tiebreakers for deciding a division champion. For a two-team tie, it is broken strictly by the head-to-head matchup. The winner owns the tiebreaker and receives the nod for the title game.
The tiebreaker for three or more teams is more complicated. The first tiebreaker is the head-to-head records among the tied teams. If that doesn't break the tie, the following criteria are looked at until one team separates itself: records in the division, records against the bottom three teams in the division, records against common conference opponents, rankings in the BCS standings, overall records and, finally, a random draw. It's worth noting that if any criterion leaves only two teams, the tiebreaker reverts to the two-team tiebreaker, which is determined by the winner of the head-to-head meeting. For example, three teams could end up with the same conference record and all have a 1-1 record against each other. When comparing division records, if there is a tie between two teams but the third team has a lower winning percentage, the tie among the two remaining teams would be broken by the winner of their game.
I realize this is tough to follow, so here are a couple scenarios where the tiebreakers are applied in order to give you a better idea of how it all works.
Scenario A: Michigan State wins all of its remaining games except the matchup with Iowa. Michigan also falls to Iowa but defeats Nebraska in addition to Illinois and Ohio State. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers win all of their remaining games (that includes a game against Iowa) except the one against Michigan. This would result in a three-way tie and the top of the standings between Michigan State, Nebraska and Michigan since all three teams would have a 6-2 conference record.
The first tiebreaker between these three teams would not actually break the tie. All three teams would have a 1-1 record against each other (MSU beat Michigan, lost to Nebraska; Michigan lost to MSU and beat Nebraska in this scenario; Nebraska beat MSU and lost to Michigan in this scenario). This means division records now have to be taken into account. If the scenario plays out where each team suffers one more loss this season and it comes in the division, the records against Legends teams would be as follows:
Michigan State: 3-2
Because the Cornhuskers would have the best division record in this scenario, they would win the tiebreaker and receive the trip to Indy for the Big Ten title game. Because this is one of the first criteria for breaking ties, division games become extremely important in the final month of the season. If the Wolverines were to lose only one game the rest of the year, for example, they would be better off being defeated by Illinois or Ohio State rather than Iowa or Nebraska. This notion leads to the second scenario.
Scenario B: Instead of losing to Iowa, Michigan State is shockingly upset at home by Indiana but is victorious in its other three games. Yes, this is extremely unlikely, but a loss to Indiana instead of Iowa would give the Spartans a 4-1 division record. At the same time, let's say Nebraska's final four games play out the same way as the first scenario, and Michigan loses to Illinois instead of Iowa. This results in MSU, Nebraska and Michigan having a 4-1 division record, forcing the tiebreaker to move on to records against the bottom three teams in the division, which would be 3-0 for each team.
The next tiebreaker that would come into play in this scenario is the record against common conference opponents. Only four teams appear on the schedules of Michigan State, Nebraska and Michigan: Ohio State, Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa. Since the bottom three teams in the division didn't break the tie, the tiebreaker basically comes down to how each team performed against Ohio State. Michigan State and Nebraska have already defeated the Buckeyes, and in this scenario Michigan picks up a win over OSU as well. This means the tie still isn't broken and now the BCS standings are taken into account.
Because the BCS standings are based so heavily on when teams lose, Michigan would appear to have the advantage with this tiebreaker in this scenario. According to this scenario, a loss to Illinois would happen on Nov. 12. Nebraska would lose to Michigan a week later, presumably dropping the Cornhuskers below the Wolverines. Michigan State would be upset by Indiana that same Saturday and would likely fall the most since a loss to Indiana would be much worse than a loss to Illinois or Michigan.
For the BCS standings tiebreaker, it's important to note that if two of the teams are ranked within one spot of each other, the tie will revert back to being decided by the head-to-head game. This prevents a situation arising where Team A beat Team B early in the season but Team B ended up one spot ahead of Team A in the BCS standings and got the nod. Because Team A and Team B are right next to each other in the polls, the head-to-head matchup is taken into consideration. For the second scenario, Michigan would hold the edge over Nebraska if the two teams were ranked within one spot of each other since the Wolverines got the head-to-head win.
To say the least, the potential exists for things to get complicated if three or more teams finish with the same conference record. It's possible several tiebreakers could come into play to decide which team receives the opportunity to play in the Big Ten title game, which is why divisional games are extremely important the last month of the season. All games are obviously important, but if a team is going to drop a game in November, it's better off coming against a team from the Leaders rather than the Legends.
Of course, the possibility of a complicated three-team tie can be erased by the simplest formula of all: winning out. For Michigan State and Michigan, running the table does not guarantee a trip to Indianapolis. Because of the potential for head-to-head tiebreakers, the Spartans would need a Nebraska loss and Michigan would need a Michigan State loss. Neither team controls its own destiny, but winning out would at the very least give them a shot at an at-large BCS bid if the Big Ten title game isn't in the cards.
Michigan State managed to get through a brutal October with only one loss. While it was an ugly loss, the Spartans' remaining schedule sets up very nicely. Games at home against Minnesota and Indiana should be cakewalks, and the game at Northwestern is one the Spartans should win as well. For MSU, the division very well could come down to what happens at Iowa on Nov. 12. If the Spartans can win that game, I expect them to finish 7-1 in the Big Ten. Considering Nebraska's schedule is considerably tougher and at least one loss seems likely, a win at Iowa for MSU could very well mean they are the Legends Division champions, and even a loss wouldn't eliminate them from the running.
When the dust settles on the Legends race a month from now, I expect Michigan State to represent the division in the inaugural Big Ten title game. While a loss at Iowa is certainly possible, I don't envision Michigan or Nebraska running the table. The Spartans have the best shot of winning out, and I think they will do just that and secure the Legends Division crown in the process.