The Big Ten has gone four consecutive seasons without fielding a team in the BCS title game. Is this the year the streak gets snapped? The Big Ten enters the 2012 season with four teams ranked in the top 16 of the Coaches Poll, led by No. 8 Michigan, so the opportunity is there. But which team is most likely to make this season’s BCS title game?
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart and BTN.com editor Brent Yarina debate that very topic in the latest installment of their ongoing series “Big Ten Back & Forth.”
Tom: It has to be Michigan State. Look, football is a game that is won in the trenches. And there doesn’t appear to be any team in the Big Ten that has a better offensive-defensive line combination than the Spartans. Factor in what may be the top set of linebackers in the conference, as well as perhaps the top secondary, and you can why so many folks—including myself—think Michigan State has the top defense in the Big Ten.
The offense? Yes, Andrew Maxwell is in his first year as the starting quarterback, and he’s working with an overhauled receiving corps. But this is an attack that can lean on that strong line leading the way for battering ram running back Le’Veon Bell while the passing game gets sorted out.
Brent: Tom, if we’re talking about the Big Ten team with the most talent and top pro prospects, I agree it’s Michigan State. But when it comes to playing in the BCS title game, sometimes it’s more about who these top teams play. Think about it, non-SEC teams almost have to go 13-0 or 12-1 nowadays to make the BCS title game. And if there’s a Big Ten team capable of reaching that record, No. 12 Wisconsin is the best candidate. Why? Because the Badgers’ two hardest games are at home (Michigan State and Ohio State – the two teams that beat them with last-minute bombs last season), while the other big test comes on the road versus a team they beat 48-17 last year (Nebraska).
So while Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska are beating each other up in the Legends Division, Wisconsin, which may be favored in every game, could be sitting pretty – not to mention healthy – entering the Big Ten title game.
Tom: Nice points, Brent. Wisconsin is stacked with talent and has a favorable schedule. But Michigan State’s schedule also sets up well. Yes, there is that game at Michigan on Oct. 20 that looms large, as we all know the Wolverines are aching to end that four-game losing skein to the Spartans. And that tilt is followed by a trip to Madison in what essentially is a two-game schedule for Michigan State. (Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska all come to East Lansing.)
And don’t discount the “chip-on-the-shoulder” factor for the Spartans. Unlike Wisconsin, Michigan State is aching for big-time success. While the Badgers have been to the last two Rose Bowls, the Spartans haven’t been to Pasadena since the 1987 season. Not counting Big Ten newbie Nebraska, only Minnesota and Indiana have longer Rose Bowl droughts. This is a HUNGRY Michigan State team. This is a Michigan State program with unfinished business that is ultra-motivated and thinking even bigger than the Rose Bowl.
Brent: Can’t disagree with anything you said there. We’ve heard all about Michigan State’s hunger and SEC-like defense, and there’s no doubt this is a team that wants to take the proverbial next step. I’m just not sure I can see them finishing with fewer than two losses, which it almost takes in this day and age for a non-SEC team to make the BCS title game.
Regardless of Wisconsin’s schedule, Bret Bielema and the Badgers have the makings for another strong season. And don’t let all the fears over Russell Wilson’s departure and the rebuilt staff scare you. Bielema has a system in place, and it’s one that breeds consistency and results. The offense, whether it’s Scott Tolzien or Russell Wilson under center, has torched Big Ten defenses the last three seasons, and the defense has a way of exceeding expectations. I don’t expect either of those things to change this year.