Eyes up: Big 10 bowl picture crowded at top, murky in middle

NCAA Football

With four weeks to go in conference play, the Big Ten’s three highest-ranked teams remain in pursuit of a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The races in both divisions are tight, with half of the league harboring goals of reaching the conference championship. In the middle and back of the pack, even for the handful of longshots, bowl eligibility is still on the table.

But postseason projections, while fodder for fans and analysts, are hardly part of a team’s regular game plan.

”If you don’t win the next one, you are going to go from being first to fifth or whatever it may be,” said Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan, whose team is in first place in the West Division. ”Any team can beat you any week, so you have to be at your best. We’re humble enough to know that anybody can beat us on any Saturday.”

There’s no program more committed to the art of staying present in the moment than the Gophers under coach P.J. Fleck, whose limits to looking beyond the current opponent – as publicly stated, at least – are the offseason and the bye week.

”I know you guys probably laugh when we say, `one-game championship season’ or whatever, but that’s really our mantra, our mentality. This game is all we’ve got,” Morgan said. ”If we don’t win this week, who knows what next week holds?”

The Gophers (6-2, 4-1) host Illinois (3-6, 2-4) on Saturday in the epitome of a trap game, given that the Illini beat Penn State on Oct. 23 in that NCAA-record nine-overtime grind. Minnesota then plays at No. 19 Iowa (6-2, 3-2) on Nov. 13 in the first of two rivalry games for the Gophers that will determine the West Division title. They host Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2) on Nov. 27, after a game at Indiana (2-6, 0-5).

”It’s human nature to look at external, but we continue to fight it every day. This is about fighting human nature the best you possibly can, and that internal has got to be way louder than the external,” Fleck said.

WHO WINS THE WEST?

Wisconsin would claim a seventh Big Ten championship-game berth in 11 seasons of the divisional format by winning out – a legitimate scenario after an uncharacteristic 1-3 start. The Badgers visit Rutgers (4-4, 1-4) on Saturday and host Northwestern (3-5, 1-4) and Nebraska (3-6, 1-5) before the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe at Minnesota.

Backsliding Iowa plays at Northwestern on Saturday. After the crucial game against the Gophers, the Hawkeyes finish with Illinois and Nebraska.

Losing earlier in the season to the Gophers and the Badgers hurts Purdue (5-3, 3-2) in the hunt. The Boilermakers host No. 5 Michigan State (8-0, 5-0) on Saturday and visit No. 6 Ohio State (7-1, 5-0) on Nov. 13 before finishing with Northwestern and Indiana.

BEASTS OF THE EAST

Michigan State has a path to the East Division title with no outside help required after beating arch-enemy Michigan (7-1, 4-1) last week. The Spartans play at Purdue on Saturday and host Maryland (5-3, 2-3) on Nov. 13, before the big finish at No. 6 Ohio State (7-1, 5-0) on Nov. 20 and at home against No. 22 Penn State (5-3, 2-3) on Nov. 27.

The Buckeyes play at Nebraska on Saturday and host Purdue on Nov. 13, before closing the schedule with the Michigan State-Michigan combo. The No. 9 Wolverines host Indiana and play at Penn State and Maryland before the Ohio State grudge match they haven’t won since 2011.

Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan are in the mix for the four-team national playoffs, with a Rose Bowl bid next on the list – or enticing the conference champion if the Big Ten were to be left out of the CFP.

”We put ourselves in a good position heading into the last month of the season,” Spartans coach Mel Tucker said. ”But really, we need to play our best football down the stretch in November. That’s really what it’s all about: November madness. We have to be at our best when our best is needed.”

GOING PLACES

Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa have crossed the six-win threshold for bowl game eligibility. Wisconsin is one short but will likely be the favorite in at least three more games. Penn State needs another victory, too, and still must play Michigan and Michigan State but has a home game against Rutgers on Nov. 20 to fall back on.

Purdue and Maryland have rockier roads to get one more, but four chances each to do so. The Terrapins, who host Penn State on Saturday, finish at Rutgers on Nov. 27. Maryland hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2016.

LONG WAITS

Rutgers has gone to a bowl game since its inaugural season in the Big Ten in 2014 and needs two wins to get there. The Scarlet Knights have a realistic opportunity with remaining games against Indiana and Maryland.

Nebraska has been left out of bowl play since 2016 and faces awfully long odds to get there, with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa left on the schedule and no room for any more defeats. Illinois, also with six losses, must beat Minnesota, Iowa and Northwestern to make it. Indiana has to go 4-0, facing Michigan, Rutgers, Minnesota and Purdue.

Northwestern not only won’t be repeating as West Division champions, but also finds itself in a tough spot in order to play beyond November. The Wildcats face Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois, with room for only one loss.

HARMLESS PREDICTIONS

College Football Playoff semifinal – Cotton or Orange Bowl: Ohio State.

Rose Bowl: Michigan State.

New Year’s Six Bowl – Fiesta, Peach or Sugar Bowl: Michigan.

Citrus Bowl: Wisconsin.

Outback Bowl: Iowa.

Las Vegas Bowl: Minnesota.

Music City Bowl: Penn State.

Pinstripe Bowl: Purdue.

Guaranteed Rate Bowl: Maryland.

Quick Lane Bowl: Rutgers.

More AP college football coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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