We are pretty much a third of the way through the conference portion of the schedule and there is very little that we actually know about the Big Ten teams and how they will sort out when all is said and done. Just when you think you are sure of something, the rest of the Big Ten decides to throw you for a loop. The Big Ten has often been described as really deep and brutally tough to navigate. But it is also unpredictable and just when you think at least one team is figured out, they go out and flip you for real.
A few examples...
- Illinois was considered one of the top line Big Ten teams who, like Minnesota, had an outside shot at winning the Big Ten title. They went into their first Big Ten game with a lofty #11 ranking and then received an beat-down at the hands of Purdue (the same young squad that scored 44 points in a loss to Eastern Michigan). Then Illinois rebounds from that to beat #8 Ohio State, putting them back on track. So we thought. Now they've lost 3 straight, including a home loss to Northwestern, and sit 1-4 in the standings.
- Wisconsin was presumed dead, or at least not likely to continue their Bo Ryan streak of a top 4 finish. Their point guard was out for the year, they struggled to beat Penn State and Nebraska and every time they faced a quality opponent they were beat. Then they beat Illinois AND Indiana in the same week. But just when you thought they were back, they dropped one at Iowa (which may not actually be a bad loss).
- Ohio State takes care of Michigan at home, but is 3-2.
- The Gophers were making national headlines before dropping back-to-back games at Indiana at home to Michigan. Those are not exactly bad losses but sit behind 4 teams in the standings after failing to make a statement in their last two opportunities.
With two thirds of the conference season remaining, I have two things I want to post here. First is how are the Gophers going to fare in their final 13 games, paying particular attention to the fact that they have played four games against the NCAA caliber teams of the league. And secondly, the question has been raised, just how many losses will the conference champ have?
When looking at the standings or judging where the Gophers belong it is important to note who teams have played thus far. The Gophers have already made trips to Illinois and Indiana while hosting Michigan and Michigan State. Their only real "gimme" game (and I use that term very lightly) was hosting Northwestern. So let's look at their remaining 13 and try to predict a final record.
Teams You Have to Beat - have to be wins
There are five games I feel rather confident the Gophers will win. Not they might win or stand a chance of winning, but these games are very likely going to be wins.
- Penn State
- @ Nebraska
- @ Purdue
I'm not exactly going out on a limb with the first four, but these should all be wins. Purdue is less of a stone-cold-lock, but even on the road it should be a win here. Five wins plus the three we already have gets us up to 8 with 8 more to discuss.
Teams We Should Beat - but we won't win them all
- @ Northwestern
- @ Iowa
These games are a bit dicier and there could be a loss or two in here. At Iowa and home to Wisconsin are the two that scare me the most. I very nearly put the Northwestern road game in the first group but they just beat Illinois on the road. Let's just say we go 3-1 in this group as a safe estimate. The Illini, Badger and Hawkeye games are actually all in a row on the schedule, winning three in a row is not an easy feat in this league. Our record after these four is 11-3 (we are not taking into account when these games are played).
The Challenging Games - high quality opponents, mostly on the road
- @ Wisconsin
- @ Michigan State
- @ Ohio State
This is the set of games that will ultimately determine our place in the Big Ten pecking order. Losing all four (which is possible) means we finish 11-7. Splitting those four and finishing 13-5 might actually be good enough to finish tied for 1st or 2nd. The trip to Wisconsin on Saturday is the one I am probably most confident in. We have a couple lesser-pressure games on either side of that one while Wisconsin gets MSU and OSU before and after Minnesota. The trip to East Lansing will be daunting. They will get 6 days to rest and prepare for the Gophers while we get just 3, I'm not counting on that one. I'm not as scared of Ohio State as I was a couple weeks ago and the Indiana game will be another battle, but this time at home. Splitting seems like the best case scenario in those four and 1-3 wouldn't be shocking in the slightest.
If I were to go out on a limb with predictions I say our season looks like this...
@ Northwestern - win
@ Wisconsin - win
Nebraska - win
Iowa - win
@ Michigan State - loss
Illinois - win
Wisconsin - win
@ Iowa - loss
@ Ohio State - loss
Indiana - loss
Penn State - win
@ Nebraska - win
@ Purdue - win
12-6 record is my prediction. Where will that put us in the final standings? Tough to say but here are the teams at or near the top with some commentary.
Wisconsin - frightening to say this, but Wisconsin might be in position to win the league! It comes down to scheduling. The Badgers beat Indiana in Bloomington, they don't have to face them again. The Badgers get to host Michigan in their only meeting of the year. Meanwhile they get Penn State and Nebraska twice. So the top 2 teams they play a total of 2 times and the bottom two teams they get 4 times. Their title hopes may come down to their next two home games against Michigan State and Minnesota. If they can manage to hold serve and win both of those they will be 6-1 and on the road to 13 wins.
Michigan State - currently 5-1 riding a 5-game win streak. But their schedule gets much tougher now and I don't see them getting more than 12 wins.
Indiana - Still considered the co-favorite with Michigan. Scanning the schedule I can't see more than four more losses, more then likely just three. 14-4 or 13-5 seems most likely. They have not yet faced Michigan, I'm going to assume a split there. They have a tough 5-game stretch of MSU, @ rival Purdue, Mich, @ Illinois and @ Ohio St. Some physical, defensive minded teams to kick off that stretch before facing some athletic/scoring teams. Then they finish with a similar stretch of @ MSU, @ Minn, Iowa, Ohio St and @ Michigan. Unless they get swept by Michigan, I'll concede 14-4 for the Hoosiers.
Michigan - Their tough stretch comes in February with a trip to Indiana, home to Ohio State, at Wisconsin and at Michigan State. Could they lose two of those four? Quite possibly, everybody goes through a little lull over 18 Big Ten games. But the rest of their schedule looks rather favorable. I don't see Michigan losing more than 3 more games and finishing with a 14-4 record.
The Final Big Ten standings? (at leas near the top). The top 2 would only flip if Indiana were to sweep their season series, I am assuming a split.
- Michigan (14-4)
- Indiana (13-5)
- Minnesota (12-6)
- Wisconsin (12-6)
- Ohio State (12-6)
- Michigan State (11-7)
- Penn State
I'm sure I'm going to be WAY off, but since we are almost 1/3 of the way through the season these are my predictions (to be revisited in a month).