Thursday, May 31, 2012

Conference Championship Odds: The Big Ten


For years the Big Ten was referred to as the Big Two, Little Eight. Then Penn State joined the conference and, depending on the season, the name either added a “Medium One” or altered the ending to “Little Nine.” That seems like eons ago. While Ohio State has still dominated the conference in recent memory – the Buckeyes had won at least a share of six-straight Big Ten titles before last season’s swoon – Michigan hasn’t been a continually dominant team since the late 90s. That, coupled with the league’s parity since the mid-90s and the Big Two, Little Eight is so stuck in the Bo Schembechler-Woody Hayes Era. Since 2000, nine of the current 12 Big Ten teams have won at least a share of the Big Ten Championship. (That, of course, is counting Nebraska as one of the teams that have failed to win a conference crown despite just one season in the conference). See the chart below for the conference’s champions in the last dozen years.




It just shows how tough times have been in Minnesota and Indiana in recent years. (How ironic is it that neither Minnesota or Indiana has sniffed the Big Ten Championship since each winning a share of the title in 1967?). The point is, unlike any other conference, the Big Ten is filled with at least a half dozen teams capable of competing for a league crown each season. It might not seem like that looking at recruiting rankings and projections the 2012 Big Ten Championship is sure to be more than a 3- or 4-team race. If Ohio State was eligible for postseason play I could see the Buckeyes not only as the Leaders Division favorites but also Big Ten favorites. Alas, the Buckeyes aren’t eligible and, as it stands now, here are the odds to secure the automatic BCS bid from the Big Ten this season:


***The oddsmakers are pretty clear about their expectations in the Big Ten: Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State will battle for the Legends Division crown while Wisconsin is practically guaranteed to win the Leaders Division title. Interestingly enough, it’s Michigan – not Wisconsin – that is the league favorite. I think the Wolverines have the ultimate playmaker in Denard Robinson who can steal them a game or two as well as a defensive unit that plays like one of the nation’s best. However, what makes Michigan so dangerous also makes it scary in a negative way. Put nicely, if Denard could throw the ball like Tim Tebow Michigan would be a national championship contender. Nevertheless, Denard throws jump ball after jump ball as if he’s officiating NBA games. Nevertheless, if Denard trashes the turnover bug, this team could be very dangerous. While it “technically” has no impact on the Big Ten schedule, Michigan’s opening game vs. Alabama in Dallas and battle at Notre Dame in the nonconference will really set the tone for the season. Michigan gets Michigan State at home but does travel to Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. Those back-to-back games, at worst, need to be split. If Michigan loses them both, which is a very real possibility, the Big Ten title is all but a dream. The conference finale at Ohio State could also have conference title implication. Avoiding Wisconsin and Penn State might be the reason Michigan is getting the most Big Ten love, but at +200 I would avoid the Wolverines like the plague. Last year’s team overachieved and this year’s team is facing higher expectations. There is nowhere to go but down and this could easily be a 9-3 or 8-4 season with 2-3 conference defeats.
***One reason to like Wisconsin at +220 is this simple fact: The next “best” teams in the Leaders Division are Illinois and Penn State (both at +1500). I’ll have more on those teams later but Wisconsin is such a huge favorite to win its division that, if you assume it’ll indeed happen, you have a 50/50 shot at Wisconsin winning the Big Ten title, which is much better than the 8.33 percent chance each team technically has to win the title in the preseason. (For 2012, the percentage is actually 9.09 due to Ohio State’s ineligibility). Breaking in a new quarterback for the second straight season won’t be easy despite Russell Wilson making it look easy last season. Of course, Wisconsin’s schedule couldn’t appear much easier: Michigan State and Ohio State both visit Camp Randall while rebuilding Penn State is arguably the second-toughest conference road game. The Big Ten opener at Nebraska might play an outside role at Wisconsin’s Big Ten title game spot but it would be a complete shock (almost as shocking if Minnesota won the Legends Division) if Wisconsin didn’t represent the Leaders Division in the title game. That alone is a reason to seriously consider Wisconsin at +220.
***The worst odds in the Big Ten go to… Nebraska. The Cornhuskers travel to Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern. Memorial Stadium plays host to Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State. Outside of the bye week and Minnesota there are no guarantee victories on that slate. With that schedule compared to that of Michigan and Michigan State – Nebraska’s other Legends Division title foes – the Cornhuskers might have to go 6-1 to claim a spot at Lucas Oil Stadium for the conference championship game. Heck, going 6-1 in that stretch might have Nebraska in the national championship hunt. The schedule and another year of getting accustomed to the Big Ten will likely have Nebraska on the fringe of the Top 25 but nowhere near a Rose Bowl berth. At +450 there are much better plays than Nebraska.
***One of my favorite plays here is Michigan State. At +575, the Spartans are a great mix of risk and reward. Losing Kirk Cousins – the winningest QB in team history – will hurt but Andrew Maxwell is more than capable of filling those shoes. (Cousins, for what it’s worth, had to fill the shoes of Brian Hoyer… who had to fill the shoes of Drew Stanton, who had to fill… you get the point). The Spartans get Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska at home this season which is a major plus. The make-or-break point of the season will be the final two weekends in October; Back-to-back road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin will determine the division crown. With a four-game winning streak against Michigan, 3-0 against Denard, the Spartans could actually be favored in that game. The roadie at Wisconsin should be another classic. If Michigan State can somehow win both of those games it might assure itself of a second straight trip to Lucas Oil Stadium. In taking MSU’s 23/4 odds you’re banking on the Spartans splitting the Michigan and Wisconsin games and not faltering elsewhere. It’s not a bad gamble given MSU’s recent history.
***My favorite sleeper play is Iowa at +1900. Put it this way, I’m always a big fan of looking at solid teams who aren’t favored to win their divisions. The reason: It’s always a good play. While Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State are projected to finish 1-2-3 in the Legends Division, don’t count out the Hawkeyes who have are always good for a 10-win season when the country least expects it. I think Iowa can be a major surprise in the country this year. The schedule sets up very nicely, especially if Iowa can upset Michigan State in East Lansing. A 5-0 start is almost guaranteed. While Penn State will be tricky, playing at Kinnick Stadium is enough for me to give Iowa the edge. Win that game and it would be very conceivable to see Iowa at 10-0 heading into the final two conference games: at Michigan and home against Nebraska. Again, this pick would all hinge on an upset at Spartan Stadium to get the ball rolling, but don’t say I didn’t warn you of this major sleeper.
***One trend you’ll notice the more you read my stuff is that I love a team projected to finish a distant second in a division. Enter Penn State. (Illinois has the same odds but let’s pretend that isn’t the case for this argument). While Wisconsin should win the Leaders Division going away, what if injuries pile up and Wisconsin staggers to an 8-4 season with 3 Big Ten losses? Well, what happens is another team likely represents the Leaders Division in Indianapolis. If I’m to gamble on another team, it’s the Nittany Lions. The defense never changes and that’s a good thing. Penn State avoids Michigan and Michigan State and gets Ohio State and Wisconsin at home. This isn’t to say playing at home makes those two victories, but it surely upgrades the chances. The two road toughies are the aforementioned game at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium and at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. Nevertheless, Penn State could surprise, making +1500 a nice play if you’re not sold on the other Big Ten favorites.
While I enjoy taking teams with long odds the Big Ten’s bottom four teams will just steal your money. You could give me +1000000 odds on Minnesota and I wouldn’t touch it. The same goes for Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern. While I could see all teams fighting for bowl berths, a Big Ten Championship is nothing more than a pipe dream for these teams.
Bottom line: I think the Big Ten will have one of the more interesting conference races this season. I’ve vacillated on my pick for weeks and really haven’t settled on one team. My best advice is this: Wisconsin has the best chance to win the conference based on its weaker division and schedule. With four teams having a legitimate shot at coming out of the Legends Division which makes it tough to single out a team. (We’re not talking Alabama-LSU here where one game likely decides the division champ). I could see dozens of scenarios where Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa all represent the Legends Division in Indianapolis. Because of that it is very tough to put cash on any of those teams. Forced to choose, I’d look at two: Michigan State and Iowa. No team has been more consistent in the last few years than the Spartans, who are coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons. Iowa, on the other hand, has the schedule that could make for a beautiful BCS run. That means I’m completely against the apparent favorite Michigan here. That would be correct. I find last year’s 11-2 season to be more of a fluke than the norm. If you’re in love with the Wolverines then by all means put your money where your heart is. Call me a major skeptic but here’s my biggest bold prediction: Michigan will be one of the season’s biggest disappointments. With that in mind, I refuse to touch the Wolverines.

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