Penn State (3-1) begins Big Ten Leaders Division play this week with a road game in Bloomington, Indiana against Indiana (1-3). With any luck, the Nittany Lions will be back in the Hoosier state on December 3. That is when the Big Ten championship game will be played in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
For the first time in conference history the Big Ten has split in to two divisions, which means that the road to a championship for all twelve members is clearly paved and without a roadblock or detour. Win your division and you have an opportunity to play for the outright Big Ten title rather than look to highest BCS ranking or any other tiebreaker to determine who gets the conference’s automatic BCS bid. The champions of the Leaders (Penn State’s assigned division for those still trying to grasp the awkward division names) and Legends division will meet on the field to win a trip to Pasadena, California at the very least.
Penn State’s mission is simple. Win the division.
With the way things fall together in the schedule, it could be an interesting path. Penn State can technically afford to lose games to Legends Division schools Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern and still have a shot at the Big Ten title. In a sense, that should ease the tension throughout the season, although overall conference record is used as a tiebreaker if it comes to that. But if Penn State manages to have a better division record than everyone else, those games would not hurt them.
Penn State could get off to a good start in the Leaders Division but the games will get tougher on a weekly basis. First is the Hoosiers. Penn State has never lost to Indiana, although there have been a couple close calls. After a home game against Iowa, Penn State hosts Purdue. Both Indiana schools are looking to climb out of the Big Ten basement and even with Penn State not looking to be a premiere team this season, the Nittany Lions should have the edge in overall talent, especially on defense. Illinois comes to Beaver Stadium after a road inter-division match-up at Northwestern. The Illini roughed up Penn State a season ago so it should not be taken for granted. Illinois is also off to a 4-0 start and showing signs that they could make a possible run in the division. If Penn State is fortunate to get through these first three division games without a loss, buckle up for an interesting November.
Penn State hosts Nebraska in what could be a Big Ten championship preview on November 12, but the Nittany Lions’ most important games will come in the final two weeks of the regular season and both will be played on the road.
Penn State has won just once in Columbus, Ohio since joining the Big Ten but a win against Ohio State will almost be required in order for the Nittany Lions to control their own fate to Indianapolis. A win against Ohio State could move Penn State to 4-0, or possibly 3-1 at worst heading in to the regular season finale against Wisconsin in Madison. The Badgers, with Russell Wilson lighting a spark on offense, are the popular pick in the conference but Penn State has a history of playing well in Wisconsin. A win could send the winner to Indianapolis the next week.
It is certainly an uphill battle for Penn State, and the drive will be smoother if the offense has found a single quarterback, but the trip to Indianapolis is certainly not out of the question. With four weeks now in the books, the dawn of division play begins a new season in a sense, with a big goal still in eyesight.
The long journey to Indianapolis begins this week, in Bloomington.
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