Leaders race now Wisconsin's to lose

The safest bet in the Big Ten for 2012 has become Wisconsin winning the Leaders Division.

If all things were equal, the defending Big Ten champion Badgers would be among the favorites in the division race, anyway. But all things are definitely not equal.

Monday's announcement of harsh NCAA penalties against Penn State -- including a ban from postseason play and the Big Ten championship game for the next four years -- eliminated another strong contender from the pack. Ohio State is already out of the running because of its one-year postseason ban.

So now there are only four teams in the Leaders Division that can get to Indianapolis on Dec. 1 for the right to go to the Rose Bowl (or possibly the BCS title game). And with all due respect to Indiana, the Hoosiers are not a viable contender after failing to win a single game against FBS competition last year. So, barring an utter miracle out of Bloomington, we are realistically looking at three possible teams that can win the Leaders: Wisconsin, Illinois and Purdue.

It's clear why Wisconsin has to be the overwhelming favorite in that group, coming off back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances and Big Ten titles. The Badgers have some question marks on their defense, at receiver and on special teams and will need Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien to play well at quarterback. Otherwise, this is a strong team with star power in guys like running back Montee Ball, linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.

The schedule was and is going to present some challenges. In particular, the season finale at Penn State looked tricky on paper. Now, who knows what type of team the Nittany Lions will field if players decide to transfer for free, or what kind of attitude Penn State will take into the season's final game without the possibility of a bowl? Even if Wisconsin loses in State College, it will have some wiggle room.

I could not have envisioned saying this several months ago, but the two biggest games in the Leaders Division in 2012 are now these:

Oct. 6: Illinois at Wisconsin

Oct. 13: Wisconsin at Purdue

Those back-to-back weeks might just determine the outcome of the Leaders race. If the Badgers win both, they're going to be awfully tough to catch.

This is also a huge opportunity for the Boilermakers and Illini, maybe the best chance they'll have to make the Big Ten title game in years. Purdue returns loads of experience and has its deepest team under Danny Hope. We've been telling you all offseason that the Boilers are a potential sleeper team; well, they've basically got a 1-in-3 chance to win a division championship. They'll get Wisconsin in West Lafayette and miss Michigan State and Nebraska -- arguably two of the top four teams in the Big Ten, at least -- in crossover games. Purdue is going to have to play cleaner and with more discipline than they have in the Hope era to get to Indy, but they have a chance.

Then there's Illinois, which could make a splash in new coach Tim Beckman's first season. The Illini have to go to Camp Randall Stadium, but they get Purdue at home. Like the Boilers, they don't have to play the Spartans or Huskers. Beckman inherited a strong defense; the question is whether he can improve the offense enough to make this team a true contender.

The bottom line is that it may not take perfection or anything close to it to get to the Big Ten championship game. A 5-3 conference record may be good enough for a trip to Indy. A team could theoretically finish third in the standings behind Ohio State and Penn State and still be just one win away from Pasadena.

This situation is bad for competitive balance, as Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska must be wondering if they can get a one-year transfer to the weaker division. But it's great for the teams not on the NCAA hit list. And Wisconsin fans have more reasons than anybody to start shopping for hotel rooms near Lucas Oil Stadium.