The first half of the college football season has been deliciously unpredictable nationally. Here in Big Ten country, though, things have more or less played out like we thought they would.
The East Division looks like a two-team race between Michigan State and Ohio State. That's not a knock on Rutgers, the Big Ten's most pleasant surprise. But Rutgers' true Big Ten introduction takes place the next two weeks in Columbus and Lincoln. If the Scarlet Knights earn their #Chops, they become a real threat.
For now, it's about No. 8 Michigan State and No. 13 Ohio State, and their looming showdown Nov. 8 at Spartan Stadium under the lights.
And then there's the wild, wild West Division. It appeared to be the more balanced, more wide-open division entering the season, and it has stayed true to form. While some handed the division to Wisconsin back in August, they were the same folks spending too much time studying the Badgers' schedule and not enough time studying the Badgers' roster.
Minnesota and Iowa sit atop the division at 2-0 in league play, followed by Northwestern at 2-1 and Nebraska and Wisconsin both at 1-1. Nebraska's lone loss came in a cross-division game at Michigan State, while Northwestern (Minnesota) and Wisconsin (Northwestern) both have lost a division game.
There's not much separation between the five, and you can make a case for each to represent the West in Indy. This has all the makings of a plot-twisting, cannibalizing, down-to-the-last-weekend, complex-tiebreaker-requiring, wildly entertaining division race.
But that's not the best thing for the Big Ten. Far from it. The Big Ten needs a Wyatt Earp to tame the wild, wild West.
Why? This season is all about the playoff -- who's in and who's out. The Big Ten needs to get in for an opportunity to validate itself nationally. Otherwise, irrelevance continues.
(Yes, I realize some Big Ten fans despise the ESPN-driven, all-about-the-playoff narrative. But it's the world we live in, so deal.)
The Big Ten's Week 2 and Week 3 struggles muddied its playoff path, but there's still a route to the field of four. Michigan State and Ohio State remain the league's top two candidates -- the Spartans much more so than the Buckeyes because of a higher quality loss (Oregon on the road versus Virginia Tech at home).
If Michigan State and Ohio State don't slip up before Nov. 8, the showdown in Sparta essentially becomes a playoff elimination game. No Big Ten team is getting in with two losses, no matter what zaniness happens in other conferences.
But the winner of OSU-MSU still likely will need help in the Big Ten championship game. The game has to be a résumé-boosting opportunity in the eyes of the playoff selection committee.
The only way that happens is if the opponent from the West Division also has one total loss, two at most.
If an 11-1 Michigan State or an 11-1 Ohio State faces a 3- or 4-loss West Division opponent at Lucas Oil Stadium, the game will fall off of the national radar. The selection committee will be focused elsewhere. There's not much to gain for the East champ and a lot to lose.
That's why the Big Ten needs someone to take charge in the West. The ideal candidates are Minnesota and Nebraska because both have quality losses (Gophers on the road against TCU, Huskers on the road against Michigan State). Iowa isn't a bad option at 11-1, but a home loss to Iowa State will be held against the Hawkeyes.
Northwestern is improving but already has three losses. Wisconsin's season-opening loss to LSU probably won't look great come November, so even a 10-2 Badgers team reaching Indy might not made the championship game meaningful enough.
There's also the possibility, albeit slim, that both Big Ten championship game participants are in the playoff mix. If Nebraska's lone loss is a 5-point setback at Michigan State, its résumé, which will include road wins against Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa, plus a home win against Minnesota, doesn't look too shabby. Minnesota would have benefited from TCU holding on against Baylor and continuing to win, but a Gophers team that runs the Big Ten table with wins against Ohio State (home), Nebraska (road) and Wisconsin (road) would get much more national respect than the current unranked product.
Iowa would need the committee to overlook a bad loss and an incredibly favorable Big Ten schedule (no Michigan State or Ohio State, toughest road game at Minnesota). Can't see it happening.
We're still looking at Michigan State as the Big Ten's most realistic playoff hopeful. If the Spartans reach Indy with a second consecutive perfect regular-season league record, they'll be on the playoff's doorstep.
But they might a nudge over the threshold. A quality opponent provides one.
It's why the wild, wild West needs a team -- ideally one with badges, Colt .45s and handlebar mustaches -- to restore playoff order.