(AP) — The Michigan State-Ohio State matchup in the Big Ten championship game already is set, and the Buckeyes are two-touchdown favorites against rival Michigan on Saturday.
The real drama in the Big Ten this week might be in the three trophy games — Iowa at Nebraska, Northwestern at Illinois and Purdue at Indiana.
While Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin remain in contention for BCS games, Nebraska, Illinois and Indiana go into the last week of the regular season with uncertainty surrounding their head coaches or staffs.
Bo Pelini has never won fewer than nine games in his first five seasons at Nebraska, and he would reach that number again with a victory over Iowa in the Heroes Game. Still, with the prideful Nebraska program having won no conference championships in 14 years, the question has been raised about whether Pelini is still the right man for the job.
Nine of his last 11 losses have been by double digits, including the 39-pointer against Wisconsin in last year’s Big Ten title game. The Huskers have been plagued by defensive meltdowns, turnovers and shoddy special-teams play. A run of injuries on offense and youth on defense have not helped, and neither did a 2011 audio of Pelini’s profane rant against fans that went public in September.
The wild card is new athletic director in Shawn Eichorst, who, despite the hubbub over Pelini’s future, has adhered to his policy of not commenting on coaches whose teams are in season.
“You guys are creating more speculation than anything else,” Pelini said Tuesday, referring to the media. “Shawn has said all along he has a process and he doesn’t comment on things during the season. People want to read into that. I know better. It’s business as usual here, and I think our recruits understand that.”
The heat on second-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman cooled a bit after last week’s 20-16 win at Purdue ended a 20-game Big Ten losing streak. The Illini have gone from two wins overall in 2012 to four, and they’ll go for a fifth when Northwestern visits to play for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.
“Any time you can win the last football game, going into bowl preparation or offseason with a victory, is crucial,” Beckman said. “We want to make sure we pursue the right direction with this program, and a win would help us with that.”
Beckman said the program is on solid footing off the field and that the offense’s future is bright with quarterbacks who will take over for four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase. He didn’t mention the defense, which has languished under coordinator Tim Banks.
“It’s always about winning,” Beckman said. “We inherited a program that had been suffering.”
Indiana’s Kevin Wilson goes into the Old Oaken Bucket game against Purdue 9-26 overall in three seasons and 4-19 in the Big Ten.
The Hoosiers have improved in every major offensive category each of Wilson’s three seasons. They’ve scored only a combined 17 the past two weeks against Wisconsin and Ohio State, but have hit 35 or more points seven times this season.
The defense has gone from bad to worse each year under coordinator Doug Mallory. The Hoosiers are 117th nationally in points allowed (39.1 ppg), 122nd in total defense (529 ypg) and 123rd against the run (257 ypg).
Wilson said his priority is to send his seniors out on a positive note against Purdue and worry about the future later. He said he’s confident his administration will give him and his staff “a chance to build this thing the right way.”
“We have a seven-year contract. We’re completing year three,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten awesome support across the board whether it be in budgets, commitment, facilities and staffing.”
Wilson said attention will shift to recruiting after this weekend and that he planned wait until mid-December to evaluate all aspects of the program, including his staff.
The annual game of the year in the Big Ten takes place in Ann Arbor, Mich. Ohio State fans should be forgiven if they do some scoreboard watching while rooting for their Buckeyes.
The Buckeyes, No. 3 in the BCS standings, are hoping for a stumble by Alabama or Florida State. Earning style points against rival Michigan — and having the Spartans defeat the Gophers — could protect Ohio State’s position in case No. 4 Auburn beats No. 1 Alabama this weekend.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is immersed in Michigan Week and wasn’t in the mood Tuesday to dissect his team’s BCS prospects, let alone how the Spartans could help.
“I couldn’t even tell you who they’re playing,” Meyer said. “Our focus is on this one. We’ll worry about that after the game.”
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