Only three teams in the Big Ten are unbeaten in league play — and two of them are ineligible for the postseason.
That takes a bit of the luster from this weekend’s impressive slate of games — but not all of it.
No. 9 Ohio State and Penn State are both undefeated in conference, and they’re playing each other this weekend. Thanks to sanctions, neither can compete for the Big Ten championship or go to a bowl — and because of that, it’s looking exceedingly likely that Wisconsin will cruise to the league championship game.
Still, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions can play for pride, and the winner of this weekend’s game will have a decent chance to finish atop the standings in the Leaders Division.
A cosmetic distinction? Sort of. But that’s the best these two programs can hope for after being beset by off-the-field problems.
“We’ve got great kids here. We’ve got a hell of a coaching staff,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “It’s never been doom and gloom in here.”
The sanctions have taken a bit of the luster off the Big Ten’s postseason prospects. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) is the conference’s highest-ranked team in the AP poll. The only other team in the Top 25 is No. 20 Michigan, which is also without a conference loss.
But Penn State’s resurgence after an 0-2 start has added some buzz to the division races. Not only do the Nittany Lions (5-2, 3-0) host Ohio State on Saturday, but the Michigan-Nebraska game could decide the Legends Division. The Wolverines (5-2, 3-0) finally snapped their four-game losing streak against Michigan State (4-4, 1-3) last weekend. Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) will try to avenge a 45-17 loss to Michigan last year.
Even the matchup between Iowa (4-3, 2-1) and Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) could be crucial in the Legends race, especially if Michigan stumbles.
About the only team that doesn’t have much to worry about is Wisconsin. The Badgers (6-2, 3-1) are in the driver’s seat for a spot in the championship game — Ohio State and Penn State aren’t eligible, and nobody else in the Leaders Division has a conference win.
Still, there’s no telling what will happen this weekend because Wisconsin takes on Michigan State. The Spartans beat the Badgers last year on a ‘Hail Mary’ at the end of the game — and Wisconsin won a thrilling rematch in the Big Ten championship game.
The race for the Leaders Division title would be a terrific one if Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State were all in contention for a Rose Bowl berth.
Instead, the Nittany Lions were given harsh NCAA sanctions for the school’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. They included significant scholarship cuts and a four-year postseason ban.
Penn State lost its first two games of the season to Ohio and Virginia but has won five straight since.
“It does start with players. ... From Day One, we just tried to get in here and explain our program to these guys and be truthful and honest with them,” O’Brien said. “We knew we could have played better, so it was a lot of frustration but there was a lot of resiliency.”
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are on probation because of transgressions during Jim Tressel’s coaching tenure. That hasn’t stopped Ohio State from racing to an 8-0 start.
And the Buckeyes aren’t satisfied. They may not be in contention for a bowl, but they can still finish undefeated and atop their division and become shadow champions of a sort.
“We’re 8-0, but it’s an 8-0 where we’re working for every yard and every win,” coach Urban Meyer said.