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Big Ten Preview: the Conference Games Begin

SOUTH BEND IN - SEPTEMBER 11: Michigan Head coach Rich Rodriguez looks funny.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
SOUTH BEND IN - SEPTEMBER 11: Michigan Head coach Rich Rodriguez looks funny. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Before Major League Baseball expanded to 12 teams in both the American and National Leagues in 1969, there was no playoff system in professional baseball in America. The teams with the best regular season records in each league won the pennant and met in the World Series. When MLB expanded, however, they began playing the League Championship Series, and the preeminence of the regular season in baseball died.

Say what you will about Big Ten expansion (I like it), but let's be clear that Saturday begins the last season of a dying format for picking a winner in American sports. Once we invite Nebraska into the fold next year and start playing a championship game, the importance of the Big Ten regular season will be diminished. The advent of the BCS has already taken some of the luster away from the Rose Bowl, but as things stand now, there are no "post-season" games to determine who gets to play in Pasadena on the first of January. But this year will be the last year we can say that. We're going to gain a lot with Nebraska and a conference championship game. But let's not forget that we're going to lose something too, and let's enjoy that something while we have it.

The first week of Big Ten games will never be this important again.

Ohio State Buckeyes at Illinois Fighting Illini (12:00, Big Ten Network)

65 and partly cloudy; OSU-17.5; Over/Under 50.5

Illinois hasn't looked great thus far in 2010, but they haven't looked awful either. After a relatively close lose to Missouri on opening week, they dispatched both Southern and Northern Illinois and took a week off to prepare for Saturday. Junior running back Mikel Leshoure leads the Illini with 398 yards rushing through three games with a gaudy 6.9 yards per carry. Traveling to Champaign-Urbana to play the well-rested Illini will be a bigger challenge than the Buckeyes have faced in recent weeks against Ohio and Eastern Michigan, but the defense and Terrelle Pryor should be ready. The Buckeye defense hasn't pitched a shutout yet, but I think they get one on Saturday as they can concentrate on the run and not worry much about Illinois' anemic passing game.

Prediction: Ohio State 37-Illinois 0

Northwestern Wildcats at Minnesota Golden Gophers  (12:00, ESPN)

56 and sunny; Northwestern -5.5; O/U 54.5

Saturday's game in the Twin Cities is a big one for both teams. It won't make either teams season, but it could break them. If Minnesota loses, they will drop to 1-4, will have lost three straight after barely beating Middle Tennessee State in the season opener, and will almost certainly have quit on coach Tim Brewster. If Northwestern loses, their win at Vanderbilt in week one suddenly looks like no big deal, as do QB Dan Persa's impressive numbers against weak competition. I think home field advantage helps the Gophers keep this one close for a while, but Pat Fitzgerald has a pretty strong team that keeps improving.  

Prediction: Northwestern 33-Minnesota 24.


Michigan Wolverines at Indiana Hoosiers (3:30, ESPNU)

67 and partly cloudy; Michigan -10; O/U 66

A couple of undefeated teams square off in Bloomington on Saturday in what could be one of the most entertaining Big Ten games of the season. Don't expect a lot of defense in this one. Both teams have averaged 41.3 points per game thus far, and Michigan boasts the 2nd best rushing attack in the nation (331rushing yards per game), while Indiana's QB Ben Chappell is tied for the 10th most passing yards per game (297) among d1 quarterbacks.  Michigan's lone conference win last year came against the perennially weak Hoosiers on a late TD pass by Tate Forcier to win 36-33. I want to pick Indiana here, but the fact that they're allowing more than 175 yards rushing per game (92nd in the nation) despite playing a woefully weak out of conference schedule means I shouldn't.

Prediction: Michigan 41-Indiana 33

Wisconsin Badgers at Michigan State Spartans (3:30, ABC/ESPN)

53 and partly cloudy (some chance of rain); Wisconsin -2; O/U 53.5

While people are increasingly viewing the Big Ten as a quarterbacks league this year with a slate of impressive men under center, this game will depend more on the running backs than Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien or the Spartans' indefatigable Kirk Cousins. The matchup between Badger RB John Clay and MSU backer Greg Jones is getting all the press, but I think this one really comes down to how well Sparty can move the ball on the ground against the Badger defense. Wisconsin's only been giving up 14 points per game, and most of those have come via the air or special teams. But Spartans' freshman RB Le'Veon Bell has 7 touchdowns and nearly 400 yards so far this year, earned at a ridiculous 8.3 yards per carry, and is in the running-maybe even the lead-for Big Ten freshman of the year honors. Not to mention that sophomore Edwin Baker might actually be the best running back on the team. When these teams last played in East Lansing in 2008, Michigan State overcame an 11 point fourth quarter deficit to win 25-24. Seems like a reasonable score for Saturday's game.

Prediction: Michigan State 25-Wisconsin 24.