INDIANAPOLIS — The Big Ten football championship game matches teams expected in the preseason to finish first and third in their divisions.
The unexpected part was that Nebraska (10-2, 7-1) would be first in the Legends and Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4) third in the Leaders.
Most picked Michigan State and Michigan as the Legends' top teams. Nebraska, with a difficult schedule and big question marks on defense, was considered a year away from contending.
Wisconsin didn't need to finish first to get to the title game with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible because of NCAA sanctions. Good thing, because the Badgers trailed both schools after winning only four league games. None came against a team with a winning record.
One of UW's losses was 30-27 at Nebraska on Sept. 29, but it's hard to glean much from that night. So much has happened since that it seems like it was nine years ago, not nine weeks.
Wisconsin is on its third quarterback of the season, fifth-year senior Curt Phillips, making his fourth career start. Star running back Montee Ball has been injured, healthy, injured and healthy. The Badger defense also has some banged-up players back at full speed.
Nebraska's defense gave up 63 points at Ohio State the week after the Wisconsin victory, then turned into a ball-hawking force. Quarterback Taylor Martinez, who will start for the 38th time, continues to show his big-play ability — mostly for the Huskers, but sometimes for the other team, too.
NU's driving force here is a surprise chance to end its 12-season conference championship drought in just its second year in the Big Ten.
Down year for the league or not, Nebraska can't afford to waste this opportunity as Ohio State and Michigan gear up in an attempt to return to previous periods of Big Ten domination.
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Wisconsin is touting its experience of playing in the Big Ten title game last year. But Nebraska met sterner foes in a tougher atmosphere in the Big 12 title games of 2009 and 2010.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema also has been Mr. Happy Talk about how good his team is, how healthy it is and how prepared it is to go to the Rose Bowl for a third straight year.
Sounds more like whistling in the dark, trying to convince his group to believe.
Overall, Wisconsin has lost five games by a touchdown or less. Some say that's the sign of a dangerous team. To me, that's a strong indication you're only good enough to play good teams close.
My pick: Nebraska 30, Wisconsin 21
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