Published Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:55 am
FOOTBALL
Barfknecht: Anyone can end up leading the Big Ten Legends Division

According to Big Ten bylaws, someone from the Legends Division has to go to Indianapolis on Dec. 7 and play for the conference football championship.

All six teams still have a chance to claim that spot with six weeks to play.

So who will get hot enough to win the division crown? Or who will avoid going cold long enough to outlast the others? And what's the tiebreaker if everyone finishes 4-4?

Let's dig in to what's good, bad and yet to be seen from Legends members for the rest of the season.

Michigan State (3-0)

Strength: Defense, defense, defense. The Spartans are first nationally in total defense (228 yards), first in rushing defense, third in stopping third-down conversions, fourth in scoring defense (13.6 points) and have scored five defensive touchdowns themselves.

Weakness: Offense, offense, offense. MSU is 95th in total offense, 99th in passing efficiency and 77th in scoring offense. Against last-place Purdue last week, the Spartans needed a defensive score and a touchdown pass thrown by a wide receiver to win 14-0.

Outlook: The Spartans are as likely to lay an egg in a big road game as win one. In 2010, they were 8-0 going to Iowa and got drilled 37-6. In 2011, they were 6-1 going to Nebraska and got drilled 24-3. This season, their only loss was at far-from-vintage Notre Dame. Why is all that significant? A huge swing game for MSU is against Nebraska on Nov. 16 — in Lincoln.

Nebraska (2-0)

Strength: Overall talent level on offense. Though no one in the Big Ten can match the 1-2 punch that Ohio State gets from quarterback Braxton Miller and tailback Carlos Hyde, Nebraska has more speedy weapons and is harder to shut down for any length of time. Quarterback Taylor Martinez needs to get healthy to really make it roll.

Weakness: Nebraska has no idea how good it really is. The four FBS teams it has beaten are a combined 8-18. It got all it wanted for a half at home against FCS South Dakota State. And UCLA took over Memorial Stadium in a 20-point rout. The question is whether the improvement in October is real or fool's gold because of marginal competition.

Outlook: NU holds the knowledge that it can produce a long winning streak. It happened last year, when the Huskers went 6-0 down the stretch to get to Indy. The defense, which has been much better organized lately, must continue to progress.

Michigan (2-1)

Strength: Michigan has a talented roster, a big-play quarterback in Devin Gardner, a handful of honors candidates and home-field advantage against Nebraska and Ohio State.

Weakness: Erratic play from positions 1 through 24. One week the offense struggles. The next, the defense caves in. And the kicking game fell short in the four-overtime loss to Penn State.

Outlook: The Wolverines are an overtime field goal away from being undefeated. They also are one questionable officiating call and one late turnover away from being 4-3 overall. If the level of play doesn't smooth out, it's hard to see UM running off five or six wins in a row.

Iowa (1-2)

Strength: Hard-nosed strong guys in the offensive and defensive lines. Count the bruises at Ohio State this week. Quarterback Jake Rudock has shown good poise. Also, this team is starting to get some fire in its eye, which has been missing the past few years.

Weakness: Lack of electric playmakers on offense and special teams. Too often it takes Iowa too long to score, or it expends too much energy to do it. Creating “chunk” yardage is a must going forward.

Outlook: Don't count out the Hawkeyes yet. Their three losses are to teams that are 20-1 (No. 4 Ohio State, No. 23 Northern Illinois, Michigan State). U of I probably needs to win out, which won't be easy with Wisconsin coming up Nov. 2.

Minnesota (1-2)

Strength: Minnesota can control the clock, play physically and ding opponents on special teams. The Gophers have a 98-yard kickoff return, a 65-yard punt return and a 51-yard blocked field goal return for touchdowns.

Weakness: Shaky quarterback play. Neither sophomore Philip Nelson nor redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner has done much, combining for 56.3 percent completions and more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4). They have combined to run for eight touchdowns.

Outlook: The Gophers are riding some emotion to play well for head coach Jerry Kill, who is on medical leave dealing with his epilepsy. Beyond that, it will be a challenge talent-wise to mount a serious title run.

Northwestern (0-3)

Strength: A good starting lineup overall and an explosive offense when healthy.

Weakness: Lack of quality depth to hold up to the weekly pounding in the Big Ten. Injuries to quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark have hampered the offense. The defense also has been hit by injuries in the secondary.

Outlook: Win the rest and hope for the best with how the tiebreakers would fall at 5-3.

As for the Big Ten tiebreaker if all teams finish 4-4? Commissioner Jim Delany picks the school that is the biggest TV draw. Just kidding, I think.

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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