Predictions Underscore Importance of Michigan Game
Phil Steele has been one of the most accurate prognosticators of college football over the last decade. He's certainly not perfect (e.g. he put Nebraska in the Big Ten title game over Michigan State last year). He generally uses a number of models to try to determine how a team will finish. Seven of the nine models that he uses has Nebraska finishing with double digit wins in 2012. That might be why Nebraska appears to be his top team in the Legends Division (that is, unless he's going to tell us that Northwestern or Minnesota are poised to finish as one of the top fourteen teams in the country). He predicts that NU will finish #17 in the country ahead of Michigan State (#19), Michigan (#22), and Iowa (#38).
So far, Steele has revealed #15-#40 of his top 40 teams in the country. Not one team from the Leaders Division has appeared. That makes it seem likely that both Ohio State and Wisconsin will be among the top fourteen teams in his rankings and that one of the two schools will be his predicted Big Ten champion in 2012. The Huskers are already set to face both schools in the regular season, which would seem to indicate a rematch in the Big Ten title game between NU and the Badgers or Buckeyes.
For that to happen, Nebraska would have to beat Michigan. The Wolverines would seem to be favorites against Illinois, Iowa, and Northwestern in Ann Arbor. They'd also be favorites at Minnesota and Purdue. They might be underdogs at Nebraska and Ohio State. Conceivably Michigan State could be favored in Ann Arbor. If Michigan were to beat Nebraska though, the Huskers would probably need to go 7-0 in the other conference games. That would mean beating Minnesota, Penn State,Wisconsin at home and Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan State and Northwestern on the road. That's an awfully tall order.
With a win over Michigan, NU could probably go just 5-2 in the other conference games. That seems like a more credible path to the Big Ten title game. Wisconsin must replace five starters on each side of the ball from the team that thumped Nebraska a year ago, including quarterback Russell Wilson, wideout Nick Toon and the pair of defensive backs that intercepted Taylor Martinez a year ago. The Badgers have to play a night game in Lincoln. While the odds might be better for U-Dub in a rematch on a neutral site, the other Big Red doesn't seem to be near as fearsome as they were a year ago, even with running back Montee Ball returning. By contrast, the night game at Ohio State a week later seems like an absolute buzzsaw.
Meanwhile Athlon tells a very different story. They seem to think Ohio State and Michigan are the top dogs in the conference, with Nebraska being the best team among the remaining Big Ten schools. Athlon has also proven to be fairly accurate over the years, so it's anyone's guess as to who will be right. In any case, it's clear that the October 27th night game between Michigan and NU in Lincoln will be a huge one in determining who plays in Indianapolis.