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Big Ten thin at top, but it might land nine bowl bids

FILE - In this Sept. 28 2013 file phoOhio State quarterback BraxtMiller runs against Wisconsduring second quarter an NCAA college

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2013 file photo, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller runs against Wisconsin during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game in Columbus, Ohio. After a long weekend at home over the bye week, Miller and the Buckeyes get serious heading into Saturday's home game against Iowa. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)

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WIth previous ranking

1. Ohio State 1

2. Wisconsin 3

3. Michigan 2

4. Michigan State 5

5. Northwestern 4

6. Nebraska 6

7. Penn State 7

8. Iowa 8

9. Indiana 11

10. Illinois 10

11. Minnesota 9

12. Purdue 12

Updated: October 16, 2013 8:12PM

Halfway through the regular season, the Big Ten is looking pretty unimposing.

Only two Big Ten teams remain in the Top 25 rankings. One, No. 4 Ohio State, remains under the radar in most national-championship discussions. And the other, No. 25 Wisconsin, barely has a toehold.

But don’t be fooled. There are ways for the Big Ten Network’s favorite conference to bask in sunshine come bowl time.

The undefeated Buckeyes are lurking nicely for a slot in the BCS Championship Game. They’re well-positioned to run the table, while front-runners Alabama and Oregon face serious conference obstacles. And the paths of Clemson and Florida State,
which clash Saturday, feature dangerous season-ending rivalry games at South Carolina and Florida, respectively.

If Wisconsin wins out, it might slip into its fourth consecutive Rose Bowl by way of an at-large BCS berth. Barring a disaster, the Big Ten will have at least six bowl teams. And that number could
rise to eight or nine without any major shockers.

Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska, all of which are one victory away from bowl eligibility, are virtual locks. The other three Legends Division teams — Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota — need two more victories to become bowl-eligible.

Beyond Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Leaders Division, Indiana — which has three winnable home games remaining — also could qualify for a bowl.

By the way, the schedule might favor Michigan State and Nebraska, who already have 2-0 head starts, in the Legends Division. But there’s no reason Michigan (1-1) and even Northwestern (0-2) can’t step right up. Those four are 1, 1a, 1b and 1c.

Here’s how the Big Ten stacks up heading into the second half of the season:

Leaders Division

1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0): With the Wisconsin and Northwestern showdowns behind them, the Buckeyes have cleared two hurdles. Their trip Nov. 30 to Ann Arbor is the big remaining challenge to a second consecutive unbeaten season.

2. Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1): The road trip to Iowa on Nov. 2 should be interesting. The Badgers have pounded out 18 rushing touchdowns; the Hawkeyes have allowed none. Running back Melvin Gordon and linebacker Chris Borland are front-runners for Big Ten offensive and defensive player of the year.

3. Penn State (4-2, 1-1): A road loss at Indiana followed by a home victory against Michigan? The unpredictable Nittany Lions are tough in Happy Valley.

4. Indiana (3-3, 1-1): The young Hoosiers, who still have home dates against Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue, have a chance to build a good foundation for the future.

5. Illinois (3-2, 0-1): With a revived offense, the Illini will have chances to end their 15-game Big Ten losing streak down the stretch if they can hang tough in their next three games (Wisconsin, Michigan State, at Penn State).

6. Purdue (1-5, 0-2): This is just a rough ride for new coach Darrell Hazell, who’s starting from scratch with the beleaguered Boilermakers.

Legends Division

1. Michigan (5-1, 1-1): The talented Wolverines didn’t deliver their best Saturday at Penn State. That ought to be a wake-up call.

2. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0): No offense, but can a team that’s 10th in scoring in the conference reach the Big Ten title game?

3. Northwestern (4-2, 0-2): The Wildcats have two problems: They need to stay healthy, and they have no margin for error after back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin.

4. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0): Victories against Illinois and Purdue shouldn’t be taken as an indicator of future results. The Cornhuskers will need a November to remember to prevail.

5. Iowa (4-2, 1-1): Are the improving Hawkeyes better, or is the competition worse? Iowa will find out in a tough second half.

6. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2): It sure looks like that 4-0 start was fueled by soft scheduling. An 0-8 finish wouldn’t be surprising.

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