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Exploring Which Team from Legends Division Will Make Big Ten Title Game

Sep 7, 2013; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back Jeremy Langford (33) runs the ball against the South Florida Bulls defense during the 2nd half at Spartan Stadium. MSU won 21-6. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew CoppensContributor IOctober 18, 2013

Ohio State has a de-facto two game lead on the rest of the field in the Leaders Division race, but on the other side of the Big Ten things are a lot more complicated.

That's because not many contests between teams in the Legends Division have taken place to date and not one team has a big lead or looks like a complete enough team to just stamp its mark as a true leader yet. 

Still, there are teams people are rallying around as favorites to win the division and thus head to Indianapolis to compete for the Big Ten championship and break the Leaders Division hold on the championship game. 

Which teams are pundits and fans rallying around the most? Those teams would be Nebraska and Michigan State. 

However, this is mid-October we are talking about and there is plenty of football left to be played in the Big Ten. 

But that doesn't stop us from thinking and exploring who should be the favorite at this point in time?

So, we are here to settle this debate one and for all (or for the here and now). 


Front-Runners

Nebraska 

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - OCTOBER 12: Ameer Abdullah #8 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers runs for a 28-yard touchdown in the first half of the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on October 12, 2013 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Rob
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

There's no denying that Nebraska got completely embarrassed in the loss to UCLA, but there's also no denying this team has steadily improved since that loss. 

Looking from the outside in and looking at some of the national coverage, you would assume that all is lost for this team. Instead, the Huskers are 5-1 on the season and haven't let a single opponent score more than 20 points since the UCLA loss. 

They've done it without starting quarterback Taylor Martinez as well, and that can only make this team more dangerous once he is healthy enough to play through his turf toe injury. 

Getting Michigan State and Northwestern at home certainly will help Nebraska's chances in those two games and if it can win both you're looking at a team sitting pretty for the rest of the season. Can they continue the improvement when they are challenged more by an opposing defense? 

That's the one question that needs answering before declaring them the lone frontrunner for the Legends Division title.


Michigan State

IOWA CITY, IOWA - OCTOBER 5:  Quarterback Connor Cook #18 of the Michigan State Spartans breaks a tackle during the first quarter by defensive lineman Dominic Alvis #79 of the Iowa Hawkeyes on October 5, 2013 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. Michiga
Matthew Holst/Getty Images

MSU has a similar story to our first team, only it is on the offensive side of the football. Since Mark Dantonio and Co. stopped messing with the quarterback situation and allowed Connor Cook to take the reigns, things have really taken off offensively for the Spartans. 

The question that's left to answer is if the offensive performances of the last few weeks are the start of something bigger or all about playing against bad defenses? 

Unfortunately we may not get answers to that question for a few more weeks as MSU plays two of the worst defenses in the Big Ten the next few weeks in Purdue and Illinois. 

However, that may work in their favor as other contenders play much more difficult cross-divisional games this year. 

At the end of the day though, counting out a team with one of, if not the, best defenses in the country isn't wise, and I would expect them to be in the mix as the calendar flips to November—and that's more than most thought would happen at the start of this season. 


Still in the Mix

Iowa

IOWA CITY, IOWA- SEPTEMBER 7:  Running back Mark Weisman #45 of the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Missouri State Bears on September 7, 2013 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. Iow
Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Michigan State already owns the tiebreaker with the Hawkeyes, but with a defense that has been steady and a quarterback who's gaining confidence every time he's out there, counting Iowa out of this race is a bit much. 

A date this weekend with Ohio State in the Shoe could be an interesting battle and as long as the Spartans don't lose the turnover battle I expect them to at least be in the game. Winning that game is another thing though and I don't see that happening.

However, thanks to also having Wisconsin on the schedule from the Leaders Division they need to find a win to one of those games against the Leaders Division to have any hope thanks to the loss to Michigan State two weeks ago.


Michigan

The last few weeks (outside of the Minnesota win) haven't been pretty for the Michigan Wolverines and they has some in the fanbase already calling for Brady Hoke and Al Borges to be fired. Yet, they've lost just one football game in Big Ten play and that was on the road and it took a crazy set of circumstances to happen. 

STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 12:  Devin Gardner #98 of the Michigan Wolverines rushes against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the game on October 12, 2013 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Are there problems with the Wolverines? Yes, but name a team in the Legends Division that doesn't have issues to overcome? To me, that makes Michigan still a contender, but it'll need to step up big time over the next three weeks or it could be out of the mix before it knows what happened. 

Three of the next five games are on the road and they all happen to be to other Legends Division contenders in Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa. It won't be easy for the Wolverines to stay a contender with a loss in more than one of those games, especially with Ohio State sitting there at the end of the season.


Northwestern
 

What makes this team any different from Minnesota, who is also winless in conference play? Well, not a single one of its two losses came against a division foe and thus the Wildcats still control their own destiny within the division. 

It's something I went in depth on earlier this week, but the point is, counting Northwestern out because it lost to the two best teams in the conference to date is a bit much for me. It is perfectly capable of beating anyone on its schedule. 

What this team needs to do is rebound this weekend against the Gophers and show they are the team a lot of people thought they were, even if stars Kain Colter and Venric Mark have been or may not be in the lineup. 

This is the one team with the most to prove and the best path to a division title on its hands, so don't count out Northwestern just yet.



Who Wins It?
 

For me there are two teams that are neck-and-neck and it is the two teams everyone thinks are frontrunners—Michigan State and Nebraska. They've both lived up to expectations on one side of the ball and are getting much better at the side of the ball they struggled with early on in the season. 

Those two teams appear to be on the upswing, while everyone else has already had their faults exposed by a Big Ten opponent or two, and that could be the difference needed to separate these two from the rest of the group. 

I'm still sticking with my preseason pick of Nebraska vs. Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, but I'm not as confident in it as I was just a few weeks ago thanks to MSU's offensive renaissance.  

 

*Andy Coppens is the Big Ten Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @ andycoppens.

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