- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Storylines to watch in the Big Ten this weekend:
1. Let’s settle this: Yes, four teams remain in the running to play in the Big Ten title game. But seriously, it’s going to be Ohio State and Michigan State. OK, crazy things can happen, but the third-ranked Buckeyes, who welcome Indiana to the Ohio Stadium on Saturday, must lose twice. Same goes for the No. 13 Spartans, who visit Northwestern and host Minnesota to close. It’s time to end the uncertainty and start booking travel to Indy. Who are we kidding, it’s already started.
2. Big-time test for the Gophers: Minnesota, riding a once-in-40-years run of four straight Big Ten wins, faces a serious road block in its bid to keep streaking Saturday as No. 19 Wisconsin visits Minneapolis in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe. The 25th-ranked Gophers knocked off Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State, but the Badgers present a test with a new level of difficulty. Led by their pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Melvin Gordon and James White, Wisconsin steamrolled Indiana last week, gaining 554 yards on the ground.
3. A trophy game that's not worth a trophy: If the Purdue Cannon fails to launch and implodes inward Saturday, well, that would create a mess befitting of this battle of winless Leaders Division teams. Illinois, which has lost 20 straight Big Ten games, is favored by a touchdown on the road over the Boilermakers, who have fallen apart since playing Michigan State to within two touchdowns Oct. 19. Since then, Purdue has been outscored 139-35 by Ohio State, Iowa and Penn State. The Illini, meanwhile, have scored 35 points in back-to-back losses to Indiana and OSU. Something’s gotta give Saturday.
4. Freshman quarterbacks on display: Two of the league's top young QBs converge at Beaver Stadium. Nebraska redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong earns his seventh start, and true freshman Christian Hackenberg, looking to secure a winning record for Penn State on Senior Day, again gets the call for the Nittany Lions. Hackenberg has endured ups and downs, but his numbers are solid considering the circumstances. Armstrong has struggled with turnovers, but he's 5-1 as a starter and displaying impressive poise behind an injury-plagued Nebraska offensive line that might be without four season-opening starters Saturday.
5. Dark days continue for Wildcats: Northwestern has fallen so far off the map after a perfect nonconference season that it's not even visible from the top of the Legends Division as we reach late November. Who'd have thought these Wildcats would sit 0-6 in league play when "College GameDay" visited Evanston on Oct. 5 as Pat Fitzgerald’s team lost 40-30 to Ohio State? Each of the past four losses has come in excruciating fashion, from the Hail Mary defeat at Nebraska to overtime thrillers against Iowa and Michigan. These Wildcats might have forgotten how to win, and Michigan State, trying to secure an outright division title, appears likely to extend their misery.
6. Buckeyes and the BCS: It seems inevitable now that if Ohio State keeps winning and Baylor keeps winning, the Bears will pass OSU in the BCS standings and upend the Buckeyes' bid to reach the title game if Alabama or Florida State slips. No. 4 Baylor trails Ohio State this week by 13 thousandths of a point. The switch might occur Sunday as the Bears visit No. 10 Oklahoma State while Ohio State faces Indiana. No score against the Hoosiers or amount of Buckeyes lobbying is likely to reverse the Baylor climb. So expect all eyes in Columbus, Ohio, to be on Stillwater, Okla., Saturday night.
7. Could it be Braxton Miller’s finale at the Horseshoe? Ohio State's junior quarterback was understandably mum when asked this week if Saturday at home against Indiana might mark the final game of his collegiate career. Miller has made huge strides under coach Urban Meyer as a dual-threat QB, and his strengths fit the evolving style of NFL offenses, though he's far from a done deal to leave early. If this is the end, expect him to go out with a bang against the Hoosiers, who have lost four of five and rank among the bottom five nationally in total defense and rushing defense.
8. Tracking the top running backs: November brings out the best in Big Ten running backs. Six of the league's top individual rushing performances have occurred in the past three weeks, highlighted by a 246-yard effort from Ohio State's Carlos Hyde last week. White, Indiana's Tevin Coleman and Penn State's Bill Belton also have topped 200 yards in a game this month. Hyde and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, who has reached 100 yards in every conference game, rank among the leading candidates for Big Ten offensive player of the year. Hyde has rushed for 821 yards in the past five games. He needs 53 yards to become the first running back ever to top 1,000 yards under Meyer.
9. The at-large BCS watch: Michigan State jumped three spots to 13th in the BCS standings Sunday, promoting the Spartans into position to qualify for an at-large BCS bowl bid. But if it loses again -- even to Ohio State in Indy -- MSU might slide back out of contention. It would be well served to win impressively against Northwestern and Minnesota and root for losses this week from the likes of Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Missouri, which face challenging games. Wisconsin, at No. 19 in the BCS standings, still must jump into the top 14 to qualify for BCS consideration, though chaos is its best hope.
10. And then there's Iowa-Michigan: What's the compelling storyline here? Iowa has exceeded expectations this year, but the Hawkeyes are no longer fighting to get bowl eligible for the 12th time in 13 seasons after a win two weeks ago at Purdue. Michigan has failed to meet expectations but last week ended its skid with a win at Northwestern. Iowa has won three of the past four meetings, including two straight in Iowa City. And here's an interesting stat to close: The four teams to beat the Hawkeyes this season have a combined record of 37-3.