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November 7, 2011

Huguenin: Breaking down the Big Ten races

The first season of a two-division format in the Big Ten is leading to a frantic finish.

Three teams have a legit shot at the Leaders Division title, and there are four in the mix in the Legends Division. (We can hope that because the division races are going to get a lot of attention over the next few weeks that the Big Ten higher-ups do away with those lame-beyond-belief division names.)

Let's take a division-by-division look.

Michigan State has a one-game lead in the Legends Division over Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska. Michigan (to Iowa) and Nebraska (to Northwestern) suffered bad losses Saturday.

Both of Michigan's losses are to division foes, and that hurts because the Big Ten's second tiebreaker is division record. The remaining schedule also hurts because it's tough: at Illinois, vs. Nebraska and vs. Ohio State. All three have aggressive, physical defenses, and the Wolverines (7-2) don't exactly play smash-mouth football. Michigan's projected final record: 9-3.

Iowa (6-3) had been considered down-and-out after losing to Minnesota last week for their second league loss (their first to a division foe), but the Hawkeyes beat Michigan on Saturday to keep themselves in the hunt. Indeed, they control their own destiny: They know that if they win out, they are in the Big Ten championship game. They close with Michigan State at home and Purdue and Nebraska on the road. Iowa's projected final record: 8-4.

Nebraska has to be kicking itself: It follows up a huge win over Michigan State with a home loss to Northwestern, which was their second league loss but first to a division foe. The Huskers (7-2) also have what looks to be the second-toughest finishing stretch in the league: at Penn State, at Michigan and at home against Iowa. The loss to Northwestern leaves them with basically no margin for error. Nebraska's projected final record: 10-2.

Michigan State (7-2) avoided an upset loss to Minnesota and looks to have the easiest closing stretch in the division. The Spartans are at Iowa this week in a tough one; their final two games, though, are at home against hapless Indiana and at Northwestern. Because of their loss to Nebraska, the Spartans don't own the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Huskers. Again, though, the Huskers' closing stretch is more difficult than the Spartans'. Michigan State's projected final record: 9-3.

[ Related: Huguenin: Breaking down the BCS standings ]

As for the Leaders Division, Penn State (8-1) is the only team unbeaten in conference play. The Nittany Lions' defense is one of the best in the nation, but the offense lacks playmakers and relies almost exclusively on the running game. Penn State's closing stretch also is the toughest in the league: vs. Nebraska, then on the road at Wisconsin and Ohio State. And given the chilling and stomach-turning report that came out Saturday about former Nittany Lions assistant Jerry Sandusky, the media glare for the next few weeks is going to be more intense than anything anybody around the school ever has seen. As for the raucous fan bases at Penn State's two remaining road venues: Nittany Lions players and coaches better be prepared. Penn State's projected final record: 8-4.

Penn State has a two-game lead over Ohio State and Wisconsin. Two advantages for the Buckeyes: They beat Wisconsin and both their league losses have come to teams in the other division. Ohio State (6-3) closes with a road game against Purdue, a home game with Penn State, then the annual bloodletting at Michigan. True freshman QB Braxton Miller is becoming more comfortable by the week, which is good news for a defense that had to carry more than its weight in the first half of the season. Ohio State's projected final record: 8-4.

Wisconsin (7-2) can only bemoan its shoddy pass defense on two final-minute Hail Marys. The Badgers finish with road games against Minnesota and Illinois, then wind up the regular season with a visit from Penn State. Wisconsin has played just two true road games this season - and lost them both. Still, visiting Minneapolis and Champaign isn't like going to East Lansing or Columbus. Wisconsin's projected final record: 10-2.

The thought here is that Nebraska and Wisconsin will stage a rematch in the league's first championship game. Nebraska wins the tiebreaker with Michigan State in the Legends Division, and the Badgers win the Leaders Division by a game over Penn State and Ohio State.

How sweet it is
The lead-up to the North Carolina-N.C. State game was more intense than usual, and UNC interim coach Everett Withers deserves the credit (or blame, whichever you choose).

N.C. State owned a four-game winning streak in the series going into Saturday's matchup, but Withers still couldn't resist taking a few shots at NCSU's academics.

"When you have as many schools in this state as we have and the recruiting base gets watered down a bit, I think the kids in this state need to know the flagship school in this state," Withers said on a Raleigh radio show. "They need to know it academically. If you look at our graduation rates, as opposed to our opponent's this week, graduation rates for athletics, for football, you'll see a difference. ... If you look at the educational environment here, I think you'll see a difference."

The irony, of course, is that Withers is interim coach partly because of an academic fraud scandal involving four football players and a tutor.

N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien sure didn't let Withers' remarks go by unnoticed. After practice Thursday morning, O'Brien let fly with some choice rejoinders:

"At our school, number one, all classes have a syllabus. Our guys go to school, they are not given grades, and they graduate."

"As far as the flagship, here was a guy [Withers] who was on a football staff that ends up in Indianapolis [in front of the NCAA infractions committee]."

"You have an agent on your staff, you are paying players and you have academic fraud. That's a triple play."

"If that's what the people want in their flagship university in North Carolina, then so be it."

O'Brien and the Wolfpack had the last laugh on Saturday, beating the Tar Heels 13-0. It was the Wolfpack's first shutout of UNC since 1960, and the players said they had extra motivation.

"It showed us he has our back and has the university's back," Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon said of O'Brien to reporters. "He took it personal and added some fire for us. It was out character for him, so we really understood how much it meant to him."

Grid bits
Houston pounded UAB 56-13, the Cougars' fourth consecutive game with at least 56 points. They are averaging 52.7 points per game, which puts them on a pace to set the NCAA single-season record for points. The 13-game record for points is 652 by Texas in 2005 (an average of 50.2 ppg); the 14-game record for points is 716 by Oklahoma in 2008 (an average of 51.1 ppg). Army holds the record for single-season average at 56.0 in 1944 (506 points in nine games).

Boise State's Kellen Moore set the NCAA career record for wins by a starting quarterback with his 46th in Saturday night's victory over UNLV. If Boise wins out, including its bowl game, he will graduate with 51 wins. That's an average of 12.8 wins per season over a four-year career. Moore also looks like a lock to finish second in NCAA history in career TD passes. He's unlikely to pass Houston's Case Keenum, who is at 141 and counting. But former Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell currently is in second place with 134; Moore is at 128 with has five games remaining.

Cincinnati is unbeaten in Big East play and has a one-game lead in the conference race over Louisville; because the Bearcats beat the Cardinals, though, it's as if they have a two-game lead. Every other team in the league has at least two conference losses. Cincinnati is 7-1 overall - but the one loss came to Tennessee by 22 points. Thus, it's possible that the Big East's representative in the BCS this season will have lost by three touchdowns to the worst Tennessee team in more than 30 years. Folks are wondering if the revamped Big East - the one with UCF, SMU, Houston and Boise State, among others - would deserve an automatic bid to the BCS. Hey, the "new" Big East certainly wouldn't be any worse than the current Big East.

Wake Forest had a crowd of 36,307 for Saturday night's game with Notre Dame. That's the smallest crowd to watch a Notre Dame game since 1981, when Notre Dame's visit to Air Force drew 36,700 fans.

Texas Tech rolled up 572 yards of offense and 41 points in winning at Oklahoma on Oct. 22. In their two games since that stunning upset, the Red Raiders have managed just 701 yards of offense in losing to Iowa State and Texas by a combined 93-27. Texas Tech was sitting at 5-2 after the win over OU and there was talk of a possible Cotton Bowl berth. Tech now is 5-4 and you wonder if it will win another game (Oklahoma State, Missouri and Baylor are the remaining teams on the schedule). Tech's other victims: FCS opponent Texas State, along with New Mexico, Nevada and Kansas. The defense is pitiful, and it's hard to imagine the Red Raiders being this bad on defense in coach Tommy Tuberville's second season. Tech's win in Norman is going to go down as the season's biggest upset.

There was one FBS-FCS matchup Saturday, with Mississippi State beating UT Martin. That makes FBS teams 87-6 against FCS competition; the losers are Minnesota (to North Dakota State), UNLV (to Southern Utah), New Mexico (to Sam Houston State in overtime), Western Kentucky (to Indiana State), Duke (to Richmond) and Oregon State (to Sacramento State). Had Western Kentucky beaten Indiana State, the Hilltoppers already would be bowl-eligible.

As for the Hilltoppers, they won their fifth in a row Saturday when Casey Tinius kicked a 34-yard field goal on the final play of the game for a 10-9 win over Florida International. They now are 5-4 and remain in the hunt for the Sun Belt title. This is the Hilltoppers' fourth season in the FBS ranks; they were 4-32 in the past three seasons. We have a feeling the winning streak ends soon: Western plays at LSU next week.

Colorado has surrendered more than 500 yards in five consecutive games; the Buffs gave up 561 yards - and six TD passes - in losing to USC on Friday night. Next up is Arizona, which averages 464.8 yards of offense per game.

Let's give it up for New Mexico. The Lobos fell 35-7 to San Diego State - their fourth loss in a row by at least four TDs - but at least they didn't surrender 42 points. They had allowed 42 points in each of their seven previous games; they had allowed at least 48 in five of those contests.

Boise State-LSU in the national title game? Admit it - part of you wants to see it. It would appease folks on both sides of the Boise State argument: Boise State finally would be in the title game and the Broncos would be playing for the title against an SEC team.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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