Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 23 News List

Excitement returns to Big Ten football

AMERICAN FOOTBALL The Penn State Nittany Lions can clinch the conference title with a victory over the Michigan State Spartans, as Michigan greets Ohio State

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Michigan's Jason Avant, center, makes a reception between Iowa defenders Jovon Johnson, left, and Edmond Miles, right, during overtime in Iowa City, Iowa, on Oct. 22. The Wolverines defeated the Hawkeyes 23-20. The competitiveness of teams in the Big Ten has risen dramatically this season as Michigan faces Ohio State today.

PHOTO: AP

The road through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan travels through mountains, by farms and past automobile factories. As snow flurries swirl, voices on the car radio chatter about the conclusion of a memorable Big Ten football season.

On the Pittsburgh station, they are slightly giddy because surprising Penn State can clinch the conference title with a victory over Michigan State today at East Lansing. Few expected this.

Should the Nittany Lions falter against the Spartans, the title -- and a trip to a major Bowl Championship Series game -- would go to the winner of the Michigan-Ohio State game in Ann Arbor, as is often the case with those bitter rivals.

On the Ohio Turnpike, the Cleveland station comes in clear. The host interviews Buckeyes of yore and assures his listeners that Ohio State has the better team, and the better stadium, too. He refers to the opponent only as "that school up north," as Woody Hayes did.

By the "Welcome to Michigan" sign on northbound I-75, the Detroit station chimes in with a tape of Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr recalling his team's visit last year to Columbus.

When the Wolverines arrived at that old horseshoe, they were welcomed by police inspectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. Might Michigan retaliate this year in Ann Arbor?

"Certainly, I don't think we would ever treat a school like we were treated at Ohio State," Carr said. The Big Ten must now notify visitors in advance of such searches, Carr said. "That's just a thing you would expect as a general courtesy," he added.

Jim Tressel, the Ohio State coach, insisted it was only a security precaution in an era of terrorism and hoped no one was offended. "Obviously, we regret if there were any surprises," Tressel said. "They certainly were not intended."

But he did not regret the final score: a 37-21 upset by the Buckeyes that gave Tressel three victories in four tries against Carr. Michigan leads the series, 57-38-6.

Saturday's two important games will be played about 60 miles apart. Penn State is 9-1 overall, 6-1 in the league. Ohio State is 8-2 and 6-1. Michigan, on a four-game winning streak, is 7-3 and 5-2.

In the tiebreaker formula, head-to-head competition is paramount. The Wolverines beat the Lions and the Lions beat the Buckeyes. Should all three finish the conference schedule at 6-2, Michigan would get the top bid to the Fiesta, Orange or Sugar Bowl.

the rose bowl

If the Lions win, they could qualify for the BCS title game at the Rose Bowl. They are fourth in the BCS standings behind Southern California, Texas and Miami. USC has two regular-season games left; Texas has one and the Big 12 championship game; and Miami has two and probably the title game in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Should two of the top three teams stumble, Penn State could reach Pasadena. In practice, the Lions have broken their huddles all week by shouting, "Rose Bowl!"

"There's not a team out there we can't play with," Michael Robinson, Penn State's senior quarterback, said in State College. "Who knows what will happen? There's a lot of football left."

Last summer, Iowa was a popular choice to win the Big Ten, with Purdue a possibility because the Boilermakers played neither Michigan nor Ohio State. But the Hawkeyes, who play host to Minnesota on Saturday, are 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the league. Purdue, at 4-6 and 2-5, finishes at Indiana (4-6, 1-6).

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