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Sunday Review: Michigan 69, Illinois 67

I’ve watched sports for decades, and covered area sports off-and-on for many years. There are many memorable games, but only three stand out in my mind.

Number One is Super Bowl 31, when the Green Bay Packers defeated the New England Patriots. Number Two is the Illinois-Arizona Elite Eight game in 2005, where the Illini made a miraculous 15-point comback in the last four minutes. Number Three is a 2007 basketball game between Centennial-Central, where the Chargers won an overtime thriller on James Kinney’s steal and layup.

Yesterday, Illinois and Michigan added another chapter to many unwritten books. They wiped many records out of the Record Book and they added another page to my Book of Memories. But most notably, they are the lead chapter in the 2010 edition of “Everything That Is Right With College Football”.

The sport has allegations of payments made to the nation’s best player. The sport has a broken postseason, a convoluted ranking system, and mysterious computer formulas. The sport has “rogue” assistant coaches, insensitive head coaches, and tragically, a student’s death caused by a school’s gross negligence.

But for 60 minutes, plus three overtimes, Illinois and Michigan made the nation forget about all those troubles and remember the passion and excitement this game can produce.

It was not pretty, especially if your name is Vic Koenning or Greg Robinson. It was a shock when Anthony Santella or Will Hagerup entered the game to punt. It was newsworthy when a team lost yardage, which didn’t happen very often.

The teams combined for 1,237 yards, 58 first downs and 17 touchdowns. The Illini had two 100-yard rushers and the Wolverines had two 100-yard receivers. There was 49 second-quarter points, more than the other three quarters combined. The 136 points is the most in Big Ten history.

There was no “moral” victory for the Illini. They are beyond the stage where moral victories are something to build on. They need wins, and specifically, one more win to be bowl eligible. This was a winnable game against a vulnerable opponent, and I would even call it a minor upset that the Wolverines won.

However, now the bowl situation becoming quite a bit interesting, and not in a good way. Illinois should become bowl eligible next weekend when they host Minnesota. However, it creates a situation where the next two games (at Northwestern and at Fresno State) are must wins.

The Big Ten is affliated with seven bowls, plus one automatic bid to the BCS. There are four teams at the top of the conference with one loss: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa. The Buckeyes and Hawkeyes still have to play each other in Iowa City. There could be a three-way tie at the top. However, with Boise State and TCU being undefeated and a possible one-loss SEC champion, is there room for a second Big Ten BCS bid?

I don’t think there will be. Here’s how the convoluted scenario would play out for the conference championship. Assuming the four teams win out, it would all rest on the Ohio State vs. Iowa result.

If Iowa wins: Ohio State is eliminated with a second conferense loss. MSU, Wisconsin and Iowa all tie for the conference championship. Iowa would not go to the BCS, based on win percentage (loss to Arizona kills them). Between Michigan State and Wisconsin, the Spartans defeated the Badgers head-to-head, so they would represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.

If Ohio State wins: Iowa is eliminated with a second conference loss. OSU, MSU and Wisconsin all tie for the conference championship. Michigan State beat Wisconsin, who beat Ohio State. However, since Ohio State and Michigan State did not play, these three do not fall under any tiebreaking criteria until highest BCS ranking. As of right now, it would be Wisconsin.

So, where am I going with this? The Big Ten has seven bowls, plus the Rose Bowl. When Illinois becomes bowl-eligible, there will eight Big Ten teams going to a bowl. But Indiana and Purdue are sitting at 4-5 with a game against each other still to come. One of them will be at five wins and two chances to get to six. The Boilermakers will host Michigan next week and the Hoosiers will entertain Penn State in two weeks.

I don’t believe Illinois will stumble much down the stretch. If anything, yesterday’s game will spur the defense into a higher gear for the rest of the season. But there are scenarios where the Big Ten gets nine bowl-eligible teams with only eight slots, and Illinois is trapped at 6-6 with the likes of Penn State and/or Michigan, plus the winner of the Purdue-Indiana game. While the Illini have beaten three of those four, individual bowls do not have to look at those head-to-head results when selecting their team.

If Michigan State grabs the automatic BCS selection, and everything shakes out to sneak Wisconsin into an at-large bid, then the Illini would be safe, even at 6-6. They might be heading to Detroit, instead of Texas, but they would have a bowl game. If the Big Ten only gets one BCS entry, which seems more likely, then Illinois will need to win at least two more game to be certain of a bowl trip this year.

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