Shortly after Northwestern survived an ugly performance to beat Minnesota on Saturday and improve to 6-1, two officials sat down in the postgame press conference wearing yellow Fiesta Bowl jackets.
With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason and the Big Ten not having a team currently ranked in the BCS standings, the representatives from one of the premier bowls in the country were asked what interest they had in the Wildcats and Golden Gophers.
"We also have the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl," one of them said.
That sounds about right.
The college football season has turned the corner to the second half, and no one is more pleased to put the first half behind than those in the maligned Big Ten.
For a conference that was already being characterized as inferior to the likes of the SEC and Big 12, 2012 couldn't have started much worse for the Big Ten. Ohio State and Penn State — two of the conference's marquee programs — had no shot for postseason play from the get-go because of NCAA sanctions.
Then one of its biggest hopefuls to restore pride to the conference — Michigan — was routed by Alabama in the season opener. The embarrassments kept coming: Iowa losing at home to Iowa State and Central Michigan; Wisconsin had close shaves at home against Northern Iowa and Utah State; and Michigan State was thumped by Notre Dame.
The second half of the season allows the Big Ten to find its collective footing and try to build some momentum toward the bowls, and there are some signs it's happening. Iowa and Michigan are 2-0 in the conference, Northwestern just keeps finding ways to win and Wisconsin appears to have righted itself and gotten back to its power-running ways.
"Early in the year you're just kind of getting into position," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "The No. 1 goal for everybody is to win their conference. You're starting to hit that stretch. Just about everyone has six games left. You want to be starting to hit your peak. That's the challenge."
The Badgers appeared lost over the first three weeks, unable to get Montee Ball and the ground game going, sweating out close home wins over lesser opponents and losing 10-7 at Oregon State. Coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the first game, and the big guys up front have responded in impressive fashion.
Last week, Ball racked up 247 yards in a win over Purdue. Now, with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, the Badgers are in position to represent the Leaders Division.
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