The path to the Big Ten championship runs through Iowa City, beginning this weekend.
The conference's top four teams - Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa -face off in three games over the next month in what can be considered a Big Ten playoff.
Saturday, Wisconsin (6-1 overall, 2-1 in the Big Ten) becomes the first to visit Iowa (5-1; 2-0). The Badgers arrive with momentum following their 31-18 victory over Ohio State last Saturday in Madison.
After Wisconsin's visit, the Hawkeyes will play host to Michigan State (7-0; 3-0) on Oct. 30. Then, Ohio State (6-1; 2-1) visits Iowa City on Nov. 20.
"I'm not looking at the race," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I hope our players aren't. To me, there is no race yet. We're two games into it, and it's a long race. And right now, I know we have a tough game Saturday. That's as far as I've looked."
While the Buckeyes' national title hopes may have been dashed by the loss at Wisconsin, they're still trying to tie their Big Ten record by winning at least a share of a sixth consecutive conference championship. The Buckeyes have to win out and also need unbeaten Michigan State to lose because the teams don't meet this season.
"People are going to have their opinions of whether the world ended or it didn't and all that [after the Wisconsin loss]. I'm not going to get in the telling business," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "We've got to get better. ... There's a lot of good Ohio State football ahead."
There also is a lot to anticipate at Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, as each is looking to end long Rose Bowl droughts.
The Badgers haven't been to Pasadena since the 1999 season, the Hawkeyes haven't been there since the 1990 season and the Spartans last played in the Rose Bowl in the 1987 season.
"We have done a pretty good job thus far of focusing on one game at a time," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose Spartans are the league's lone unbeaten team. "We are starting to get into a little bit of uncharted territory. It's important that our players understand the difference."
Iowa and Wisconsin know what the difference will be between a win and a loss this Saturday when they meet. Win, and advance toward the league crown. Lose, and start planning for the Outback or Gator bowls.
"They are a very talented football team that's playing very, very well," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "They came off a bye week and went up and handled their business at Michigan."
Both programs are similar in many respects, as each features a ground-oriented offense and strong defense. The key matchup will pit the big, physical Badgers offensive line against an Iowa defensive front that's the best in the Big Ten.
"First of all, they're gigantic," said Ferentz, who has won the past two against Wisconsin and six of the past eight. "That jumps right at you. That is the major difference between our two teams. Their size compared to ours is a pretty significant difference."
Iowa and Wisconsin battle for the Heartland Trophy, but the rivals won't meet annually once the Big Ten breaks into divisions next season with the arrival of Nebraska. The Hawkeyes and Badgers will be in opposite divisions and aren't permanent crossover foes.
"It's a trophy that's going to remain in somebody's locker room now for three years because we don't play for two years after," Bielema said. "That's a big deal. Now, it's not just bragging rights for a year; it's bragging rights for a number of years."
It's also about staying in contention for the Big Ten crown in round one of the tourney.
Key matchup: Wisconsin offensive line vs. Iowa defensive line. This is the second major test in a row for the Badgers' line, which more than held its own against Ohio State's deep front four last week. Iowa's defensive line is even better. Wisconsin RB John Clay had a big day against Ohio State in the upset last week, and that has to happen again if the Badgers are to prevail. Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, Badgers G John Moffitt and Badgers OT Gabe Carimi are among the nation's premier linemen, so this will be a star-studded affair. In addition, keep an eye on the quarterback play. Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi aren't Heisman contenders, but each "game manager" will play a huge role in their team's hopes of winning. Stanzi is the Big Ten's most efficient passer, while Tolzien is No. 4. The duo has combined for just five picks in 293 attempts.
Player on the spot: Penn State RB Evan Royster. He must have a big game when the Nittany Lions travel to Minnesota looking for their first Big Ten victory. Royster, a senior who flirted with turning pro after last season, has had a rough year, running for only 388 yards and one touchdown. Playing the Gophers may be just what the doctor ordered. Minnesota tackles poorly and ranks last in the Big Ten vs. the run (201.1 ypg). And a big day by Royster, who has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark just once this season, would take pressure off true freshman QB Rob Bolden, who has experienced myriad growing pains and leads the league with seven picks.
Numbers game: Penn State has scored just 10 touchdowns, the fewest in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions rank last in the conference and 108th in the nation in scoring (18.2 ppg).
They said it
"I can give 'em my two-cents worth - I hope it's worth more than that. It's still ... listen, Vince Lombardi could come, too, and not going to fix some of the problems we have on defense, so we've got to do what we've got to do." - Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, on the horrid Wolverines defense, which ranks 11th in the Big Ten and 105th in the country (441.0 ypg)
"You're not following Vince Lombardi here." - Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi, who fired Tim Brewster on Sunday. Brewster was 15-30 in three-plus seasons
"That was a different time and a different age, and so many of those players were first-round picks. So we won't compare ourselves to that era at this point in time, but at some point, we hope to." - Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, on his program being 7-0 for the first time since 1966
"It's just not my personal preference. ... They didn't have tattoos when I was young. I mean, I'm old, OK. I'm old. When I was young, they didn't have them." - Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes play Wisconsin on Saturday, and Badgers coach Bret Bielema is an Iowa alum who has a tattoo of a Hawkeyes logo on a calf
Etc.: Michigan is off this week. ... Minnesota fired Brewster after the Gophers lost at Purdue to fall to 1-6 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten. Brewster went 6-21 in Big Ten play. Offensive coordinator Jeff Horton, who has been head coach at Nevada and UNLV, will finish the season as interim coach. Maturi has said he wants "to find a Tubby Smith," the successful Gophers hoops coach he hired in 2007. Among the names mentioned as possible replacements have been Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, Arizona coach Mike Stoops, ex-Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti, Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, San Diego State's Brady Hoke, Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman and Ole Miss co-offensive coordinator Mike Markuson. ... Brewster was the first Big Ten coach canned during a season since Michigan State fired John L. Smith in 2006. But, unlike Brewster, Smith was allowed to finish the season. ... Illinois is 3-3 despite facing the nation's second-toughest schedule. The Fighting Illini's foes have a combined 26-7 record this season vs. Division I opponents (not counting their games vs. Illinois). ... Wisconsin's David Gilreath became the Big Ten's career leader in kickoff return yards last week when he ran back the opening kick 97 yards for a touchdown in the win over Ohio State. Gilreath has 2,677 career kickoff return yards, surpassing Michigan State's Derrick Mason (1993-96). . . . It's no surprise that Michigan State (3-0) and Iowa (2-0) are unbeaten in Big Ten play. But it is a shock that Purdue (2-0) remains perfect. That could end this weekend, as Purdue hasn't won at Ohio State since 1988. .... The Big Ten leads all conferences with four teams in the top 15 of the BCS standings. ... When Michigan State plays at Northwestern on Saturday, it will be the Spartans' first game outside the state of Michigan this season. ... Ohio State hasn't lost consecutive Big Ten games since 2004.