Illinois could take advantage of shambles of Leaders Division

CHICAGO – When the Big Ten announced it would be dividing the 12 teams in its conference into two divisions last year, the goal was to maintain fairness and competitive balance. At that time, it would’ve been hard to imagine what would become of the Leaders Division in only its second year of existence.

Teams with the history and tradition of Penn State and Ohio State, along with the recent success of Wisconsin, were supposed to keep an even balance of power among the teams.

One year later, three of the six teams have been forced to hire new coaches: Tim Beckman to Illinois, Urban Meyer to Ohio State and Bill O’ Brien to Penn State.

Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema remembered coming into a conference with mainstays like Lloyd Carr and Joe Paterno as head coaches and joked about how it was weird to think that he and Kirk Ferentz are the two longest tenured coaches in the conference, adding: “I’m going to beat up Kirk. … He’s really getting old now, he’s the most tenured coach.”

But the biggest changes are the different teams that will represent the top of the Big Ten, at least next season. Ohio State and Penn State, traditional powers in the conference, are ineligible for postseason play during the 2012-13 season. That means they can’t represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten championship game, narrowing the race to four. The landscape of just one division has changed the Big Ten, as the winner of the Legends Division seems to be on a collision course with Wisconsin.

“It really won’t change our approach,” Bielema said. “I’ll definitely make note of teams that are within our division, but it really doesn’t change what we do because we can never skip a step to get where we want to be, which is obviously in Indianapolis at the end of the year.”

This means that Beckman’s first year may be his best chance to compete for a Big Ten Championship.

Illinois schedule increases in difficulty next year when Nebraska and Michigan State are back on the schedule, so this year it could be able to take advantage of better statistical odds, as well as the lighter schedule. Beckman echoed the other coaches that have a chance to win the Leaders Division when he said the ineligibility of two of the teams doesn’t change his approach to the season.

“We’re still going to have to win regardless of whether Penn State or Ohio State are eligible or not,” Beckman said. “We’re still going to have to win football games. We lose to Ohio State, that’s not going to help and neither is losing to Penn State.”

“Rather than complicate it and assume that it may be an easier road, I think that we certainly have to grasp the idea that you have to win,” Purdue head coach Danny Hope said. “We have to beat the teams that are eligible for the division championship and also the teams that aren’t eligible in order to be the team that goes. So I don’t think it changes the big picture all that much.”

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase agreed with his coach that this wasn’t a better opportunity because the Illini still had to go out and win.

“As far as I know, Penn State and Ohio State are still on our schedule,” he said. “It’s not like they gave us a bye week and gave us a win for those two teams.”