Two weekends from now, Michigan State will play for the Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl - and that might be their only shot at a BCS bowl this season.
The stakes may be similar for the other participant in the title game, be it Penn State or Wisconsin. The champion goes to Pasadena, but the loser could fall out of the BCS picture entirely.
Only three times since the BCS began 13 seasons ago has the Big Ten been limited to one participant in that group of glamour bowls, but the league's stranglehold on a second bid is looking a bit tenuous in 2011. The conference champion receives an automatic bid, which this season is all but certain to be a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Beyond that, Big Ten teams can't even be considered for an at-large spot unless they are in the top 14 of the BCS rankings. Michigan State - at No. 14 - is the only team fitting that criterion at the moment.
"I think the Big Ten deserves another BCS bid, absolutely," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "My feeling is this is one of the most competitive conferences in America."
The last time the Big Ten put only one team in the BCS was at the end of the 2004 season, back when there were four BCS bowls instead of five. The league expanded before this season, adding traditional power Nebraska, but the title race has been overshadowed to a degree by off-field problems at Ohio State and Penn State.
Right now, the Big Ten's best hope for an at-large slot in a BCS bowl might be Michigan, which has already been eliminated from conference title contention. The Wolverines (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) are No. 15 in the BCS standings, but they could move up with a win over Ohio State this weekend.
Then Michigan would be able to wait and watch while the two Big Ten title game participants risk adding another loss to their resumes.
Michigan never needs any extra incentive against Ohio State, and Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said he hasn't brought up the BCS implications with his team, though he's happy to lobby on behalf of his league.
"I think this conference always deserves whatever it can get," Hoke said. "The competitiveness that's shown every Saturday - I don't know why they wouldn't."
Michigan State, which plays at Northwestern this weekend, beat Michigan head-to-head and is ahead of the Wolverines in the conference standings. But all that would be moot if the Spartans lose in the conference title game Dec. 3 and end up out of the top 14.
That's a risk Michigan State (9-2, 6-1) is willing to take for the right to play for an outright conference title. Last year, the Spartans shared the Big Ten crown with Wisconsin and Ohio State but had to settle for a Capital One Bowl bid when the other two co-champions received BCS berths.
Dantonio was asked if he'd like the BCS to drop its limit of two teams per conference.
"I know that last year, it would have helped us out. Last year we would have been in a BCS bowl. This year, obviously it would help out the Southeastern Conference, but if they deserve that, then I think that they should have an opportunity to go," Dantonio said. "I'm not in charge of those things, but I know it's a difficult situation for the people that get left out."
The top three teams in the BCS rankings are all from the SEC, but that league will have only two BCS bids unless two of its teams finish 1-2 without winning the conference. Assuming the SEC receives two spots, and Houston secures another by remaining unbeaten, that would leave only two at-large berths left. The Pac-12 and Big 12 both currently have two teams in the BCS top 10.
Penn State (9-2, 6-1) and Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2) play this weekend, with the winner advancing to face Michigan State for the Big Ten title. But the Badgers are No. 16 in the BCS standings, and the Nittany Lions are No. 19.
Wisconsin lost to Michigan State in October when Kirk Cousins' heave toward the end zone on the final play caromed to Keith Nichol, who caught it for a touchdown. The Badgers then lost to Ohio State on another last-minute TD.
"We've lost two in a gut-wrenching way at the end of the game," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "I know this: I kind of look at the board in front of us, and I see teams that have two losses, similar to us, but sometimes they're blowout wins at home, or against unranked teams. You just don't know how some of these votes go or how the computers work."
Tom Bradley took over for Joe Paterno at Penn State after the longtime coach was fired in the aftermath of child sex abuse charges against a former assistant. Bradley says his team's goal is to reach the Rose Bowl, and he doesn't know how the turmoil at Penn State would affect his school's standing in the eyes of other bowls.
"That's up to them. I don't have any clue, any idea," Bradley said. "I haven't heard anybody say anything. I've been told by the administration that they haven't heard anything. Right now, we're focusing on Saturday. That's all we can do."