Big Ten playoff hopes in doubt

Defending Big Ten champion Michigan State might move into the driver's seat in the league now. The Spartans, ranked No. 8 in the AP preseason poll, won their first outright Big Ten championship since 1987 and then defeated Stanford 24-20 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio last season.

This season, MSU brings back quarterback Connor Cook and tailback Jeremy Langford, but it must replace much of its menacing defense, which ranked No. 3 in the country in points allowed (13.2 per game) in 2013.

The dawning of the four-team playoff was supposed to allow the Big Ten to put its forgettable performance in the BCS era in the rearview mirror once and for all. Big Ten teams won exactly one national championship in 16 years of the BCS system -- and needed a controversial pass-interference call for Ohio State to defeat Miami 31-24 in double overtime in 2002.

A Big Ten team hasn't won a national championship since, and the Buckeyes were the only team from the conference to play for a BCS title in the past 11 seasons, losing to Florida in 2006 and LSU in 2007.

Unless Michigan State or No. 14 Wisconsin runs the table (or Michigan rebounds dramatically or either Nebraska or Iowa finally plays consistently) the Big Ten football season might be over before it even kicks off.

Think about this: If No. 13 LSU defeats Wisconsin in Houston in the Aug. 30 opener, and then No. 3 Oregon beats Michigan State in Eugene on Sept. 6, the Big Ten's chances of producing a playoff participant might be finished.

The Big Ten could be irrelevant in the national championship race before the calendar even turns to October.

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