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Predicting the Big Ten Division Winners

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Trying to identify the front runner in the Big Ten Legends Division may be a lesson in futility.

Joe Robbins

Bottom Line Up Front: The most likely matchup in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game is Ohio State - Nebraska, with Ohio State - Michigan State a close second.

In my latest season expected wins article I mentioned that the Big Ten Legends Division was essentially a pick-em at this point in the season. This is a chart of the expected regular season wins for the Big Ten. You can see that there is little, if any, separation between Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State.

In the Legends Division, Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska are all within 0.1 expected win of each other as of Week 8. It doesn’t get much closer than that.

Moving beyond just adding up expected wins to actually identify the winner of a conference division is a bit more complicated than what I've been doing. To pick the division winner, the actual games, in order, have to be modeled. For reasons I won’t get into, the methodology I use for the season wins model can’t do this. So, I built an extension of it to model just the remaining Big Ten games. The results are kind of interesting.

Note that Wisconsin has one out-of-conference game (BYU) remaining. Because the results of that game don’t affect the Big Ten standings, I didn’t model it.

First up, the Leaders Division. This is the probability of each team appearing in the conference championship game.

Illinois 2.9%
Indiana 4.5%
Ohio State 59.6%
Penn State 0.0%
Purdue 0.0%
Wisconsin 36.4%

The model actually had Wisconsin and Ohio State tying for the division championship 27.8% of the time, but because Ohio State already owns the tie-breaker over Wisconsin, they get the nod in those games.

The numbers sum to more than 100% because there were a few cases where Illinois or Indiana tied Ohio State or Wisconsin. Because those occurrences were so low, I didn’t fully break them down. The takeaway here is that Ohio State or Wisconsin will be the Leaders representative in the conference championship game. This should surprise no one. There really isn’t all that much more to say about the Leaders Division.

Things are a lot more interesting, and a lot more confusing, in the Legends Division.

This table is the probabilities of an outright (no tie) division win.

Iowa 1.0%
Michigan 0.1%
Michigan State 29.6%
Minnesota 0.3%
Nebraska 29.4%
Northwestern 0.0%

What truly surprised me is the almost zero chance that Michigan has to win the Legends Division outright. In 999 of 1000 cases model runs it needed help from someone else, or relied on tiebreakers to secure their place in the conference championship game. It looks like this is a direct result of the vagaries of their schedule...of the Legends Division contenders, they alone must fact Ohio State. Also, if Michigan is to win the division outright it has to defeat both Nebraska and MSU. But in doing that it greatly aids the case of each to tie. It's a bit of a Catch-22 that Michigan finds itself in this year. Together, the odds of beating Nebraska, MSU, and Ohio State while Nebraska and MSU implode is pretty remote, hence the improbability of an outright Michigan division title.

If any team is going to win the division outright, it will likely be Nebraska or Michigan State. Both have an almost equal chance of doing that.

There's about a 40% probability that there will be some kind of tie for the Legends Division title. Here's the results of the model for tied seasons involving Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State.

Neb - MSU - UM 4.8%
Neb - MSU 13.9%
Neb - UM 5.0%
UM - MSU 5.1%

There were a few other ties that involved Iowa or Minnesota, but those were also rare enough that I'm not going to get into them. For the three-way tie scenario I'm not going to try to calculate a tie breaker. But for the other two-way ties, here's the how the season played out.

NU-UM Nebraska 58.4% Michigan 41.6%
NU-MSU Nebraska 58.4% MSU 41.6%
UM-MSU Michigan 62.6% MSU 37.4%

If Nebraska ties with Michigan or Michigan State for the division title, it holds a 58-42% probability advantage of holding the tie breaker. If the tie is between Michigan and Michigan State, there's a 63-37% probability of Michigan holding the tie breaker.

So, when all this is said and done, Nebraska has about a 35% chance of advancing to the Big Ten Championship game as of this week. Michigan State is slightly less, at about 32%. Michigan's chances are significantly lower, around 20%. The remaining 13% or so is accounted for by the three-way tie and Iowa and Minnesota's small chance at a division title.