Big Ten title game will wrap up complicated season

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - It has been nearly a year since the Big Ten sparked a debate by labeling its divisions Legends and Leaders.

That controversy seems long buried given the twists and turns in the 11 months since. For a conference that managed to stay out of the latest round of conference realignment, the Big Ten has still been front and center — mostly for the wrong reasons. None of the league’s 12 teams is in the national championship picture, the winningest coach in Division I football has been fired and two of its signature football programs are trying to mend their reputations.

Even ticket sales for Saturday’s inaugural Big Ten championship game between No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin were called into question this week.

What a year.

“I think it was a difficult season in part because of the Penn State situation. It was an unprecedented situation. It took everyone’s attention and was very hard on everybody,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told The Associated Press, referring to the child sex-abuse allegations against former Nittany Lions coach Jerry Sandusky. “On the field, it’s been a good year, not a great year.”

Perhaps that makes the title game matchup more appropriate.

Had any of the dream title game matchups materialized — Ohio State-Michigan, Ohio State-Nebraska, maybe Penn State-Nebraska — this week’s questions would be peppered with references to scandals and missing coaches.

Delany, of course, wants the focus to be on the game, an entertaining rematch of October’s incredible finish. The Spartans won 37-31 after Michigan State receiver Keith Nichol pulled in a last-second pass and lunged across the goal line. League officials are hoping Round 2 is every bit as exciting.

It took local organizers only two hours to sell 20,000 tickets in late July, and an additional 2,000 tickets went on sale Tuesday at a cost of $80 to $175. The rest of the seats in 66,268-seat Lucas Oil Stadium have all been sold, Indiana Sports Corp. spokesman John Dedman said.

The game will showcase rough-and-tumble smash-mouth football in a budding rivalry made for national television. The game features the league’s top two quarterbacks (Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins), the league’s top rusher (Montee Ball) and its two best scoring defenses.

“It’s really a classic Big Ten matchup,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s going to be one of those really physical games.”

On the field this season, things went reasonably well. Ten of the 12 schools are bowl eligible, putting Delany in the pleasant predicament of trying to find a spot for all of those teams. The Big Ten has only eight bowl tie-ins.

That’s the good part.

The problems actually began just before Christmas 2010 when the league announced that the new 12-team conference would be split into two six-team divisions, Leaders and Legends. A month later, Delany responded to a backlash from fans by saying those names would be used for at least one year, and it doesn’t appear there will be changes next year, either.

“I think there’s a lot more understanding now of what we wanted to do,” Delany said. “Anybody can select East and West and that didn’t fit us. These are enduring characteristics that did.”

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