Prior to the open of this year, Wisconsin was slated as the overwhelming favorite to win the Leaders Division and were touted by many to claim the school’s third straight Big Ten title. The Badgers have indeed clinched a return trip to Indianapolis and the will aim for that third consecutive league crown this week.

Yet, when Wisconsin arrives at Lucas Oil Stadium, Nebraska will be the overwhelming choice to claim the trip to Pasadena.

And such is a microcosm of the 2012 Big Ten season.

The Huskers and Badgers have waded through bad losses and pedestrian performances to set up a date for the Big Ten championship this week.

Nebraska is looking to cap off a storied season that saw them rally from five separate second-half deficits, including a dramatic 30-27 comeback against the Badgers on Sept. 29. The Huskers’ latest come-from-behind win, a 13-7 triumph at Iowa last week, clinched the division crown and sent the Blackshirts to the conference title game for the first time since reaching the Big 12’s back in 2010.

“I believe in this team and I’m proud of those kids in the locker room,” head coach Bo Pelini said. “The team has come together, and put ourselves in this position.”

A big addition the team gained against the Hawkeyes was senior running-back Rex Burkhead’s return from a knee injury. Burkhead missed five consecutive games, but returned to score the division clinching touchdown at Iowa. His presence in Indy is vital for the Huskers if they want to reach the Rose Bowl.

“He’s a huge part of our team and gives us an emotional lift,” Pelini said. “Rex just gives us another element.”

Burkhead is to Nebraska as senior running-back Montee Ball is to Wisconsin.

The new FBS leader in career touchdowns bypassed the NFL to try and help the Badgers win their third-straight conference title, but 2012 proved to be far from smooth sailing for the defending champs.

The team started off the season 1-1, fired their offensive coordinator 14 days into the season and spiraled to a third-place finish in their division. But thanks to Ohio State and Penn State’s punishments, Wisconsin has a chance to avenge its blown 17-point lead in Lincoln.

Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema wasn’t focused on his team’s standing in the Leaders Division. Instead he recognized the opportunity that lies ahead for his squad.

“We have a tremendous opportunity, something I know our kids will be excited for,” Bielema said. “[Despite our record] we did get ourselves into the championship game and have the chance to play for a Big Ten championship.”

Like Bielema, Pelini isn’t focused on the past. He recognized his team’s Legends Division crown, but explained how the season up to this point is incomplete. He has his eyes on the ultimate prize and hopes his group is focused on more than just reaching Indy.

“We’re not done, we have one left. We’re going to have to play well next week,” Pelini said. “I told them to enjoy it [Saturday], but we’re looking for something more than winning our division.”

Complete Conference Standings

Illinois (2-10, 0-8 Big Ten)

• The Illini struggled offensively once again, posting just 242 total yards with the ball in a 50-14 blowout loss in the battle for the Land of Lincoln trophy against Northwestern last week. Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase closed out his Illinois career on the wrong foot, gaining a measly 91 yards while throwing a couple of interceptions on 9 of 14 passing.

• The rivalry-game loss ended a disastrous opening campaign for head coach Todd Beckman that saw the Illini finish winless in conference play for the fourth time since 1997. The team has dropped its last 14 conference games and nine in a row overall since beginning the season at 2-1. Beckman will return in 2013, but a drastic improvement will be necessary for the fledgling program.

Next Game: Season complete

Indiana (4-8, 2-6 Big Ten)

• The Hoosiers matched Purdue on the scoreboard through the first three quarters before succumbing to a 56-35 defeat in West Lafayette last week. Indiana tied the game at 35 early in the final quarter before the Boilermakers rattled off 21 unanswered to close the contest. The Hoosier offense racked up 512 total yards, but four turnovers ultimately proved costly.

• One week after blowing a chance to win the Leaders Division spot in the Big Ten title game, the Hoosiers have blown their chance to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007. Still, Year 2 of the Kevin Wilson era probably has been a success, and a win against Purdue this week will add momentum toward 2013 for the rebuilding program.

Next Game: Season complete

Iowa (4-8, 2-6 Big Ten)

• The Hawkeyes led for most of the game, but couldn’t add to an early touchdown in a 13-7 season-ending loss to Nebraska in the Heroes Game last week. The Iowa defense held the Huskers to a season-low 263 total yards, but the offense struggled outside of the opening drive of the game which ended in a 1-yard touchdown run by senior quarterback James Vandenberg.

• The Hawkeyes closed the season with six consecutive defeats after starting 4-2, good for a last-place finish in the Legends Division. Iowa’s offseason will be a curious one as Vandenberg moves on and the team begins its search for next year’s starting signal-caller. The Hawkeyes will be spending the holidays at home for the first time since 2007 and posted a losing record for the first time since 2000.

Next Game: Season complete

No. 21 Michigan (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten)

• The Wolverines held a one-point advantage at halftime, but were shutout in the final 30 minutes while allowing a pair of second-half field goals in a 26-21 loss to Ohio State last week. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson had 124 yards in the first-half, including a go-head 67-yard sprint late in the second quarter; but was held to minus-2 yards after the intermission.

• The Maize and Blue will now await their bowl fate after yet another frustrating defeat to their arch rivals to close out the regular season. Michigan has defeated the Buckeyes just once since 2003, and dropped two out of three rivalry games in 2012, the lone victory against Michigan State back on Oct. 20. That being said, a trip to a New Year’s Day bowl in the sunshine state is all but assured.

Next Game: Bowl game TBD

Michigan State (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten)

• The Spartans pulled away late and clinched bowl eligibility for the sixth year in a row after a 26-10 victory against Minnesota last week. Junior running-back Le’Veon Bell had a career-day, rushing for 266 yards on 35 carries. His touchdown with 7:25 left to put the game out of reach. Senior kicker Dan Conroy added four field goals to support Michigan State until Bell’s late scamper effectively ended the contest.

• The Green and White struggled for most of the season but regrouped in time to keep head coach Mark Dantonio’s bowl streak dating back to his first season in East Lansing alive. Still, after opening 2012 as the conference favorite, this season will undoubtedly go down as disappointment for the Spartans who started the campaign ranked 13th nationally.

Next Game: Bowl game TBD

Minnesota (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten)

• The Golden Gophers hung tough until slipping late in a 26-10 defeat to Michigan State on senior day last week. Minnesota’s offense was stuffed all day, posting 96 total yards including four on the ground and held the ball for only 22:23. Still, senior kicker Jordan Wettstein’s 48-yard kick late in the third quarter kept the Gophers within six until the Spartans rattled off 10 consecutive points in the fourth.

• Finishing the season with a pair of losses will not taste good for most in the Twin Cities, but the second year of the Jerry Kill era will most likely be looked at as a success. The team reached a bowl game for the first time since 2009, and posted its most wins since that year. Kill suffered a seizure in the second half of last week’s game, but is expected to be fully recovered for the squad’s bowl game next month.

Next Game: Bowl game TBD

No. 14 Nebraska (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten)

• The Cornhuskers wrapped up the Legends Division title and a spot in next week’s Big Ten title game with a 13-7 victory against Iowa last week. Senior running-back Rex Burkhead returned from injury just in time to save Nebraska, running for 69 yards and the game-winning touchdown late in the third quarter.

• Nebraska heads to Indianapolis for a rematch with Wisconsin whom the Huskers defeated 30-27 back on Sept. 27. Burkhead missed five consecutive weeks with a knee injury but returned with a vengeance in Iowa City and is poised to start for the Blackshirts who will be looking for their first conference title since 2001 and a trip to Pasadena.

Next Game: Big Ten Championship Game vs. Wisconsin, Dec. 1

Northwestern (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten)

• The Wildcats notched their ninth victory in a season for the first time since 2008 with a 50-14 rout of in-state rival Illinois on senior day last week. Junior quarterback Kain Colter threw for a career best trio of touchdowns while junior running-back Venric Mark scampered for 127 yards and a score in helping Northwestern take back the Land of Lincoln trophy from the visiting Illini.

• The Cats sprinted to the finish with a pair of wins to close out the regular season which should position them nicely for a New Year’s Day bowl game in Florida. Northwestern last made a postseason appearance in Florida four years ago in a 38-35 Outback Bowl overtime loss to Auburn. The Purple are looking for their first postseason triumph since 1948 and are currently riding a nine-bowl game losing streak.

Next Game: Bowl Game TBD

No. 4 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten)

• The Buckeyes forced four turnovers and overcame a one-point halftime deficit to clinch a perfect 12-0 season with a 26-21 victory over Michigan at home last week. Junior running-back Carlos Hyde was brilliant, rushing for 146 yards and a touchdown, but it was junior kicker Drew Basil’s four field-goals that proved to be the difference in another Ohio State triumph against the Wolverines.

• Self-imposed sanctions will prevent the Scarlet and Gray from participating in the postseason, but the squad was awarded the Leaders Division title and will be honored by the university according to head coach Urban Meyer. Its the second time in his career that Meyer lead a team to a perfect season, only to miss out on the BCS Championship Game. He led Utah to a 13-0 record back in 2004. Ohio State was ranked fourth in the latest AP poll and will need a lot of help to claim the school’s first AP national title since 2002.

Next Game: Season complete

Penn State (7-4, 5-2 Big Ten)

• The Nittany Lions capped off one of the most emotionally-driven seasons in program history with a 24-21 overtime victory against Wisconsin on senior day last week. Sophomore kicker Sam Ficken’s 37-yard field-goal in overtime stood up as the winning points after the Badgers came up short on their tying attempt in the second half of the extra session.

• Head Coach Bill O’Brien will unquestionably get coach of the year considerations after taking a program that looked dead following major sanctions and seemingly crippling transfers filled its offseason to an 8-4 record. Penn State’s second-place finish in the Leaders Division will go down in Nittany Lion lore, but sanctions remain and the team will be home for the postseason.

Next Game: Season complete

Purdue (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten)

• The Boilermakers found bowl eligibility with a 56-35 victory against arch-rival Indiana last week. Senior quarterback Robert Marve threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns as the Black and Old Gold retained the Old Oaken Bucket and clinched a spot in the postseason for a second consecutive year.

• Even though the Boilers rallied to close the regular season with three consecutive wins, head coach Danny Hope was fired Sunday after four years at the helm. Hope proclaimed this year's Purdue team to be his best yet, but they struggled to a 3-6 start and speculation was rampant the head man would not be retained. A day after retaining the Old Oaken Bucket, Hope was relieved of duties and assistant coach Patrick Higgins was named interim head coach for the bowl game.

Next Game: Bowl Game TBD

Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten)

• The Badgers were unable to save face and finish second in the Leaders Division after dropping a 24-21 overtime decision to Penn State last week. Sophomore kicker Kyle French’s 44-yard tying field-goal attempt sailed wide-left to send Wisconsin to the Big Ten title game on a two-game losing streak.

• Amidst the loss, senior running-back Montee Ball became the all-time FBS leader in career touchdowns with his 79th on a 17-yard trot late in the first quarter, breaking a tie with Miami (Ohio)’s Travis Prentice. The Badgers end a disappointing regular season with a third-place divisional finish, but nonetheless head to Indianapolis to take on Nebraska in the conference championship game thanks to probationary sanctions held by Ohio State and the Nittany Lions.

Next Game: Big Ten Championship Game vs. Wisconsin, Dec. 1