CHICAGO — Imagine a baseball playoff where the Yankees and Red Sox weren't eligible. Or the NBA postseason without the Heat and Celtics.
That's the Big Ten Leaders Division for 2012.
Two of the six schools in the six-team pack won't play for the Big Ten title Dec. 1. Even if they go 12-0.
Power programs Ohio State and Penn State have been eliminated not because of failings on the field but because of deeds away from it.
Ohio State will sit out the 2012 postseason because of Tattoogate, which also cost Jim Tressel his job. New coach Urban Meyer continues to express his concerns about the one-year bowl ban placed on the Buckeyes.
"We talked about this last December when we got hit, got hit with that 2-by-4 that day they said you can't go to a bowl game; it was a 2 1/2-week barrage of negativism," Meyer said.
His rivals in State College face much worse. For the next four years, at least, Penn State will pay for the terrible crimes against children by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. And a decade-long cover-up by school leaders, including once-beloved coach Joe Paterno.
The reality of the cases will be seen on the field in 2012. The Leaders Division will be represented in Indianapolis by one of the following: Illinois, Indiana, Purdue or Wisconsin.
First-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman wants to be there. He wears a bracelet with the numbers 12-1-12 to prove it. But he isn't expecting a free ride to Lucas Oil Stadium.
"It's still going to come down to winning football games," Beckman said. "We all know that in the Big Ten. And we have a challenge, there's no question about it, because of our away football games, playing in Camp Randall (Wisconsin) and playing at the Big House (Michigan) and playing in The Shoe (Ohio State)."
Before the addition of Nebraska, schools were facing an 11:1 obstacle to become Big Ten champion. Divisional play reduced the number to 6:1. And the ineligibility of Ohio State and Penn State has made it a reasonable 4:1. Even by Vegas standards.
Most preseason publications are going with Wisconsin, which would have been the favorite even if Ohio State and Penn State were eligible. But the Badgers are anything but a lock.
They have to replace starting quarterback Russell Wilson, who led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl after transferring from North Carolina State. Sure, superstar tailback Montee Ball is back for his senior season, but he's missing three starting offensive linemen from 2011. And the throwing/running threat of Wilson.
Purdue is coming off its first bowl appearance in four years. The Boilermakers return their starting quarterback and a defense expected to be among the most improved in the Big Ten. And they host Wisconsin.
Illinois is coming off back-to-back bowl wins, a program first. How much will the change in coaching staff impact the players? And can the team survive an early Big Ten test that includes consecutive trips to Wisconsin and Michigan?
The schedules could play a huge part in determining the Leaders winner. Wisconsin skips Legends favorite Michigan and gets to play bottom-feeder Minnesota. But the Badgers travel to Nebraska for their Big Ten opener Sept. 29. Lose that one and they are a game behind.
Illinois doesn't have Nebraska or Michigan State. Neither does Purdue. Advantage, Illini and Boilers.
Of course, the Legends coaches don't like the way it is working out. They each have five schools to beat for the division title, not three.
"From a macro and a big-picture standpoint, maybe our division winner should automatically be in the championship, and then you take the other teams that are eligible and we put a committee together, the 12 ADs, and Commissioner (Jim) Delany as the 13th vote," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That would make a little bit of sense to me. I like the idea maybe having two guys from our division in. So who knows? Any way to get to Indianapolis, that's what it's all about, and I think that's what every team's focus is: to play for the Big Ten championship."
Fox analyst Charles Davis offers a warning to the eligible four: Don't fall asleep on the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions.
"The ones that can't can mess up the ones that can," said Davis, part of the Fox team that will broadcast the game. "Even though they are 'out of it,' they will have a huge say in it. That's where the trouble comes in for teams. We're talking about Ohio State and Penn State; you've got some things to deal with."
When Wisconsin hosts Ohio State on Nov. 17, Davis expects the Buckeyes to be ready. Same for Wisconsin's trip to Penn State on Nov. 24.
"They'll love the idea of showing adversity won't keep them down," Davis said.
When Davis was a senior at Tennessee, his team didn't play as well as it had hoped. But in their finale, the Volunteers had a chance to keep Mississippi from winning the SEC.
"All we said all week was, 'Not them,' " Davis said. "We went to Jackson and kicked the heck out of them. It's going to be like that for Ohio State and Penn State."
Long term, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin could gain an advantage from Penn State's long probation.
"But you have to capitalize on it," Davis said. "UCLA caught USC on probation. Did they capitalize?"