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Spartans have Legends lead on line vs. Michigan

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - As if there weren't already enough riding on the outcome - bragging rights, an upper hand in recruiting, national rankings and just a general dislike of the opponent - Saturday's Michigan at Michigan State game also could decide who plays in the Big Ten championship game.

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However, don't count on Wolverines coach Brady Hoke to even mention that.

''If you get ahead of yourself, you're really going to make a mistake,'' he said Tuesday during the conference's coaches' call. ''Our thoughts and everything that we're focusing on is going up to East Lansing and competing like hell with Michigan State.''

Heading into the final month of the regular season, there's a strong competition taking shape for supremacy in the Big Ten's Legends Division.

No. 24 Michigan State (7-1, 4-0) currently leads the way, with hated rival 23rd-ranked Michigan (6-1, 2-1) right behind.

Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) is also in the mix, but probably cannot afford another slip the rest of the way.

Iowa and Minnesota, both with two losses, are hoping chaos reigns down the stretch and everybody loses.

Over in the Leaders Division, No. 4 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) is on a 20-game winning streak and appears to be almost a lock to play in its first Big Ten championship game on Dec. 7 at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis.

''That's a big part of what we do: Our goal is to play for championships in November. And, obviously, to win our side of the Big Ten is what we're talking about,'' coach Urban Meyer said. ''You do that, you get to go play in the Big Ten championship. That's very realistic and a goal that we do discuss.''

The Buckeyes hold a one-game edge over No. 22 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1), but already own the tiebreaker thanks to having already beaten the Badgers.

Everybody else in the Leaders has at least two losses.

The Spartans' Mark Dantonio said his team is just like the other 11 in the Big Ten.

''We have our goals, just like everybody else,'' he said. ''And among our goals is to be in that championship game and then to win it.''

Michigan State made it to the inaugural title game in 2011 before losing to Wisconsin. The Spartans then regrouped to beat Georgia in a bowl game.

It's not as if anyone will clinch the Legends Division title this weekend.

After a bye next week, Michigan State plays at Nebraska and at Northwestern before closing out the regular season at home against Minnesota.

The Wolverines have an even bigger set of hurdles: Nebraska at home, at Northwestern, at Iowa and then No. 4 Ohio State at The Big House on Nov. 30.

Should Michigan win this weekend while Nebraska holds off Northwestern at home, then the Cornhuskers have a good shot at a return trip to the title game if they win out. Their schedule includes games at Michigan and home against Michigan State.

''We're really in the same position we were in a year ago,'' said coach Bo Pelini, whose team lost 70-31 to Wisconsin in last year's Big Ten title game. ''You still have the opportunity to control your own destiny and do what you have to do and the only way you stay in that position is to win football games.''

Few coaches consider it a successful season if their team doesn't make it to the conference title game.

''As a competitor, there's no question that the goals are always high, the expectations are high,'' Hoke said. ''So when you don't achieve those aspirations - which everyone in this conference has which is to win the conference - then it obviously hasn't been the kind of year that you want.''

For what it's worth, this is also the final year for the Leaders and Legends names atop the Big Ten's divisions. Since they were unveiled a few years back by Commissioner Jim Delany with the help of a marketing firm, many have considered those names pretentious.

Next year, with Maryland and Rutgers joining the conference, the divisions will be based on geography. They'll simply be called the East and the West.

Meyer, for one, is sorry to see Legends and Leaders fall by the wayside.

''I love that,'' he said. ''I heard a lot of people criticize it but I thought it was very well done.''

No matter what they engrave on the trophy at the end, there are a lot of teams that would love to claim it.

---

Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP

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The Associated Press
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