CHICAGO - Purdue coach Joe Tiller was grinning like the cat that devoured the pudgy canary.
The Boilermakers' Big Ten schedule is an early Christmas present.
It has come gift-wrapped with a bow bigger than Jim Tressel's ego. This season, Purdue doesn't play Michigan or Ohio State, the league's top two powerhouses, due to a scheduling quirk in the 11-team Big Ten, which requires its teams play only eight league games.
Tiller, a Toledo native and Rogers High School graduate, tried to downplay the Boilermakers' made-to-order schedule this week at the Big Ten's annual kickoff luncheon, but you can bet he wouldn't swap it with any other coach.
Penn State, for instance, has been dealt a double-whammy. Coach Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions play the Buckeyes at home on Oct. 8, then must go to Michigan the following week.
Because every Big Ten team doesn't play the full field, the conference doesn't have what you would call a true regular-season champion.
Tiller knows it, and so do the other coaches.
"We have Ohio State and Michigan right where we want them," Tiller said, jokingly. "Some years the schedule rolls your way and some years it doesn't. There's a lot of very good teams in the conference, so I don't think you can make any assumption about any teams.
"Certainly Michigan and Ohio State are two premier programs, but there are a lot of other good teams. We've played well against Ohio State and not so well against Michigan. Not having them on the schedule, I don't want to say it's a wash, it's not."
Although the media did not tab Purdue as one of the league's three preseason favorites - Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa were - Tiller's Boilermakers could make a strong run at a special season.
Purdue, which lost four conference games by three points or less a year ago, returns 11 starters on defense and 19 overall, and Brandon Kirsch is expected to be a solid replacement for All-Big Ten quarterback Kyle Orton.
Although they will escape playing OSU and Michigan, the Boilermakers' conference schedule isn't a complete
They play Iowa on Oct. 8, and there are back-to-back Big Ten road games at Wisconsin and Penn State later in the month. If Purdue gets through that stretch unbeaten, it very easily could run the table. In November, the Boilermakers play host to Michigan State and Illinois before finishing up on the road against hapless Indiana.
"I don't know if it's a break if we are or aren't playing them, or if it's a break for them as to who they don't play," Tressel said. "I know this, the eight teams you play in the league, no matter who they are, are going to be difficult." In addition to not facing Purdue, OSU won't play Wisconsin and Michigan won't play Illinois.
"That happens to be the way we do things in the Big Ten," Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr said. Iowa, on the other hand, will play Ohio State, Michigan and Purdue, but not Michigan State and Penn State.
That could put Purdue and Tiller, who has led his team to a Big Ten co-championship and eight bowl appearances in eight seasons, in the ultimate catbird's seat.