There's a whole narrative that surrounds college football, and that narrative dictates that some conferences -- the SEC, and more recently, the Pac-12 -- are dominant, and that other conferences -- the Big Ten, for example -- are weak by comparison.
Based on this narrative, if a Saturday passes in which several highly-ranked SEC powerhouse teams fall to sub-par SEC opponents, that just means the SEC is tough and competitive from top to bottom. If, on the same Saturday, Ohio State turns in a hard-fought win against Iowa, a conference opponent with a 4-2 record at the time, it just means that the Big Ten, and by extension, the Buckeyes, is weak. But, could it be that other conferences get a benefit of the doubt for their perceived toughness?
Living in the heart of SEC country, I'm regularly subjected to conversations in which some well-intentioned Georgia Bulldogs fan will sincerely try to convince me that their three-loss team, decimated by injury and struggling regularly on both sides of the ball, would easily beat the Buckeyes, whose current winning streak is unmatched in the nation. Why would anyone in their right mind believe that, you ask? Because the prevailing media narrative tells us that the SEC, top to bottom, is better than every other conference, and people want to believe it.
Big Ten football is a joke among SEC fans and analysts, despite the fact that none of them seem to watch it at all. For example, in Chris Low's SEC predictions blog on ESPN.com, he jokes that the punishment for their poor picks record two weeks prior was that Low and his colleague Edward Aschoff were forced to watch two whole quarters of Big Ten football. Yeah, that's hilarious, guys.
But Big Ten football is incredibly lucrative, which would suggest that plenty of people do watch and enjoy it. As a matter of fact, looking exclusively at revenue, It really isn't much of a competition between the Big Ten and the SEC. Per Forbes, the SEC brought in $38 million less than the Big Ten in revenue in 2012, including television, NCAA tournament and bowl (BCS and non-BCS) game revenue, and yet the entire Forbes article reads like an apology to the SEC for having to point out this inconvenient fact. The Big Ten is the most lucrative conference in the NCAA, with $310 billion in revenue last year, and the incorporation of Maryland and Rutgers into the conference expands the Big Ten Network's reach to the East Coast, suggesting a greater revenue stream will be forthcoming for the already-successful network.
Ohio State had three ranked or previously-ranked teams on their schedule this season. They've beaten Wisconsin and Northwestern. Wisconsin went into the matchup with Ohio State with one very weird loss to Arizona State on their record, and ranked 23rd in the nation. Following the loss to the Buckeyes, the fourth-ranked team in the nation, they dropped out of the top 25 entirely. The Pac-12's Arizona State, with a 3-2 record at the time, remained ranked 22nd with losses to Stanford and Notre Dame on their record.
Northwestern had a promising start to the year, and the Wildcats were ranked 16th heading into the game against Ohio State. It was a hard-fought win for the Buckeyes, with a finish so thrilling that the Buckeyes could not possibly get any credit for beating a ranked team. Northwestern dropped three spots to 19 after a loss to the fourth-ranked Buckeyes. The University of Georgia took their second loss, to Missouri, ranked 25th at the time. That loss dropped them one place in the polls, from sixth to seventh. Northwestern imploded following the loss to the Buckeyes, so that win ceases to help Ohio State's cause, anyway, but there seems to be some variability in how losses impact the rankings of Big Ten teams compared to SEC teams.
And, Ohio State still has their biggest game of any given regular season, a contest in a rivalry so fierce that many Buckeye faithful won't even utter the proper name of That Team Up North. Incidentally, that team boasts a winning record of 6-2, yet they're unranked, despite the fact that there are three SEC teams with two losses each ranked in the top 15 in the AP and Coaches Polls. With some close wins in addition to the two losses, it's been a downhill year for That Team Up North, after starting the season ranked 17th in the nation. Regardless, John Feinstein of the Washington Post writes that Ohio State "plays no one," while Oregon has a very tough rivalry game against Oregon State coming up on their schedule. Either rivalry games count, or they don't, Mr. Feinstein.
Throughout the Buckeyes' perfect 2012 season, and well into the 2013 season, detractors' most consistent argument against Ohio State has been that the team hasn't looked dominant against lesser teams. When the Buckeyes do look dominant, however, they're accused of "running up the score." A dominant Alabama or Oregon win is praised, while Ohio State either doesn't look dominant enough, or looks so dominant that it's unsportsmanlike. The Buckeyes are obviously winning on the field, but they just can't win in the court of public opinion.
All of that said, the Big Ten is undeniably having a down year, despite the fact that eight of twelve Big Ten teams currently boast winning records. Teams that started the season ranked have fallen apart. Ohio State doesn't play Nebraska, or Michigan State (except possibly in the Big Ten Title game), either or both of which would have given more credibility to the Buckeyes as the season winds down. Part of the blame lies with recruiting around the conference, an issue that Urban Meyer has been passionate about addressing. Ohio State's 2013 recruiting class was the second-best in the nation, behind Alabama's, and the 2014 class is currently ranked third, behind Alabama's and Tennessee's. Meyer has urged the rest of the Big Ten to step up their recruiting in an attempt to counter some of the negative perceptions that persist about the Big Ten. In other words, Meyer, with his culture of winning, and his aptitude for recruiting, is doing all that he can do.
Whether or not conferences like the SEC and Pac-12 get the benefit of the doubt, with conference opponents ranked or highly regarded based more on which conference they're aligned with as opposed to actual strength, isn't going to change anything for the Buckeyes this season. The narrative surrounding other conferences' superiority will persist. It doesn't matter that Alabama's opponents thus far collectively have a record of 31-39, for a win percentage of .443, and Oregon's opponents' collective record is 27-40, for a win percentage of .402. Never mind that the Buckeyes have looked like a championship-caliber team of late, and have outscored their opponents 48.2-17 this season, and certainly don't dwell on the fact that Ohio State's opponents' collective record of 36-41 is good for a win percentage of .467, superior to Bama's and Oregon's. It's not enough.
All the Buckeyes can do is win the rest of the games on their schedule, win the Big Ten Championship, and hope for losses from Alabama, Oregon and/or FSU. Ohio State's odds to remain undefeated stand at 45.9%, per PredictionMachine.com, but the Buckeyes' strength of schedule sits at 80, compared to Alabama at 46, Oregon at 61, and Florida State at 53. Ohio State's chance to make it to the National Championship is not good at this point, at just 21.1%. The Buckeyes are in a position of absolutely needing to win out, as well as depending on the teams above them to lose for a shot at a national title, and that's not an encouraging position to be in at all.
Odds aside, the Buckeyes can, and should, win the rest of the games on their schedule, and need to do so by convincing margins. It's entirely possible that LSU or Auburn could upset Bama, and Oregon has Stanford to contend with this week. Florida State has made quick work of their ranked opponents, and the toughest matchup on their remaining schedule looks to be Florida, which they will get a lot of credit for, because Florida is in the SEC.
To his great credit, Urban Meyer is keeping the Buckeyes focused on coming out of this week's bye "faster and stronger"as opposed to worrying about the championship picture at this point. In order to manage the elements of their bowl season destiny that are under their control, the team has to remain focused on their own game, as opposed to worrying about Bama, or Oregon, FSU, or even Baylor. Nothing is going to change the perception of the Big Ten, and consequently Ohio State, in comparison to the SEC or Pac-12 as the season winds down.
Ohio State can't do anything to help their case, except keep winning.
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