I'd like to interrupt the pulverization of this dead horse for an urgent news announcement: The Big Ten has struggled at football this season. After the league went a collective 1-10 against Power 5 competition, and with well publicized letdowns from both their frontrunners (Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State), their dregs (Purdue, Northwestern and Indiana all losing to MAC squads) and even Nebraska nearly losing to an FCS team, many voices began to speculate if maybe some non-Big Ten teams could win the league.
Like, for example, those scrappy independent upstarts from Provo. The BYU Cougars find themselves at 3-0 and ranked in the Top 25, after dispatching UConn, Houston, and summarily destroying the Texas Longhorns on the road. BYU features an explosive QB, a hard hitting defense, and they're relatively fun to watch. They also don't have a conference to promote them, and they're one of the few true wild cards in college football. But could they win the Big Ten?
Desmond Howard says "of course" BYU would be the favorites in the Big Ten. David Pollack says they'd be number two, behind Michigan State. Others on Twitter agreed.
I think it's fair to say that I may be one of the uniquely equipped people to answer this question. And I'm saying pump the brakes. The Cougars are a fun story and a good football team. But even in a "down" league, there is no reason to think that BYU would win the conference this season.
First, we have some mathematical ways of quantifying this. If we look at the Sagarin Ratings for this season, BYU isn't the top team in the Big Ten. While their No. 25 ranking is perfectly respectable, it's behind Michigan State (No. 8), Wisconsin (No. 10), Ohio State (No. 18), and virtually tied with Nebraska (No. 26). If you prefer to use the F/+ advanced statistical rankings, the findings are mostly the same.
Michigan State paces the Big Ten at No. 8. Ohio State is No. 18, Wisconsin is No. 23, BYU is No. 24 and Nebraska is No. 27. If we use any kind of conventional metrics to rank teams, there is no way we can reach the conclusion that BYU would be a Big Ten "favorite". There are clearly two teams ahead of them, and another two near equal to them.
So let's look at the matchups then. What kind of team is BYU?
You've probably heard about BYU's star QB, Taysom Hill. Hill has combined fairly efficient passing with devastating open field running, coupled with speed that's highly uncommon for his position. Hill has already rushed for six TDs and 356 yards over three games, averaging more than 5 yards a carry. He's paired with Jamaal Williams, an underrated running back, and some quality backups, to give BYU an excellent rushing attack.
As is typical for Bronco Mendenhall coached teams, BYU also boasts a hard-hitting defense that tackles well in space, and swallows up rushing lanes. The Cougars have allowed only a single rushing TD so far. Add it all together, and you have a Top 25 squad that is beating teams by an average of 36-14, and should be favored in every game they play this season. The Cougars are good.
But that doesn't mean they'd win the Big Ten. This isn't a flawless team, after all.
The biggest problem with BYU last season was their offensive line. It's an improved unit, by virtue of returning nearly everybody, but it is far from perfect. The Cougars have given up 11 sacks, good for 115th in the nation, and Hill doesn't have a great record of decision making under duress (he's tossed three picks to his four touchdown passes). Scrambling QBs tend to give up more sacks than their pocket passing peers by virtue of scheme alone, but given than the Cougars haven't faced a truly excellent pass rush (and UConn's is awful), those spreads don't bode well.
If there is one thing the Big Ten has in spades, it's pass rushers and solid defensive lines. Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun would have no problem getting into the backfield and short circuiting BYU's offense. Rutgers already has 13 sacks, one of the best in the country. Penn State has nine. Ohio State and Purdue have eight. Michigan State has eight in only two games. The list goes on.
The advanced stats agree that the Big Ten has some solid defensive units. Penn State is 5th in the country in S&P+. Iowa is 15th. Minnesota is 19th. Nebraska is 20th, Michigan State 23rd, and Maryland 26th (BYU is 31st). When it comes to defending on standard downs, many Big Ten teams are doing a good job, which wouldn't bode well for the Cougars.
Why? Because if there is one flaw to BYU's offense, which is pretty good, it is the lack of a consistent downfield passing game. BYU's wideouts are some of the tallest in the country, and have capable hands, but they lack high end speed (outside of perhaps Devon Blackmon), and throwing the ball down the field isn't Hill's strength. If BYU is able to stay on schedule on their offense, or run the ball well, this doesn't matter much. If the Cougars struggle with defensive pressure and face repeated 3rd-and-longs though, they haven't shown they convert on a regular basis. That means they wouldn't be able to take advantage of say, Ohio State's iffy secondary.
Finally, for a school that prides itself on recruiting so many smart athletes, BYU does a lot of, well frankly dumb stuff on the field. This is the most penalized team in the country, led by repeated personal foul calls. They've been cavalier with the football as well, turning the ball over seven times, good for being 102nd in the country in that department. When you are operating at a talent deficiency, you absolutely cannot afford to give yards back or make stupid mistakes. There aren't many teams that are doing more of that right now than BYU, and over the course of an entire Big Ten schedule, it's hard to see how that wouldn't come back to haunt them.
And make no mistake, BYU would be playing at a talent disadvantage. The program's limitations in recruiting have been well documented, and the squad boasts a definitive lack of blue-chip prospects across the board. Only two four-star players are in the defensive rotation, and only two on offense. While Hill, Williams, Johnson and others have played above their recruiting stars in order to make the squad successful, they're still lining up a lot of two and low-three star guys across multiple positions.
In a make-believe Big Ten schedule, even with the league struggling in recruiting, they're going to be facing off against four and five-stars at Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, and high threes across the board basically everywhere else. BYU would have finished with the second worst recruiting class in the Big Ten last season, ahead of only Purdue. Recruiting stars matter, especially if you're lining up at a deficit every week.
If my math is correct, BYU is only 3-7-1 against current Big Ten teams all time (and 0-3 against Ohio State), although outside of a matchup with Wisconsin last season, BYU hasn't faced a Big Ten squad in a regular season game since 1980. They haven't beaten a Big Ten team since 1992, when they defeated a 7-5 Penn State team that wasn't even in the Big Ten yet. It's a different style of play, a different roster construction, and as successful as the team has been this year, they wouldn't be a serious threat to win the conference -- without pulling some major upsets.
I think BYU would lose to Michigan State and Ohio State, and would struggle with Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin, and could even lose to Penn State. Depending on how you drew up a hypothetical slate, I think it would be hard to argue they'd finish third or higher.
The Cougars face Nebraska and Michigan next season, and have two future games scheduled with Wisconsin later in the decade, but that's it as far as scheduled matchups with the Big Ten. Until they prove it with some degree of regularity on the field, the idea of the Cougars being the favorite to win even a depleted Big Ten is too spicy a sports take to be taken particularly seriously.