This should be a banner year for the Big Ten.
After being the butt of everyone’s jokes for at least half a decade, the league now has two teams in the College Football Playoff rankings, with just two regular season weeks to go. The conference has four teams in the top ten, one of the strongest paths to being the first conference to get two teams in the playoff, and a legitimate, credible argument for being the best conference in America this season. In football. It’s true!
And yet, once again, the league might accidentally screw up a good thing.
You’ve probably heard, at this point, how the Big Ten East tiebreakers go. The team best positioned at this point if OSU beats Michigan isn’t No. 2 ranked Ohio State but No. 8 Penn State, who only needs to beat Rutgers and Michigan State to clinch a division championship.
Penn State is a good football team, maybe even a very good one, but by just about every metric, they aren’t as good as Ohio State or Michigan, OSU-PSU final score not withstanding. Michigan is second in S&P+, Ohio State is third, and Penn State is 12th. Both Ohio State and Michigan have superior wins to Penn State, whose best non-Ohio State win is probably Temple. And it would be very difficult to argue that Penn State would have a better shot at making a run in the playoff, against a team like Alabama or Clemson, than Ohio State or Michigan.
But the Nittany Lions hold the tiebreaker over the Buckeyes, fair and square. They blocked the kicks, they beat the Buckeyes, and if Ohio State wins out and knocks off Michigan, and if Penn State takes care of business against two bad football teams, they’re off to the Big Ten championship game, and potentially, the playoff, even over Ohio State.
A major reason for this? Maryland and Rutgers. They’ve messed this up again.
The Big Ten conference schedule expanded to nine games this season, but that still only gives each Big Ten East team three crossover games with the West. Penn State has avoided arguably the three best teams in the West this season, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Northwestern, and they got Iowa, their best crossover opponent, at home.
Meanwhile, Ohio State faced nearly the hardest Big Ten schedule possible, drawing Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern, beating them all. Their Big Ten achievements are in no way equal. But the rules are the rules, and because Penn State lost the correct game and won the correct one, they might advance.
This happened last year too, as an Iowa team that almost everybody suspected wasn’t actually as good as their record, advanced to the Big Ten championship game without ever playing Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State. They lost a close game to a weakened Michigan State team in the final, and then got summarily blasted to the moon by Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Next year, that team might be Michigan State, as they skip Wisconsin and Nebraska next season (and get Iowa at home). Sometimes the pendulum swings the other way. In 2018, the Michigan Wolverines draw both, and in a year when they must play Michigan State and Ohio State on the road.
These aren’t balanced at all. And if one team gets to play two or three fewer games against high quality opposition than the other, they’re going to be at a significant advantage.
This hasn’t just been a problem in football. Last year, the games with Rutgers dragged down the RPI, and probably the NCAA seed line, of multiple Big Ten basketball programs. The disparities in league schedule quality will surely become a factor come March for this season as well.
It’s one thing to goof on Maryland and Rutgers football being bad. Watching another 50-point blowout isn’t the worst thing in the world, and if it wasn’t Rutgers, maybe it’s Purdue or Illinois serving up a similar result.
But the required annual games against both teams also creates an opportunity cost: every game against a punchless Terp squad is a game your team isn’t playing against Iowa, or Nebraska, or Wisconsin. And that not only can weaken your strength of schedule ranking, it might help serve up a division title to somebody else.
The Big Ten conference schedule is set through 2019. Here’s hoping that in the future, a better source of balance might be built in place, where a potential division title contender can’t miss every single probable strong team from the other division while their peers grab all of them.
Maybe Penn State loses in the next two weeks. Maybe Michigan wins out with their backup QB and renders this conversation moot, since they control their own destiny. But the way the league is structured, this could happen again very soon, and it sucks for players, coaches, and fans, not to mention the league.
Otherwise, we could be looking at a scenario where the Big Ten squanders its best playoff positioning it’s likely to get in years.
Hope the New York and DC TV markets were worth it.