Near the end of last season, we took at look at all of the Big Ten standings to figure out just how bad Rutgers had been in their first year of conference play. The data showed that actually, Rutgers was bad at nearly everything, not just football and men’s basketball.
Rutgers fans criticized me for this, saying I cherry-picked data, or that I was missing the point. But now, the 2015-2016 seasons are all in the books, and we have an entire new year of data to look at. Did Rutgers improve? How did Ohio State do? Who was the best overall athletic department in the Big Ten?
The Lincoln Journal-Star crunched all of the data in one neat little chart. Here's what it tells us:
Top to bottom, Michigan’s athletic department was best in the Big Ten
The Wolverines had the highest average Big Ten ranking across all sports, with an average ranking of 3.75. They finished in the top half of every sport but four (eighth in men’s basketball, ninth in volleyball, last in men’s and women’s lacrosse), and won the regular season or Big Ten tournament championship in an impressive seven sports.
Right behind them was Ohio State, who actually won the most Big Ten championships
The Buckeyes actually won more Big Ten regular season or Tournament championships than anybody else in the conference (eight), but finished just behind Michigan’s overall ranking, with an average sport finish in 4.14 in the conference. Ohio State also finished in the top half of the Big Ten in every sport but five (ninth in Men’s Cross Country, eighth in Men’s Golf, fourth in Hockey, fourth in mens and women’s lacrosse). The Buckeyes found success in highly visible sports like football, baseball and men's soccer, but also dominated the conference in tennis (men’s and women's), women’s golf, and more.
Rutgers is still terrible at almost everything
To be fair, Rutgers did have some bright spots this season. Rutgers women's soccer finished third in the conference, but then made the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Penn State in the semi-finals. The Scarlet Knights also finished third in men’s soccer, making the NCAA Tournament, and finished fifth in a very competitive wrestling conference. They also finished second in Men’s lacrosse, nearly making the NCAA tournament, and knocking off some of the biggest names in the sport. So that’s all good!
The bad news is that they were throughly uncompetitive in virtually everything else. Rutgers finished with an average Big Ten ranking of 9.17, easily the worst in the conference, far behind second-worst Illinois at 7.62. Rutgers finished last in the Big Ten in six sports, including a historically terrible finish in men’s basketball that may have cost multiple teams a seed line. In fact, Rutgers finished dead last more often than they finished in the top half of the standings. They finished last or second to last in eight sports. It was truly a woeful performance.
Rutgers fans will surely point out on Twitter, or in the comments section, that they couldn’t be expected to compete at a Big Ten level across all sports so quickly given the years of neglect by the athletic department (this is true). They’ll mention that they just hired a new athletic director, and new coaches in multiple sports (this is true). They’ll mention they’re not getting a full Big Ten revenue share yet (this is true), and that once that funding comes, they’ll be able to make the infrastructure changes needed to become more competitive in the near future (this is maybe true).
But the point still stands, that even after a second year of competition, the gap between Rutgers and even the lower tier programs in the conference is significant, and Rutgers isn't real Big Ten quality in well, most things right now. Maybe that changes in the future, maybe not. But hey, even if Rutgers continues to suck, those checks still cash.
Maryland is good at sports that the conference doesn’t care about, less good at the ones it does
If we just look at average performance across all sports, fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland looks much better than Rutgers. The Terps clock in 10th, with an average finish of 7.45. That isn't great, but Maryland can claim four Big Ten regular season or tournament championships, something many teams with higher average ratings don’t have. That’s pretty good!
What sports is Maryland dominating? The Terps have titles in women’s basketball, men's lacrosse, women's lacrosse, and field hockey, to pair with strong finishes in men’s basketball, men’s soccer and men’s golf.
The trouble is, only five Big Ten programs sponsor men's lacrosse (sorry, Johns Hopkins, you don’t really count for these purposes), and only six sponsor women’s lacrosse. Nine sponsor field hockey, which still makes it one of the less adopted programs in the conference.
The Journal-Star also recalculated the rankings based on just the sports that Nebraska sponsors (so removing rankings for men’s soccer, men’s swimming, men’s and women's lacrosse, rowing, hockey and field hockey). Is that arbitrary? A little bit, but it does give a baseline number for how a program is competing in sports that have higher conference participation rates. Under that benchmark, Maryland is second to last in the Big Ten, with an 8.94 ranking. Only Rutgers is worse, at 10.21.
Does this matter?
I’m going to go out on a limb, and suggest that fans might be willing to forgive struggles in volleyball or softball in exchange for competence in football or basketball. Both Maryland and Rutgers have new coaches, but in the rugged Big Ten East, even a jump to competence could be a few years away.
But if or two teams are perpetually bottom feeders, that hurts the postseason prospects for everybody, especially in a sport like baseball, where the conference schedule can be particularly unbalanced.
The data shows that Ohio State and Michigan, with their well-run athletic departments, strong hires and near limitless resources, are in a position to be competitive in virtually every sport.
The newcomers? They’re not there yet. And it may be a while before they ever get there.