If there is one college football narrative that many Ohio State fans wish was dead and buried, it’s "the Big Ten stinks", followed by "Ohio State doesn’t play anybody." Buoyed by a few years of unlucky out-of-conference scheduling and high profile failings in out-of-conference games by their conference brethren, many fans hoped the dead horse had finally been beaten enough, after Ohio State won a national title in 2014, followed by the resurgence of the Michigan football program under Jim Harbaugh.
But if a few early season prognostications are right, it might not be the last we hear of it.
Apparently, Phil Steele has the Big Ten ranked last in his early season power rankings, setting off a bit of a kerfuffle on Twitter:
Phil Steele has the Big Ten ranked last in the Power 5 conference ratings. I'd like to hear why you all might agree/disagree!— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) July 9, 2016
Is that fair? After all, lots of other conferences have some pretty lousy teams. To get a better idea, let’s take a look at the math.
The 2016 projected S&P+ rankings came out a few months ago. This metric ranks teams based on their per-play performance last year, returning production, recruiting, and recent success. All 128 programs are ranked. Based on these projections, here are the average ranks of each Power Conference program.
|Conference||Average S&P+ rank|
And here’s how the conference stack up in average S&P+ rating.
|Conference||Conference S&P+ average|
So, if the math is accurate, the Big Ten is, in fact, projected to be the worst Power conference. The margin behind the Big 12 isn’t very large, but it is there.
Why doesn’t S&P+ like the Big Ten as much?
For starters, because many high profile programs lost so much production. Virtually everybody from last year’s Ohio State team is now in the NFL, and high achieving programs like Michigan State and Wisconsin are also replacing huge swaths of players. As a result, even though all three programs have been consistently solid, the S&P+, and likely Phil Steele, discounts them a bit.
There’s also the question of depth. The Big Ten is weighed down by two struggling programs (Rutgers, at 87, and Purdue at 88), with another three clocking in outside the top 50, more than any other power conference. With the bottom of the league staffed by either very inexperienced head coaches, or perhaps some questionable hires, it’ll take a few more years before the conference can claim the level of depth that others can.
Dead weight, plus the top teams getting discounted (only Michigan cracks the top 10, and only three Big Ten teams make the top 25), equals a lower average rating than their power conference peers.
There’s one potentially large asterisk to the S&P+ ratings. These were compiled in February, before everything fell apart with Baylor. The Bears are ranked 13th in the projections, but with a new coach and only half of their 2016 recruiting class, it is entirely possible that ranking drops dramatically by the first week of the season. If the Bears are only a top 30ish team instead of a top 15 program, the Big Ten could vault the Big 12 in the conference rankings.
The question is, would the Big Ten’s struggles dramatically hurt Ohio State this season? Probably not.
The Buckeyes are going to get the benefit of the doubt, thanks to their out-of-conference road trip to Oklahoma, perhaps the premier out-of-conference game of the entire college football season. The Buckeyes also drew one of the best possible games from the Big Ten West (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern). If Michigan and Oklahoma are as good as the preseason prognosticators think they are, nobody will care that Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland aren’t very good this season. Ohio State will have the quality wins needed to make a playoff push.
The Big Ten is recruiting well in the 2017 class, and there’s reason to be optimistic that depth will continue to improve over the coming seasons. It may not manifest itself this season though, and you may hear cries that the Big Ten stinks again, especially if the conference stumbles in a few big games in September.
But even if that’s true, it shouldn’t hurt Ohio State too badly. And who knows? The day that narrative dies for good might not be too far away.