Friends, I realize that I have committed a cardinal sin of the college football offseason. I have spent actual brain power contemplating the results of a preseason poll of Sports Information Directors (okay, fine, Coaches, whatever). If you’re not interested in going down that road, I completely understand. Thank you for your click, and go ahead and jump out now. Here’s a video of puppies for your trouble.
Still with me? Okay. I want to talk about a trope that dropped yesterday and I imagine could become a reoccurring theme this season.
Yesterday, Dan Wolken of USA TODAY looked at the preseason coaches poll and determined that the results, namely, four Big Ten teams landing in the top ten, made the Big Ten “college football’s most overrated conference”, supplanting the SEC. Ohio State clocks in at No. 2, followed by Penn State at No. 6, Michigan at No. 9, and Wisconsin at No. 10.
The genesis of Wolken’s argument here centers on the fact that the Big Ten has now struggled in back-to-back College Football Playoffs, Penn State’s quality has been exaggerated by their entertaining Rose Bowl loss, Michigan went 10-3 and finished third in the Big Ten east again (people forget that), and Wisconsin, uh, doesn’t play anybody.
I think variations of this argument will pop up a lot on the internet this season, especially if a team like Michigan or Ohio State loses a big out-of-conference game early in the season, which is possible. Before we slap the OVERRATED sticker on everybody here, let’s consider a few things.
First, the top of the Big Ten, bowl performances not withstanding, was inarguably very good last season. There’s a penchant for dramatically overvaluing what happened in bowl games, as if 1) the rest of the season never happened and 2) teams vary dramatically in their interest level in actually competing in said bowl games. In last year’s final S&P+, the Big Ten finished with three teams in the top 10 (Michigan was No. 3, Ohio State was No. 5 and Penn State was No. 8) while Wisconsin finished just outside, at No. 11. To determine that those teams were overrated because of their bowl struggles means that bowl game was the only time you watched those teams.
For what it’s worth, the preseason S&P+ projection tracks pretty closely to the Coaches Poll. The Big Ten has three teams in the top ten, and Wisconsin is just outside, at 11. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as those four teams were all very good last season, and with the exception of Michigan, return most of their important personnel, which tends to correlate with future success.
It’s hard for me to get indignant about anybody thinking any of those four teams is going to be very good next season. Ohio State made the playoff last year, has one of the two best coaches in college football, and outside of their secondary, returns virtually everybody of consequence from last year’s team, along with another class full of elite recruits. If you really want to bang your fist and put Florida State or USC at No. 2, that’s fine, but anybody arguing Ohio State isn’t one of the, on paper, four best teams coming into next season is going to need a much stronger argument than “but they didn’t score against Clemson.”
Is it possible that Penn State was a little flukey in their success last season? Sure, given how well that offense performed in passing downs situations. But even if they regress a bit, they’re still returning perhaps the best running back in college football, their best offensive line since sanctions, chunks of what was a good defense, and should have better injury luck than last year, when they were playing walk-ons at linebacker. They were unquestionably a top ten team last season.
The only real exception I can think of here is Michigan, who is probably a few spots too high, given how much they have to replace. But the program is slotting in four stars at nearly every one of those places, has one of the best defensive coordinators in college football, and a great coach, albeit one still searching for a signature win. Sure, maybe Michigan should be 15th instead of 9, but that doesn’t mean the conference is overrated.
Wolken hints at this in his piece, but the other elephant in the room here that I think prevents the Big Ten from properly earning an overrated label, is that almost everybody seems to agree the rest of the league kinda sucks. After Wisconsin, no other Big Ten team is ranked in the preseason poll (Northwestern would be the next ranked team, down at 35, counting the ‘also receiving votes’). S&P+ agrees, ranking Northwestern at 37. That’s a pretty big gap.
When a conference is truly overrated, like perhaps the SEC was during parts of the last decade, it’s the teams in the middle that get undeserving benefits of the doubt. Nobody, from the computers, to coaches, to most bloggers, are going out on a limb to sing the praises of anybody in this league after Wisconsin. It’s entirely possible that the bottom three teams in the Big Ten are worse than the bottom three teams of any other power conference.
In the year of our Lord 2017, given the advancements we’ve made in efficiency stats and understanding college football, we should be able to move beyond conference strength pissing contests, and evaluate teams on their own merits. It can be true that the Big Ten has both four really good teams and a bunch of flotsam, jetsam, and Northwestern. If those four really good teams perform well on a per-play-basis, the fact that they are forced to play Rutgers and Illinois shouldn’t penalize them.
I’ll believe the Big Ten is truly overrated when the swarms of Medill graduates (that’s a good journalism school, I’m told) begin Northwestern Rose Bowl campaigns, and we see columns about how Indiana and Maryland are top 25 caliber, or otherwise undeserving teams are elevated, like we might see in more parity-driven leagues this year, like the Pac-12 or Big 12.
But that’s not where we are. Maybe Michigan is overrated. Maaaybe Wisconsin is too. But giving Harbaugh the benefit of the doubt, and thinking anything about Nebraska, are two different things. Let’s not let this become a thing.