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Column: No, the Big Ten is not down this year

Remember that time Ohio State beat Clemson?

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Friday evening at roughly 8 p.m. ET was likely a tense time for most Ohio State fans. Hearing the narrative over and over again: about last year’s loss to Clemson, the heartbreak, the insurmountable odds to get back to the same spot and, worst of all, the insurmountable odds the ill-equipped Buckeyes would face that evening against a team which had proven itself to be far and above among the best two teams in college football in 2020.

Yes, the announcers and the analysts and everyone on Twitter had a lot to say about the Buckeyes and their chances Friday night — tales of almost losing to Northwestern, as though the Wildcats are a bad team. Discussions of the inexperience of the Buckeyes on the field. And then came the talk of the Big Ten as a whole being down this year.

The narrative has been continuing in this vein for the whole of the season. The conjecture might feel valid, but it has no basis in reality. Analysts have honed in on three main points throughout the season:

  1. The Big Ten has played fewer games than other conferences, and therefore must be bad.
  2. The Big Ten hasn’t played any out of conference games this season. Because we don’t know how those games would have gone, we must assume the Big Ten would have lost them.
  3. Some of the Big Ten’s biggest brands are down this year, so the Big Ten collectively must be down.

Let’s kick off with point No. 1. The ACC lost every bowl game it played in this year. Every. Single. One. For emphasis, here are all the final scores of those games.

Note that the ACC got three invitations to New Year’s Six bowls and two of the four spots in the College Football Playoff. Also note that the ACC didn’t just get beat but, in four of six matchups, got effectively trounced. Teams from other “less worthy” conferences got excluded (cough, Northwestern) who would, in retrospect, have been more worthy competitors - left out to the inclusion of ACC teams. And the most prominent reason? The number of games the Big Ten played compared to everyone else.

For starters, that logic is bologna, as two Big Ten teams did complete nine game schedules and three completed eight - just about a full conference schedule from a normal year. Of note, Indiana and Northwestern both played seven regular season conference games.

Next, the actual amount of games is arbitrary. Early in college football’s history, there was no consistency from season to season in terms of number of games. While it certainly helps to be standardized, there’s nothing that dictates that more games necessarily equates to better teams. Defining a minimum requirement for games played might work under normal circumstances, but in a season defined by a pandemic, that minimum goes out the window.

The exception comes in the quality of games played which, naturally, leads to a discussion on conference championships, when two of the conference’s best teams — often teams which don’t get matched up during the regular season — have a chance to add a feather in their cap when it comes to the ol’ resume. It’s why the Big 12 got so much flack when the conference missed the playoffs after lacking a title game in 2014, and it’s why Ohio State moved up a spot after beating Northwestern this year.

Why the earlier diatribe about the ACC’s bowl game record? Because folks like Dabo Swinney continued to push the narrative that Ohio State and the Big Ten hadn’t played enough games to prove anything. News flash: No one played the games needed to prove anything, because no one went out of conference against other Power Five teams. And when they did, the ACC went 0-6. *Cry laughing face*

Which brings us to point No. 2.

There’s a reason Ohio State schedules teams like Oregon, Oklahoma, USC and Texas in the non-conference lineup. Marquee matchups set the tone not only for the teams playing in them, but for their conferences at large. As an example, if Ohio State beats Oklahoma, and both teams end up winning their conferences, it’s reasonable to jump to a hypothesis that the Big Ten stacks up better than the Big 12.

On-field comparisons are so critical to gauge how good teams actually are. It’s sort of like how, when Trevor Lawrence is running and there’s no one else in the field of vision, he actually looks slow because his strides are so long. It’s only when you see linebackers coming at him full speed that you see how fast he really is.

In a similar vein, seeing teams from two conferences on the field at the same time gives an actual feel for what the individual teams can do. Before Ohio State beat Clemson, it would be easy to assume that Northwestern is not good (which is not true and I’m going to keep saying it). There’s a reason that racking-and-stacking a conference is relatively simple, because teams play one another. When teams can play opponents out of conference, it then becomes possible to evaluate those conferences against one another.

Of course, in order to effectively evaluate teams, one must also challenge existing assumptions. Which brings us to point #3.

In the Sugar Bowl, as Justin Fields tore apart the Clemson secondary, it took well into the game for Kirk Herbstreit to acknowledge that, in the Big Ten Championship, it was likely a mix of missing Olave along with a stout, Pat Fitzgerald-coached Northwestern defensive secondary that contained Fields. Comments had abounded in the preceding week of how Fields had played such a down game and how he would respond against what was surely a superior Clemson defense.

But why the assumptions? The reality is that it’s easier to accept the paradigm that Northwestern is a bad team in the Big Ten, even if Northwestern has a good year. And because Northwestern is not one of the big brands in the conference (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, et al), challenging that assumption is itself challenging.

Yes, Michigan was down. Penn State and Wisconsin were mediocre, and Nebraska is still yearning for the days when Scott Frost quarterbacked the team. However, the fact the Big Ten’s “premiere” teams had down years is not a reflection of the conference as a whole, especially in a season with no out of conference matchups. By definition, the collective record of Big Ten teams at the end of the regular season would come out to .500, because it is a zero-sum game in in-conference play. When one team gets a W, another has to get an L because that’s how math works. So those losses from the big brands had to go somewhere.

This year, they went to Northwestern and Indiana. However, Northwestern and Indiana were at the bottom of the conference for so long (and so many years ago) that seeing them win feels like it should say more about how bad their opponents are rather than how much these programs have improved and grown into their own brands in recent years.

No, no one is saying that Michigan is good or misunderstood - the Wolverines were truly abhorrent this year to the point where it’s almost not even fun for Ohio State fans to make fun of them anymore. Almost. But to say the conference as a whole is down when there are actual good teams like Indiana, Northwestern and Iowa, along with improvement from traditional bottom feeder Rutgers, is simply rushing into judgement with a base-level analysis.

Penn State, meanwhile, won its last four games after starting the season 0-5. The Nittany Lions were misunderstood - at least more so than the Wolverines, having experienced numerous opt-outs and injuries ahead of and early on in the season. Penn State also had to open with Indiana and Ohio State - two, as we’ve established, of the best three teams in the Big Ten this year. They also had to play Iowa in a challenging cross-division matchup.

It should be accepted that the conference is not down, but shifted. Balances of power will move, but that doesn’t mean that there is a lack of strength in the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes certainly weren’t down this season. It’s easy to see now that Ohio State clobbered Clemson. It’s easy to point a finger at Dabo Swinney and critique him for putting Ohio State at No. 11. But let’s bring up the conference at large, because the Big Ten wasn’t down either.