The most recent AP Poll, which came out Monday, looks strange compared to what we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. Sure, there’s Alabama and Georgia in the top-five. Oklahoma is hanging around. We’ve got an 18-19-20 stretch of Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State — a very typical Big Ten grouping.
But then we see some strange happenings: Cincinnati at No. 8, Clemson at No. 9...and Ohio State at No. 10.
An easy first reaction would be that the Big Ten isn’t getting any respect in the polls, because how could the highest ranking team in the conference be all the way back at No. 10?
...because the Buckeyes are not, in fact, the highest ranked team in the conference.
Iowa entered the top-five last week after a big win over Iowa State. The Hawkeyes maintained that position heading into this week. Penn State, meanwhile, went into its matchup with Auburn ranked 10th nationally. With their win over the Tigers, the Nittany Lions rose to the No. 6 spot.
It’s certainly a shock to the system to see not one but two other Big Ten teams ranked ahead of Ohio State. While we can still be upset about Ohio State’s loss to Oregon and the perceived slight of moving down in the polls after a win over Tulsa, perhaps the bigger story is that the Big Ten now has three teams ranked in the top-10 in the AP Poll.
And that’s a good thing.
The rest of the Big Ten is getting better, and while it doesn’t feel like it when the Buckeyes are the third-highest-ranked team in the conference, it’s better for Ohio State. When it comes to Ohio State’s strength of schedule, it doesn’t help if Rutgers and Maryland are cake walks, and it certainly benefits the Buckeyes if, at the end of the year, their rankings get boosted with wins over top-10 Penn State and Iowa teams.
The downside, of course, is that Ohio State is not infallible, as we saw against Oregon. When everyone is doing better, there will be times when the Buckeyes are not head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. In other words, there will be down years — even in Columbus — when other teams are the teams to bear in the Big Ten.
The fact that, top to bottom, the Big Ten has improved is outstanding. We don’t have the likes of Kansas (anymore). Heck, even Rutgers is 3-0.
The Big Ten has also shown up for out of conference matchups. In addition to the aforementioned Penn State win over Auburn and Iowa victory over Iowa State, Michigan State also beat Miami last weekend. Maryland has a W over West Virginia, and Michigan beat Washington. Even perceived mismatches like Purdue vs. Notre Dame were more competitive than the experts might have thought.
In the average season, Ohio State creates a halo effect for the rest of the conference, but that halo then extends back to the Buckeyes when other Big Ten programs succeed.
Contrast that mindset of Ohio State’s position in the Big Ten to what we’ve seen with Texas in the Big 12. The Longhorns seem to be under the impression that relations within a conference are a zero-sum game. While that might be true for wins and losses, the Longhorns have effectively shot themselves in the foot with the other benefits that come from making the conference as a whole better.
For starters, there’s the disaster of the Longhorn Network, which benefited Texas and no one else, and precipitated the departure of Texas A&M to the SEC. The network itself bled money, especially since any premium games got picked up by more premium channels, and also because the network was not common on most cable packages. You know, because most people are not Texas fans, and don’t want to pay for Texas’ channel.
Texas effectively pushed its biggest in-state rival to the SEC years ago, which was a truly shortsighted move, since Texas recruits could now go play in an incrontrovertably better SEC. The Longhorns lost its only other regularly scheduled strong opponent, and are now left with Oklahoma. (Oh, and the Sooners have beaten Texas nine out of their last 12 meetings.) Now, Texas, which remains the most valuable brand in college sports, is trying to make a comeback — having lost numerous recruiting battles to a variety of non-Big 12 powers over the last decade or so.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten in general and Ohio State in particular has recognized that a rising tide lifts all boats, including coaching, recruiting and monetary benefits.
First, functional success for coaches and programs (rather than the much more dramatic dysfunction) is beneficial for schools. Urban Meyer coming to Columbus precipitated the Big Ten as a destination for rising stars in the coaching realm, including Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin.
The fact the Big Ten has such regular and consistent governorship is also helpful. Sure, Scott Frost is probably out at Nebraska for his recent violations (and inability to recruit or win football games), but the conference as a whole has kept a remarkably clean nose in recent years under the guidance of Jim Delaney and, now, Kevin Warren. Schools share similar values and principles, which have gone a long way.
When it comes to recruiting, there are few states within the conference’s geography where a Big Ten school is at a recruiting disadvantage to a non-Big Ten school. For example, Iowa beats out Iowa State in recruiting rankings year in and year out. Similarly, despite Cincinnati’s recent success (pause to clap for Luke Fickell…), there are not a lot of occasions where the Buckeyes lose out to the Bearcats or other in-state programs for top recruits.
Finally, there’s the financial benefits of media rights. Ohio State has the most bargaining power of any individual Big Ten program, and the Big Ten brings in more revenue than any other college football conference ($768.9 million in 2020 — $40 million more than the SEC, and $235 million more than the Pac-12. We won’t even talk about the ACC and Big 12). We can expect that Penn State and Iowa will grow the pie this year.
And of course, it’s not all about football. Conferences that have strength in multiple sports naturally have more bargaining power, so the fact the Big Ten is such a strong basketball conference, both for men’s and women’s basketball, is great for the conference. And another example of how it’s not all about Ohio State.
Bottom line, college football is a team sport. And it behooves the teams that choose to play well together.