Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.
This week’s topic: Which Big Ten schedule is tougher — football or basketball?
Josh’s Take: Basketball
Whether it is football or basketball (or wrestling or volleyball), the Big Ten is considered to be an elite conference. As such, the conference schedule in both (all) of these sports is a grind. I think Gene and I’s argument — specific to football and basketball — comes down to top-heaviness versus depth. Maybe Gene feels differently, and I know he will make a killer argument, but I think depth is an underlying theme in one sport only, and that sport is basketball.
Since 2016, six schools have grabbed at least a share of the Big Ten (basketball) regular season championship. Three schools have won the conference tournament during that span, and only one swept both in the same season (Michigan State, 2019). Now compare that to football. Each division has been represented in the Big Ten Championship Game by just three different schools between 2016 and 2021... and Ohio State won it four years in a row!
I believe that the parity in Big Ten basketball is much greater than it is in football. Sure, there are many more conference games played — so that alone provides opportunity for upsets, hot/cold streaks, etc., but ask yourself this: How many teams have a realistic shot at winning the conference each year? In the two sports? In football, I feel like it typically comes to Ohio State and... the “rest”. Obviously, that did not come to fruition this year, but very few people gave TTUN a chance in 2021. Even fewer were willing to throw out a team like Penn State, Wisconsin, or Iowa during their predictions. Big Ten football is dominated by a select few, whereas basketball is dominated the many.
Quick: Who did most experts pick to win the Big Ten in basketball this year? Here’s a hint: they just lost by double digits at home, to a rival school, and complained like petulant babies during the second half. You give up? Well, it was TTUN. The Wolverines currently sit in 7th place. ESPN had Maryland finishing fifth in the conference, which has recently meant a top-5ish seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Terrapins are 13th right now! Granted, they have dealt with a lot this season, but spoiler alert: they’re not going on a late-season tear.
Realistically, I would say that there are eight teams that still have a chance to win at least a share of the Big Ten regular season championship. Rutgers, TTUN, and Indiana would have to figure out how to win a road game, but crazier things have happened. And that is another thing that makes the conference so difficult: It’s hard to win road games... like really, really hard. Only two B1G teams have a losing record at home, and those teams sit at the very bottom of the standings.
Of those top eight that I mentioned, only Wisconsin and TTUN have dropped more than two game at home. Those eight teams have combined to go 86-15 on their home court(s)! We’ve seen it with our Buckeyes, who are 10-0 at home, but 4-5 on the road. Road venues and road atmospheres are insanely challenging in this conference. Conversely, is the OSU football team intimidated by visiting SHI Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey? No offense to the wonderful, wonderful fans of the Garden State, but the answer is “no” in this particular case.
Lastly, I just think there are better coaches in the world of Big Ten basketball. Tom Izzo is a legend, Matt Painter has won over 400 games, and then you’ve got guys like Chris Holtmann, Brad Underwood, Greg Gard, Steve Pikiell, and yes, even Juwan Howard, all doing good things. Who would you have confidence in, as far as B1G football coaches go? If you’re waiting for a non-Ryan Day answer from me, you might want to pack a lunch. It’s going to be awhile.
Big Ten basketball is, or can be, the wild, wild west. I understand that only three schools have won the conference tournament since 2016 - and that is not much different than the Big Ten (football) Championship Game - but you’re looking at two different sets of circumstances. In basketball, the conference tournament is primarily for seeding. Many B1G teams eventually make the NCAA Tournament, where they are often feared (despite not cutting down the nets since 2000). In football, one, two, or three teams get any national hype at all. I think that a scenario where eight or nine teams could win the conference, is more daunting than one in which one or two teams likely will win it.
But maybe the dominance of Ohio State football is influencing the way I think about this one...
Gene’s Take: Football
Josh kind of nailed this one on the head with both his opening and closing statements. This argument comes down to parity vs. depth, and it all depends on the angle in which you are coming from and the team you root for. I think Josh made some very solid points in taking basketball, and if forced to pick one in real life I may lean with Big Ten hoops as well. However, that is not what this weekly column is for, and so I will make the case for the football schedule being the tougher of the two.
Of course, it is tough to make this argument as a fan of Ohio State football. As Josh mentioned, the Big Ten has been dominated by the Buckeyes for really the better part of the last two decades. Prior to this past season, Ohio State had won four-straight Big Ten titles. Dating back to 2014, the Buckeyes have won five of the last eight B1G titles, and have won 10 of 17 dating back to 2005. As the stats would show, it is tough to say that it is harder to win in the conference in football when one team has done it nearly 60% of the time in recent memory.
That is why for my argument, I am saying that the Big Ten schedule is harder for everyone except Ohio State. Sure, the Big Ten has no shortage of supremely talented teams on a national scale. Programs like Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, and a handful of others usually find themselves ranked in the Top 15 nationally year in and year out. However, in order to compete for a national title or even likely have a chance at making the College Football Playoff at the end of the season, they must all climb the same mountain: beating Ohio State.
It is certainly an achievable feat, as we watched the Wolverines defeat the Buckeyes this past season as have teams like Penn State, Iowa and Purdue in the past few years. You can catch Ohio State on a bad day, but it will always be an uphill battle just purely based on talent.
Looking at the 247Sports team talent composite from 2021, Ohio State ranks No. 3 in the country when it comes to pure talent. The next highest team in the conference was the team that beat them in Ann Arbor, which ranks No. 15 in the country. The rest of the Big Ten is at an even further disadvantage, with Penn State sitting at No. 16, Wisconsin at No. 21, Nebraska at No. 23, and the rest not even cracking the top 30. While we’ve seen how poor coaching can derail a more talented team in big games — see: 2021 Ohio State — the Buckeyes come into every game they play in-conference with better players on the field.
That same sentiment does not ring true in basketball. Teams like Purdue, Illinois, Michigan, and Michigan State are routinely some of the most talented in the conference, but the league’s top team in any given year is subject to change. In addition, it is much easier to pull off an upset in basketball than it is in football. One poor shooting night can force a good team into a surprising loss, whereas a lot more has to go wrong for a more talented football team to be upset on the gridiron.
Like Josh said, this idea of greater parody and more upsets could be looked at as making it a tougher schedule. However, I think for every team in the Big Ten not named Ohio State that football is tougher because of the roadblock the Buckeyes present. We’ve already seen a team like Rutgers, who is middle of the pack in the Big Ten standings, upset then-No. 1 Purdue in basketball. It would be much harder for a middle of the road football team, like a Maryland or Purdue this past season, to upset a team like Ohio State. For that reason, I think the B1G football schedule is tougher.