Having grown up in the Midwest, I have always heard stories regarding the mystique of the Big Ten Conference. Tracing its roots back to 1896, the Big Ten is the oldest collegiate athletic conference in Division 1, and encompasses an area from New Jersey to Nebraska. Sporting a proud football tradition, member schools of the Big Ten have combined to claim 48 National Championships, with Michigan leading the way at 11.
With the 2017 season well under way, there are currently four teams ranked in the AP Top 25, with all four schools finding themselves in the Top 10. The defending conference champion Penn State Nittany Lions, led by budding superstars Trace McSorely and Saquon Barkley, is the highest ranked Big Ten team, presently sitting at #4. Additional Big Ten teams in the AP Top 10 include the Michigan Wolverines at #8, the Wisconsin Badgers at #9, and the Ohio State Buckeyes at #10. Of these four schools, only Ohio State has lost a game, having previously fallen to Oklahoma 31-16.
Along with the highly regarded top teams in the conference, several Big Ten teams have already notched several notable victories. The Maryland Terrapins opened the season by dominating a promising #23 Texas Longhorns team deep in the heart of Texas. Previously mentioned Michigan came from behind against the #17 Florida Gators to win their opener on a neutral field. Wisconsin also holds an impressive victory, having defeated BYU on the road by the dominant score of 40-6.
Some have claimed over the past two seasons that the Big Ten is home to the best football in the NCAA right now. Featuring four AP Top 10 teams for several weeks out of the last two seasons definitely lends some credibility to the claim. Overall, the teams of the Big Ten combine for an overall record of 30-9, with seven schools currently holding undefeated records. All of those victories have come against opponents from outside the Big Ten except for one Ohio State win over Indiana.
While my love for the Big Ten runs deep, I have to be the bearer of bad news in this instance. The Big Ten is NOT the best conference in College Football. I cannot say in good conscience that the Big Ten is a better conference than the ACC right now.
For starters, when I look at the Big Ten, I see four great football teams that are all capable of competing for a national championship. However, after Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, I do not see another national contender in the conference. Granted, Maryland has a quality win over Texas, and Iowa has looked sharp as well, but I have my concerns that they will be able to hold up against the titans of the Big Ten. With the predictably mediocre Indiana and Rutgers holding down the East Division, and the highly disappointing Nebraska having already lost twice while allowing 99 points in three games, the Big Ten seems too top heavy to be considered the top dog in the land.
I will give you that Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan State, Maryland, and even Purdue have all looked impressive at times. Minnesota and Michigan State have both allowed just 24 points in their so far undefeated runs, while Purdue and Maryland have both scored over 100 offensive points in their games. My problem with these results is that, among all of the opponents of these four schools, only Maryland has defeated a ranked team, and while Texas was ranked at the time, the Longhorns have already lost twice in three games. Iowa will have their chance to prove themselves this week when they host Penn State, while everyone else will have their chance in the coming weeks as Big Ten play ramps up. Only after Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan State, and Maryland face the giants of the Big Ten will I begin to take their schedule seriously.
The statistic with which I take the most umbrage in the Big Ten is the offensive scoring as a whole. Five of the 14 member schools have scored 100 points on the season, which is tied for last among Power 5 Conferences with the SEC. For example, the ACC has eight schools that have scored 100 points, and two of their schools have only played one game due to Hurricane Irma. For the Big Ten to be considered the best of the best, the offensive output needs to be elite, which has not been the case. Despite having a Top 10 ranking, Michigan has struggled mightily on offense, having only mustering five offensive touchdowns in three games, relying heavily on their sophomore Kicker Quinn Nordin to score until now. The offenses in the Big Ten need to step up their game if the conference is to return to the glory days of years past when the Big Ten really was home to the best football in America.
Perhaps my biggest gripe against the argument that the Big Ten is the best conference in college football is their bowl record from a year ago. As a conference, the Big Ten went 3-7 in their bowl games, with Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Minnesota picking up victories. Such a result is not a surprise to me, seeing as only three Big Ten teams have won more bowl games than they have lost. Surprisingly, those three schools are Purdue, Penn State, who did not join the Big Ten until 1991, and Rutgers, who did not join until 2014. National powerhouses such as Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Iowa all have more bowl losses than wins. In total, Big Ten teams hold an all-time bowl record of 183-202-5. As a result, I go into every bowl season with low expectations for the conference. Big Ten teams have given me no reason to think otherwise when the bowl games kick off.
I am not here to say that the Big Ten is overrated and is no good at all. We have seen this season that there is a lot of talent within the conference, and there have been some impressive plays even after just three games. After all, you do not just land a team in the AP Top 5, Penn State in this case, without having a group of teams at the top that can compete with the blue bloods of college football.
All I am saying is that we need to temper expectations for the Big Ten as a whole as of right now. The conference is definitely top heavy from a talent standpoint, which actually hurts the bottom teams more than it helps the top. The Indiana’s and Rutgers’ of the Big Ten might be capable of winning several games if given the chance, but when both schools are forced to play Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State, it presents an impossible task for competing for a conference championship. In addition, teams such as Minnesota, Maryland, and Michigan State will not finish the season undefeated, while Purdue, Northwestern, and Illinois will all certainly lose again before the season is over.
The likelihood that the Big Ten Champion will find themselves in the College Football Playoff is high. Unfortunately, for a conference of 14 schools, ten of the schools have been effectively eliminated from contention even before conference play has begun in earnest. Essentially, if you are not Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, or Wisconsin in 2017, do not waste your time on the football season. Prepare for the other sports, where you will actually have a chance. It is just a shame that the conference will not be more competitive, because when the Big Ten is really on top of the world, anyone can win. That is simply not the case for 2017.