One of the hardest questions to answer about college athletics is who has the toughest schedule. This often then comes down to what conference a team plays in, since they will face the same eight or nine teams every year. Although Alabama (SEC) remains the number one ranked team (rightfully so) in the nation by the AP, four of the next nine spots are filled out by members of the Big Ten. With the first College Football Playoff rankings also placing the Big Ten in five of the top 12 spots, it seems like a representative from the Big Ten is all but guaranteed for the Playoff.
Note: all following rankings are from the College Football Playoff selection committee, released Nov. 1, 2016.
#3 Michigan leads the Big Ten right now at 8-0 as the only remaining undefeated, and one of only five remaining (Alabama, Clemson, Washington, and Western Michigan, ranked #1,2,5,23 respectively) in all of Division 1-A Football.
The other currently ranked teams from the Big Ten include #6 Ohio State, #8 Wisconsin, #10 Nebraska, and #12 Penn State. Previously, Michigan State had reached as high as #8 (AP), while Iowa had been #13 (AP).
Aside from Michigan, the top competitors in the Big Ten all have losses to each other, in the tune of: Penn State beat Ohio State, who beat Wisconsin, who beat Nebraska. All of these games were decided by seven points or fewer. However, Michigan also narrowly beat Wisconsin and trounced Penn State.
Wisconsin currently sits at 6-2, but have the best argument for their top-ten ranking. The two losses not only came against then-top-five ranked teams, but also were decided either in overtime, or by a late interception when down by only seven. They continue to pound the rushing game into their opponents’ throat, as is customary for the Badgers, but have revamped their defense to be of the highest caliber in the nation. Only one team (Ohio State) was able to score more than 20 points on them, although they have played four other AP top-ten teams.
Ohio State has been consistently dominant across the board for the better part of the 2000s, and Urban Meyer has continued this trend. Heading the coaching staff since 2012, he has constructed a 57-5 record at OSU, winning one Big Ten Conference and one National Championship. They had a few nail-biters for games this year, though, and even with dominant performances against Rutgers and Tulsa, it is easy to think that the Buckeyes are not quite living up to expectations.
Coach Jim Harbaugh has electrified the Big House (Michigan’s home stadium) and high school homecomings the likes of which is reminiscent of the Bo Schembechler era. Having played for the legendary coach at U of M himself, it is hardly surprising. Michigan leads the nation in most team defensive categories, allowing both the fewest yards and points per game. It is this strong performance that spearheads the Wolverines into national title talks.
One of the arguments proponents of the SEC commonly provide is the depth that is lacking in the Big Ten. Although every conference has a few pushovers, the Big Ten is continuing to have a diverse onslaught of competition every year. Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan State, Indiana, and Maryland have all played tough games against the top teams, and have even done the same during inter-conference play. Just one week ago, Northwestern played Ohio State to the final minute, narrowly falling 24-20.
By now it should be clear that there is both a deep history and strong trajectory for hard-nosed, competitive football in the Big Ten. It seems likely that Ohio State and Michigan can remain undefeated until Nov. 26, when the next installment of what is the greatest rivalry in college, if not all, athletics. The winner would then face the West Division leader, which is much more in the air. I predict Wisconsin, along with Michigan, will win the remainder of their games and meet again in the Big Ten Championship Game, held in Indianapolis.
Until then, notable games include #10 Nebraska at #6 Ohio State on Saturday, along with Maryland at #3 Michigan.