As non-SEC fans, it’s always frustrating to see the near-default of two SEC teams getting into the College Football Playoff so regularly. It would seem that, with Ohio State and Michigan playing among the best football in the country, this year might finally be the Big Ten’s to feature two teams of our own.
But no, just stop.
The Big Ten is top-heavy — as in the top-two teams are really good. From there, there is a precipitous dropoff. Illinois, which entered the first College Football Rankings at the No. 16 spot, is the third-best team in the conference (since, you know, Penn State which technically came in above the Illini at No. 15 already has two losses in the Big Ten East). Previous division winners Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin are all experiencing disappointing seasons.
We don’t want a repeat of 2006. Remember that season when No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan in a nail biter in Columbus and folks argued that the Buckeyes and Wolverines should get a rematch in the BCS Championship Game? Things didn’t work out so well. As it turns out, the Big Ten was really not that strong, because the Buckeyes got effectively thwacked by the Florida Gators on national television. Michigan got pummeled by USC in the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten went 2-5 in bowl games that season.
*shakes head to rid myself of bad memories.*
Back to 2022: Michigan’s non-conference schedule hurt them in the inaugural rankings, and the Wolverines have ground to make up to make it into the CFP — namely, beating Ohio State. Given these initial rankings, it feels even less likely that even two really good Big Ten teams would make the four-team field.
The other issue is the stacking of SEC teams. The SEC East champion — No. 1 Tennessee or No. 3 Georgia — is all but assured of a playoff bid. In the initial rankings, the committee has Alabama sitting on the doorstep as the best one-loss team (the Crimson Tide entered the Playoff picture at No. 6).
If Alabama runs the table they will likely receive a second bid for the conference. Of course, the Crimson Tide have a challenging trip to Baton Rouge on deck, and a two-loss LSU team would probably be the odd one out unless Georgia or Tennessee were to somehow lose two games apiece (reminder that they play each other this weekend on Super Saturday in the SEC).
Then there’s the consideration of, if the SEC has two teams and the Big Ten gets one, who gets the fourth Playoff spot? Clemson and TCU remain undefeated, but questions abound about Clemson’s strength of schedule and about TCU’s defense which is giving up north of 27 points per game. A one-loss Pac-12 champion (Oregon, USC or UCLA) would also have an outside shot, with Oregon holding a strong case if Georgia ends the season undefeated (Oregon’s sole loss came at the hands of the Bulldogs all the way back in week one). Then again, if USC or UCLA got the last spot, the Big Ten would sort of have two teams!
Given that, at this point, only four teams could possibly remain undefeated (since there are two head-to-head matchups of currently undefeated programs), perhaps that would be the clearest route to the field — one representative from four conferences. That arrangement would leave both SEC and Big Ten fans with hands outstretched begging for an expanded playoff.
In the Playoff rankings, the Big Ten was not looking strong compared to the rest of the Power Five. The SEC, ACC and Pac-12 all had five teams in the opening rankings. The Big Ten and Big 12 each had four.
As excited as we were about the Big Ten heading into the season, it’s yet another healthy reminder of why preseason polls are clown shoes. Along with highly touted Ohio State and Michigan programs, Michigan State and Wisconsin were both ranked at the start of the year while Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue and even Nebraska received votes (in the case of the Huskers, it was indeed just one vote). Heck, Tennessee was unranked to start the season.
We actually have to play the games and cannot base the Playoff picture on paper conjecture, but the downgrade is still painful. And sure, we can digress into an argument for why an expanded Playoff is long overdue. But that’s not happening this year. So let’s save ourselves the heartache and put the entire fate of the conference’s reputation squarely on Ohio State’s shoulders — again.