The Big Ten faces a perception problem of its own making. The conference gazes into a funhouse mirror, sure of its true identity but reflecting a distorted image others do not take seriously.
For the third consecutive season, the Big Ten champion has been left out of the College Football Playoff, nose to the glass as schools from other Power Five conferences celebrate on the inside.
Southeastern Conference champion Alabama — in. Atlantic Coast champion Clemson — in. Big 12 champion Oklahoma — in. Nonconference, er, champion Notre Dame — in.
Ohio State, 12-1 and winner of the Big Ten for a second straight year — out. Adding insult to injury? Two-loss Georgia finished fifth in the CFP selection committee rankings, one spot ahead of the Buckeyes.
It is not a good look, almost as ugly as when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany brought Rutgers on board. But all is not lost. There are ways to adjust the looking glass to present a more pleasing picture:
• Scrap the ninth conference game. Playing nine puts the Big Ten at a disadvantage, considering SEC teams play eight conference games. Ohio State lost divisional crossover games to Iowa and Purdue the past two seasons. Better to play eight conference games and add a fourth nonconference game. And might as well make it against a school from the Football Championship Subdivision. It hasn’t hurt the SEC.
Nine conference games also means the Big Ten cannibalizes itself in the rankings, with half the teams collecting a loss from head-to-head play. I applaud the league for not wanting to dumb itself down, but that philosophy has not helped it gain a playoff spot.
The Big Ten went to nine games largely to improve its strength of schedule, which is supposed to be a determinant in playoff selection. But the committee does not live by its own protocol. For example, it devalued SOS over the “eye test” when ranking Georgia ahead of Ohio State.
The Bulldogs’ two best wins were against Florida and Kentucky, which finished No. 10 and No. 14 in the CFP rankings. Ohio State’s best wins were against No. 7 Michigan and No. 12 Penn State. Georgia, like all SEC teams, also scheduled an FCS team (Austin Peay). To its credit, but also its disadvantage, the Big Ten has put the kibosh on scheduling FCS opponents.
• Eliminate divisions. By defeating four-loss Northwestern in the championship game, Ohio State added little weight to its playoff resume. Urban Meyer likes to say the Big Ten East is the toughest division in college football, but the weak West diminishes the value of the championship game. The Big 12 has the smarter system of pitting teams with the two best conference records against each other in the championship game.
• Stronger lobbying. As a committee member, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith had to recuse himself during discussions involving the Buckeyes, weakening the Big Ten’s position. The conference would be better off pushing for committee representation from individuals not directly associated with its playoff-caliber schools. Former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett comes to mind. Or former Minnesota coach (and Ohio State player) Glen Mason.
• No, no to Notre Dame. Stop scheduling the Fighting Irish. In the words of Michael Corleone, it’s not personal, it’s strictly business. It’s not to punish ND, but to benefit the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern both lost to Notre Dame, which made the playoff despite competing as an independent, thus avoiding having to win a conference championship game. Those losses hurt the Big Ten’s reputation more than beating ND would have helped it, based on the lip service the committee gives to strength of schedule.
It comes down to how much the Big Ten values the playoff. Does it shrug and say, “Oh, well, the Rose Bowl is good enough,” or will the conference look in the mirror and make changes?
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