Big Ten's bad week could impact playoff hopes
What the Big Ten needs is a marketing maestro who can take what happened Saturday — the most nonconference losses (seven) against unranked opponents since The Associated Press rankings debuted in 1936 — and turn the negative into a positive.
The conference needs someone like Casey Stengel, who said of his hapless 1962 New York Mets: “Without losers, where would the winners be?”
Don Draper would approve. But do you buy it? Maybe if two or three Big Ten teams lost out of conference. But the carnage goes deeper than just the usual suspects Rutgers and Illinois (which lost to Kansas and South Florida, respectively). Also melting into goo were Northwestern, whose 21-3 halftime lead turned into a 39-34 loss to Akron, and Nebraska, which remained winless after losing to Troy. Temple slammed Maryland, and Purdue lost at home to Missouri.
Then there was the whopper of No. 6 Wisconsin losing at home to BYU, an ugly College Football Playoff dent for the Badgers. Wisky can rebound but probably needs to run the regular-season table and win the Big Ten championship game to make the playoffs, a la Ohio State in 2014.
Does a downtrodden Big Ten downgrade the value of the top contenders? In public perception, yes. Recall how one-loss Alabama took heat for making the 2017 playoff ahead of two-loss Ohio State. Buckeyes fans complained that the Crimson Tide played an easier schedule, lost its regular-season finale and that the SEC was not up to snuff. But Bama proved its critics wrong by winning the national championship.
Clearly, the committee is less concerned about conference strength — although it does seem to make up the rules as it goes — than number of losses. Lose one game, you’re OK. Lose two and you’re out. No two-loss team has earned a playoff invite.
From that standpoint, a below-average Big Ten means the best conference teams should stub their toe less often.
Certainly, a one-loss Big Ten division champion wants to play an opponent as highly ranked as possible in the conference championship game, which is why Wisconsin losing does not help the East. How much it hurts remains to be seen.
Iowa and Minnesota are both 3-0, but does anyone see either team going undefeated in conference play? The Hawkeyes play host to Wisconsin on Saturday and travels to Penn State on Oct. 27. The Golden Gophers still have road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin.
The West could end up a pedestrian mess. The East is faring better, but before long Penn State or Ohio State no longer will be undefeated. The loser of their game Sept. 29 in Happy Valley has its hands full trying to get back into the playoff race. It can be done, but a stout strength of conference schedule helps. Do you trust the committee to pull an Alabama for a second consecutive season?
The strange thing is that the Big Ten entered the season trending up. The conference was 7-1 in bowl games last year — Michigan took the lone loss — and was riding decent mojo with five teams ranked in the AP top 15.
Did it get wiped away in one week?
“It depends which week you want to look at,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “The conference had a tough week, and we were part of it. But we go 7-1 in our bowl games and it was a great year.”
That has a ring of Stengelese to it. Spin it however you want, but it will not be a great Big Ten season if no teams make the playoff.