Big Ten has little going for it as playoff approaches
If you’re known for the company you keep, the Ohio State football team needs to find new friends. The current ones are doing the Buckeyes no favors.
Take Purdue, for example. It’s one thing for the Boilermakers to beat up on OSU by 29 points, a 49-20 outcome that attracted negative attention. But then Purdue goes and loses to unranked Michigan State, followed by a win against Iowa, 16th in the College Football Playoff rankings at the time, followed by a lopsided 41-10 loss at unranked Minnesota.
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The least the Boilermakers could have done to help their Big Ten brother from Columbus was keep winning. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that. Instead, Purdue hit Ohio State with a shovel, then turned around and got whacked by a hammer. For the Buckeyes, it’s bad optics both ways.
“We’re comparing each team’s resume with other teams, so that’s one piece of it,” College Football Playoff selection committee chairman Rob Mullens said on Tuesday, explaining how Purdue losing to Minnesota by 31 might reflect on Ohio State.
Purdue’s pratfalls also helped Northwestern clinch a spot in the Big Ten championship game with two weeks to spare. The Wildcats will meet Ohio State or Michigan.
If the Buckeyes win out against Maryland and Michigan, they will play a Northwestern team that went 0-3 out of conference, including a loss to Akron, and could be 6-6 when the teams meet Dec. 2 in Indianapolis. Good luck selling that as a statement game.
The Wildcats probably won’t lose their next two games, against Minnesota and Illinois, but “probably” means little this season, based on how Big Ten teams have bounced — and been bounced — around.
Consider the Golden Gophers, who lost at winless Nebraska on Oct. 20, defeated 4-4 Indiana the next week, lost 55-31 to Illinois after that and pummeled Purdue on Saturday. That has been the modus operandi for the Big Ten’s middle-tier teams.
Michigan, at 7-0 in conference play, has remained above the fray. Rutgers, 0-7, is beneath it. Otherwise, it has been one topsy-turvy season.
How to explain? Parity or putridity?
Being company men, Big Ten coaches see the former.
“There are good teams top to bottom in this league,” said Nebraska coach Scott Frost, whose Cornhuskers once were at the bottom but are coming up for air. “We’re good enough where we can beat just about anybody, but not good enough to beat anybody if we don’t play well.”
Inconsistency has been the name of the game for Nebraska and most others, although Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio sees it differently.
“I’d say the conference is consistently tough rather than inconsistent,” Dantonio said. “There have been very tight games that hang on inches. Maybe it’s how they’re played or how they’re officiated; just so many different denominators.”
Maybe, but the playoff committee relies more on data than dumb luck. And the analytics do not skew favorably the Big Ten’s way.
Comparing the Big Ten with the Southeastern Conference, the average strength of schedule ranking among SEC teams is 19.3, but only 33.5 for the Big Ten, according to analytics guru Jeff Sagarin. The difference is slightly misleading, because most SEC teams still have at least one nonconference game remaining, most of them cupcakes. Still, for the Big Ten, it’s not a good look.
The Big Ten is 28-14 (.667) out of conference, including 7-8 against Power Five opponents and major independents. The SEC is 38-5 (.884) and 6-3. In the only head-to-head matchup between SEC and Big Ten teams, Missouri beat Purdue 40-37.
The Buckeyes could use fewer friends like that. Or just don’t lose to them.