COLUMN: Big Ten football teams underrated nationally

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke (14) throws during the second half of the Spartans’ 27-24 win over Penn State on Nov. 4. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke (14) throws during the second half of the Spartans’ 27-24 win over Penn State on Nov. 4. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

For most fans, the focus of his week’s Big Ten football schedule is on how the East Division will shake out after division leaders Michigan State and Ohio State play each other, and Michigan and Penn State try to stay in the hunt against woeful Maryland and Rutgers, respectively.

Meanwhile, over in the West Division, undefeated Wisconsin has all but engraved its name on the fictional trophy (please tell me they don’t have an actual trophy for winning a division…) and booked its trip to the conference championship game, with Badger fans wringing their hands at the thought that their team could very well end up as undefeated Big Ten champion, but get snubbed for the College Football Playoff.

The knock on Wisconsin has been their relatively weak strength of schedule, most of which is not its fault. It is in the Big Ten West, after all. The Big Ten, not the school, determined that they don’t get to play Michigan State, Penn State or Ohio State in its crossover games with the East.

Meanwhile, the top teams in the East are beating up on each other. It’s not fair, the imbalance of the league.

Or at least, that’s the perception, at least for teams not named Penn State.

By the end of the season, if Wisconsin remains unbeaten, they will have defeated Michigan, Iowa and whomever comes out on top of the East in the Big Ten Championship game, which have to be seen as quality wins.

But running the table in the Big Ten West should not be underestimated. In reality, the West has shown itself to have a bit more quality that their records might suggest.

Each of the current division leaders, Michigan State and Ohio State, have one conference loss, but both are to Big Ten West teams. MSU fell in triple overtime at Northwestern two weeks ago and Ohio State was blown out last week at Iowa.

Iowa’s record includes a huge away win at state rival Iowa State, which is looking better and better as the year goes on, and a 2-point loss to Penn State, ranked fourth in the country at the time.

Northwestern started off the Big Ten season with losses at Wisconsin and at home to then-fourth-ranked Penn State, but the Wildcats have won four straight since then, including the OT win over MSU.

There are six Big Ten teams in the current College Football Playoff rankings, three of them in the West, Wisconsin (#8), Iowa (#20) and Northwestern (#25). In addition, Michigan, at 7-2, is ranked in both wire-service polls. Even a hardened Spartan fan like myself has to wonder how they don’t appear in the CFP Top 25.

The West goes three deep with quality football teams, then, ones that can not be overlooked by anyone, while the East has four. That doesn’t sound like a huge gap to me.

And that brings up the College Football Playoff, which may very well not include an undefeated Big Ten champion, if current projections are any indication.

Of course, that possibility would be eliminated with a rational playoff system, which would include eight teams, the champions of the Power Five conferences and three wild card teams, but that makes too much sense for the NCAA to adopt any time soon.

While teams should be encouraged to play difficult games in their non-conference schedules, they should also not be punished for playing in a deep league, which the Big Ten certainly is. And while Wisconsin won’t face MSU, OSU or Penn State (until the Big Ten title game), they will play Michigan, and their division schedule is not a total cakewalk.

A league that goes seven quality teams deep should not be seen as “down” or “weaker than usual.” It should be seen as the best league in the country. And winning its championship, especially but not exclusively doing so without losing a game, should not be questioned as a ticket to play for a national title.

avatar

Posted by Scott Yoshonis

Scott is the sports editor of the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach him at (231) 398-3112 or syoshonis@pioneergroup.com.

Leave a Reply