Coming into the 2017 college football season, some experts pegged the Big Ten Conference as the best conference in the NCAA. With three teams in the preseason top 10 and Michigan checking in at No. 11, that analysis did not seem far off base. Approaching the second installment of the fourth annual College Football Playoff rankings, the conference’s only likely shot at the playoff lies in the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers.
Wisconsin is seen by many as the most unqualified team in contention for a spot in the four-team playoff, but let’s not rule out the Big Ten’s shot at playoff representation just yet.
It is true Wisconsin has yet to get a win over a top-25 team; scheduled three relatively easy nonconference games against Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU and has not been particularly dominant in its conference games.
That said, the Badgers have yet to lose a game. Should they win out, their resume will, like it or not, look a lot like one deserving a shot at the four-team playoff.
If they run the table, they would boast wins over the 7-2 Michigan, Iowa (who throttled Ohio State and effectively ended the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes), and then a win over the Big Ten East champions (either two-loss Penn State or two-loss Ohio State).
On paper, a win over a two-loss Big Ten East winner doesn’t seem like the most impressive thing in the world, but what fans need to remember is that this is a human committee, not a computer program of the Bowl Championship Series like in years past, and the committee could quite possibly view a hypothetical win over OSU or Penn State as more impressive than some of the Badgers’ counterparts’ victories.
A look at the competition vying for one of those playoff spots reveals one-loss Clemson, one-loss Notre Dame and one-loss Oklahoma. An undefeated Wisconsin could be good enough to crack the top-4.
This is all speculation, though, and the committee could view Ohio State and Penn State as two of the top-4 teams even with their respective losses. The voters are human and could see how the Big Ten has struggled within the conference itself and decide to slide Penn State or Ohio State in.
But let’s say either Wisconsin doesn’t take care of business, or even if it does and the committee doesn’t see it as enough. What does that mean for the Big Ten Conference and its identity as a major player in college football?
Truthfully, it could be devastating. One quick look and it seems like the Big Ten could have a solid case for best top-to-bottom conference in the NCAA. In the SEC, there is Alabama, Georgia and then everyone else. In the ACC, it’s a similar situation: Clemson, Miami and everyone else. In the Big Ten, they boast Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan and a host of other teams that can hold their own with those four.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Since the 2014 Ohio State victory in the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Big Ten has been anemic. In 2015, Michigan State made the playoff but was slaughtered by the Alabama Crimson Tide 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl. Ohio State, in its second trip to the playoff in 2016, was leveled by Clemson 31-0.
Those demoralizing defeats have left the Big Ten in a state of existential crisis. Its best teams aren’t up to the tier of the top teams in the nation, and if this year, for the second year in a row, aren’t even good enough to make it into the playoff, then what does that make everyone else? It certainly doesn’t make them anything particularly good.
It will be interesting to see if the Badgers can fight their way into the playoff, and if not, it could lead to a lack of credibility for the conference as a whole for years to come.