Jeremy Langford and the Spartans ran over Michigan on the way to the Big Ten championship. But would they have been selected for a four-team playoff? (Al Goldis / Associated Press)
They live in a gated community now. But money doesn’t always buy acceptance.
And as college football enters a new era – out with the parochial, in with a playoff – there are plenty of questions yet to be answered.
Chief among them for Michigan, Michigan State and the rest of the bigger Big Ten: Where do we fit in?
Asked to survey the changing landscape earlier this month, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer — Buckeye-born, but SEC-baptized — described the Big Ten as a “rugged conference.” But to some outside the league’s ever-expanding footprint, which now stretches from Nebraska to New York, that’s simply a polite way of saying it’s the runt of the litter.
The Big Ten, thanks in part to its teeming, travel-happy fan bases, earned more BCS bowl bids (28) than any other conference in the 16-year history of the system. But of the “Power Five” — that’s what they’re calling themselves now, by the way — only the ACC (5-13) owned a worse record (13-15) in those games. And while the SEC made 11 title-game berths, the Big Ten managed just three. What’s more, under a four-team playoff format like the one that’ll debut this winter, the Big Ten likely would’ve been shut out every year from 2008 to 2012, based on the final BCS rankings.
Maybe even last year, too, as Michigan State, coming off its Big Ten championship upset of Ohio State, would’ve been vying for that fourth and final playoff spot with Stanford, a team that boasted a stronger overall strength of schedule.
So there’s a chance they’ll host the first mixer for the members at the country club and decide not to invite the Big Ten, a league that has won as many national titles in field hockey (two) as it has in football since man first landed on the moon.
Still, as Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio noted this summer, “When you’re able to go to the moon, you want to go farther. I think that’s human nature.”
And fresh off a 13-1 season that culminated in a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl win over that aforementioned Stanford team, Dantonio admits he’s encouraging his players to “dream big.” Winning the conference remains the primary goal, of course. But winning the school’s first national title since 1966 is officially on the table, too.
“Yeah, we talked about it — once,” Dantonio said.
Once you got past its many faults, the old system did do one thing well: It brought everyone together. At least in the way a presidential campaign does every four years. Take last fall, when Auburn’s stunning, last-second win over Alabama in the Iron Bowl was cheered by fans in Florida and Ohio and Michigan and California, all of them busy counting their delegates in college football’s archaic electoral college.
“I grew up and played in an era where the Big Ten and Pac-10 were (almost) eliminated from competing for a national championship,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said, noting the traditional Rose Bowl ties and the nearly 30-year Big Ten drought between titles. “So I was a fan of the BCS just because it put everybody into one pool. It made Big Ten fans pay attention to the SEC, and the SEC pay attention to the Pac-10. Everything was intertwined. And I think that, more than anything, allowed there to be a national buzz about the game and the story lines. So I was a fan of that part of it.”
The other parts, not so much.
The BCS was designed to eliminate some of the political nonsense that preceded it. (Michigan fans, for example, still lament that shared 1997 national title with Nebraska.) But it only created new issues, from ballots dipped in bias and computer rankings stripped of logic. And if you think that’ll change now, think again.
For starters, there’s an uneven playing field — and not just because the new playoff format limits access for teams outside the Power Five conferences. The glass ceiling that Boise State, et al, faced before has been reinforced with steel.
Meanwhile, the Power Five already are arguing about their own differences. Two of the conferences (Pac-12, Big 12) play nine conference games, while the others play eight. (The Big Ten will add a ninth in 2016.) All but the Big 12 play an additional league championship game.
And who’s going to compare all those apples and oranges? The new playoff selection committee is a gang of 13 chaired by an SEC athletic director, Arkansas’ Jeff Long, who cut his teeth in Ann Arbor and actually played high school football with Michigan coach Brady Hoke. The rest of the committee is an eclectic mix that includes a retired three-star Air Force general (Mike Gould) and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. They’ll put out a weekly Top 25 poll beginning in late October, pick the final four in early December, then presumably go into the witness protection program.
“No strings attached,” is the stated promise. And they’ll recuse themselves from the nitty-gritty debates as necessary, given their various rooting interests. But no one seems all that sure how they’ll weigh the criteria they’ve said they’ll use — conference championships, schedule strength, analytics, injuries, you name it. As Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, “I don’t pretend to be an expert on this thing.”
This thing will take some getting used to, obviously. But better hurry, because the road to the football’s final four begins in earnest, with added emphasis on nonconference games. Wisconsin-LSU, Clemson-Georgia and Florida State-Oklahoma State are on tap this weekend.
Next week’s highlight — Michigan State at Oregon — is what Dantonio calls “a bona fide big game” and ESPN’s Chris Fowler calls “the best, most interesting matchup of September.” Win, and the Spartans become a front-runner of sorts. Lose, and they’ll have their work cut out for them, particularly with Ohio State’s credentials getting checked by the season-ending injury to quarterback Braxton Miller.
Fowler, whose network forked over $7.2 billion for 12 years of playoff TV rights, stopped short of calling it a must-win game for the Spartans’ national title hopes. But he did admit, “Your margin for error in the Big Ten for getting in the bracket isn’t as much as it is in some leagues. So you have to be impressive when you get the chance. You know that you’re going to be scrutinized.”
Welcome to the neighborhood, I guess.
Bowl Championship Series bids may have been plentiful for the Big Ten, but member schools would’ve come up empty in a four-team playoff format in recent years. A look at the top conference finisher in the final BCS rankings since 2008:
2008: Penn State (eighth in BCS)
2009: Ohio State (eighth)
2010: Wisconsin (fifth)
2011: Wisconsin (10th)
2012: Nebraska (16th)
2013: Michigan State (fourth)