Big Ten preview: East's Big 3 are playoff contenders
Just three weeks into the season, it’s hard to argue the Big Ten isn’t the best conference in college football.
OK, there will always be an argument and three weeks is a bit of a small sample size, but as most teams begin conference play this week, the Big Ten has as good an argument as any conference in the nation with three teams ranked in the top eight and a total of five in the top 20 of the Associated Press poll. That looks more impressive in the coaches poll as four teams are in the top 10 with six ranked in the top 25.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “There’s going to be more (Big Ten teams), I think, surface in the top 25.”
It’s hard to debate that belief when you look at how the Big Ten fared in the non-conference portion of the seasons. The marquee wins were there as Ohio State crushed Oklahoma on the road, Michigan State scored 36 straight points at Notre Dame, Wisconsin beat LSU at Lambeau Field and Nebraska knocked off Oregon.
Michigan hasn’t exactly been tested, but they certainly have the hype and the attention generated by Jim Harbaugh, and they responded well when faced with an early deficit against Colorado.
Eight of the Big Ten’s 14 teams have yet to lose and while Iowa suffered a home loss at the hands of North Dakota State, there seems to be little doubt the Hawkeyes will be in the mix to win the West Division.
“We’ve always known there is great football being played in the Big Ten Conference,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s always been very competitive and it will continue to be. There are great football teams.”
As good as the conference has been overall, the greatness lies in the East Division. That’s where three teams — Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — all reside in the top eight in the country and all three have playoff expectations.
“I think our conference is very strong right now,” Meyer said. “Our division has to be one of the strongest — if not the strongest — in college football.”
Folks around the SEC West will still likely debate that, as could some of those hanging around the ACC Atlantic Division, though Louisville’s beatdown of Florida State puts a dent in that argument. But through three weeks, the debate is clear — the power is in the Midwest.
And as great as it is to win against big-name teams from outside of the Big Ten, winning conference games is even more important, especially since the Big Ten is going to a nine-game schedule this season. It’s a plan that has its share of supporters and detractors, but it’s here and it won’t be changing anytime soon.
“I've said it before, I’d rather play 10 and have five and five,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said. “I don't like the idea of one year you have five at home and then you've got five on the road, and we just so happened to get five on the road because it's not easy winning on the road. I think that’ll play a part in what happens each year because of that.”
And with so much on the line, especially for those teams dreaming of the playoffs, now is whenthings get interesting.
“The facts are, the championship’s on the line every week, so you make every week a big game,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Right now there are three, four teams in the top 10 ranked nationally. The implications are, it’s a game, but it’s also if you get into any tiebreaker situation the first tiebreaker is head-to-head matchup and conference record is next. So they’re really worth (one and a half games) and that’s why it’s a championship game every game.”
As good as the Big Ten has been so far, there’s no guarantee things stay this way, but it does mean we could be in store for a heck of a fall around the Midwest.
Wisconsin enters this week’s game at Michigan State unbeaten and ranked No. 11, but staying in that lofty of a perch will be tough with consecutive games against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska. And the Cornhuskers will have their share of showdowns out West with Iowa and Wisconsin, not to mention a trip to Ohio State.
But the real excitement will lie in the East Division and the first few weeks of conference play will simply allow the fan bases around the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Spartans to get riled up for what should be a wild finish.
Michigan goes to Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State over the final five weeks while Michigan State hosts both the Wolverines and Buckeyes — the Ohio State game coming on the next-to-last weekend of the season. And, of course, Michigan closes at Ohio State while Michigan State goes to Penn State.
There’s a distinct possibility that all three finish with the same record and the tiebreaker goes to the team rated highest in the College Football Playoff rankings. But let’s not even think about that and instead what could shape up to be one wild fall.
“We get ready to play them one at a time,” Dantonio said. “Our main focus is on No. 11 Wisconsin because they present a great challenge. But there should be a lot of exciting football games this year.”
Games to watch
Saturday: Wisconsin at Michigan State — It’s a chance for both teams to come off big non-conference wins and prove they’ll be a force in the Big Ten.
Oct. 1: Wisconsin at Michigan — Are the Badgers in the early stages of a downfall or will they be proving the naysayers wrong?
Oct. 15: Ohio State at Wisconsin — Same old story, but odds are Wisconsin could be in the midst of a free fall at this point as the Buckeyes prep for the stretch run.
Oct. 29: Michigan at Michigan State — Little needs to be said about this one. The hype will likely be bigger than any meeting in recent memory.
Oct. 29: Nebraska at Wisconsin — The Badgers have been through the gauntlet but could stand in the way of the Huskers and the West Division title.
Nov. 5: Nebraska at Ohio State — If the Huskers truly are players in the Big Ten, this could be the game that cements them in the national picture.
Nov. 12: Michigan at Iowa — The Hawkeyes will likely flying under the radar at this point, but a win at Kinnick Stadium is never easy.
Nov. 19: Ohio State at Michigan State — They’ve won on each other’s home field each of the last two seasons with the winner capturing the Big Ten. It could be the same deal once again.
Nov. 25: Nebraska at Iowa — It could decide the winner of the West Division.
Nov. 26: Michigan at Ohio State — It could decide the winner of the East Division
No, the schedule has not been daunting, but getting off to a 3-0 start at least puts first-year coach DJ Durkin in place to make a bowl game if he can just go 3-6 in conference play. That’s far from a guarantee, but it’s a good first step for the former Michigan defensive coordinator.
Not many people expected the Badgers to win the opener against LSU at Lambeau Field, but they did just that. We’ll see if they can sustain that, though the escape against Georgia State wasn’t a real confidence-builder as the Badgers have a brutal Big Ten slate.
The Wildcats won 10 games last season and many believed they’d be in the position to do so once again and make a run in the West Division. That could still happen, but losing the first two games of the season to Western Michigan and Illinois State was ugly.
The Hawkeyes could very well be back in Indianapolis to represent the West Division in the conference title game, but that wasn’t the only thing they were shooting for. Iowa expected to have a shot at the playoffs, something that likely went out the window with the home loss to North Dakota State.
Coaches on the hot seat
James Franklin, Penn State
That was probably the case before the season began, but a loss to rival Pittsburgh didn’t help. He’ll need to beat one of the East Division powers to feel safe.
Darrell Hazell, Purdue
It’s not exactly the easiest job in the Big Ten, but there has been little progress in the previous three seasons and there are few signs a turnaround is in store.