A Wisconsin win over the J.T. Barrett-less Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday probably assures one thing — the Big Ten will likely be the only Power 5 conference not represented in the newly expanded four-team college football playoff.
The consolation? The much-maligned Big Ten could conceivably land three teams in the New Year’s 6 bowl games, probably more than any other conference. The so-called New Year’s 6 are the top tier post-season games — and most profitable — as selected by the playoff committee. Two of the six — the Rose and the Sugar — will be the sites for the national championship semifinals. The other four — the Cotton, Orange, Fiesta and Peach — will attract the next eight teams.
The committee must factor in two tie-ins. It most select the best non-Power 5 team for one of the games, and an ACC team, likely the runner-up, for the Orange Bowl. So, in essence, six slots are open for the remaining four games among Power 5 teams and the Big Ten’s Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin could nab three of those spots.
That’s a remarkable possibility considering the Big Ten did not improve its tarnished reputation this fall. Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin all played one Power 5 non-conference game — and all three lost. In fact, the Buckeyes’ 35-21 setback at home to a 6-6 Virginia Tech squad could keep them out of the playoffs even with a win over Wisconsin.
In all, Big Ten teams went 6-11 in matchups with Power 5 opponents, plus Notre Dame. The league’s best win was by an underwhelming Indiana team, which beat 10-2 Missouri on the road. Michigan State and Minnesota succumbed in the biggest non-league games. The Spartans fell apart in the second half in a 46-27 loss at Oregon, while the Gophers were beaten on the road by Texas Christian 30-7.
If you look at the Big Ten, only five of the 14 teams posted records better than .500 against Power 5 foes — Ohio State (8-1), Michigan State and Wisconsin (7-2), Nebraska (6-3) and Minnesota (5-4). Of that group, Nebraska had the only non-league Power 5 win, a 41-31 win over 6-6 Miami (Fla.) — and the Hurricanes were 3-6 against Power 5 teams.
Records can be deceiving since no Power 5 conference plays a complete round-robin schedule. Most leagues play eight conference games. In the Big Ten, for instance, Wisconsin did not play Ohio State or Michigan State. Ohio State also missed Nebraska while Michigan State did not face Minnesota.
Penn State was the only team not to play a non-conference game against a Power 5 opponent. The Nittany Lions finished the regular season 6-6, but 2-6 in the Power 5 pool.
As for Michigan, the Wolverines were 3-7 versus Power 5 teams — and those seven losses were by an average 16 points. That’s why Michigan is looking for a new coach.
The SEC is clearly the benchmark in college football. Yet, the league could have just two teams in the New Year’s 6 — Alabama and Mississippi State. Mississippi State was the nation’s hot story until losing two of its last three games. In retrospect, maybe the Bulldogs were overvalued. They are 10-2, but 6-2 against Power 5 teams. Their top wins are against LSU and Auburn, both 5-4 versus the Power 5.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is in an awkward spot right now. On one hand, he would love to have his league represented in the four-team playoff, and that would necessitate an Ohio State win Saturday. But even that might not be enough to put Ohio State in, barring upsets. A Wisconsin win, though, would seem to ensure the Big Ten three teams in the New Year’s 6, so that could be the league’s best-case scenario.
And it could give the Big Ten a chance to redeem itself big time on the national stage.