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Michigan, Iowa and Northwestern are boosting the Big Ten's Playoff resume

Playing standout teams impresses the committee more than being in a top conference does, and the Big Ten has more standouts than expected.

The biggest knock on the idea of the Big Ten getting one or two teams in the College Football Playoff is that its teams, to put it delicately, don't play anybody.

Ohio State and Michigan State are ranked among the best teams in the country, and the Big Ten might be in the best position to put two teams in the Playoff, thanks to OSU and MSU's schedules. However, we don't really know how good the Buckeyes and Spartans are, as they've struggled with weaker competition and don't get the chance to prove themselves against top teams, like, say, Alabama does.

Heading into the season, the only other Big Ten team to be ranked was Wisconsin, and because the Badgers are in the West, they don't play either OSU or MSU. That meant the only anticipated top-quality wins the Buckeyes and Spartans had on the conference table were against each other.

This figured to be an issue in the years to come, as well. Michigan was supposed to get better under Jim Harbaugh, but rebuilds take time. Ditto for Penn State and Nebraska. And elsewhere in the West, no team other than Wisconsin had showed it could compete nationally.

But thanks to a surprising resurgence from the Big Ten's middle tier, whoever wins the conference should have a chance to get some more quality wins. The Big Ten's up to five teams in the AP Top 25, with surprise appearances from No. 18 Michigan (?), No. 22 Iowa (??) and No. 13 Northwestern (???). Wisconsin's slipped, but otherwise, the conference has more good teams than expected.

And there's reason to believe this is no fluke.

In a conference that gets trashed for rarely winning big non-conference games, this group has a lot of impressive wins. Iowa and Michigan have wins over S&P+ top-50 teams, while Northwestern has two over teams around the top 10.

Team Opponent Opponent S&P+ ranking Score
Northwestern Stanford 10 16-6
Northwestern Duke 11 19-10
Michigan BYU 33 31-0
Iowa Pitt 45 27-24

All three teams have improved in different, but perhaps sustainable, ways. Northwestern's defense has held three top 25 S&P+ teams to a combined 16 points. Iowa seems to have learned how to not shoot itself in the foot, and the Hawkeyes are winning the kinds of games they haven't in a long time. Michigan has given up only 14 total points in its last four games, and Jim Harbaugh has masterfully gotten a game manager quarterback into his comfort zone.

The Big Ten still isn't an elite conference, but that doesn't matter.

A consensus of ratings places it at fourth in the nation. But since the Playoff committee looks less at overall conference strength and more at the number of committee-ranked teams you and your opponents have played, these improvements could be enough to make Big Ten schedules look solid. If Iowa or Northwestern makes the Big Ten title game, that should count as a top win, no matter who wins it.

Iowa and Northwestern don't look like they'll become national powers every year, but if the beginning of this season marks a trend, that's good news for the Big Ten. It's got two more teams that could be national contenders some years, and quality wins in other years.

As for Michigan, improvement under Harbaugh was almost guaranteed, but early results suggest it might be here sooner than expected.


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