If we measure a conference solely by its elite, the Big Ten is strong. Ohio State won the national title in 2014 the hard way, beating college football's current dynasty (Alabama) and the richest of the nouveau riche (Oregon), and Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl the year after winning the Rose Bowl.
And it's only rational that other Big Ten fans would take some reflected glory, having lived through seven years of SEC fans equating national titles with being the best league in the sport.
But if we dig below the surface, the Big Ten has little else to be proud of. The conference likes to sell its history, hence the comically inept Leaders and Legends designations when it first split into divisions. It's the only league with four of the 10 winningest programs in college football history: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Nebraska.
The Buckeyes picked up right where they left off in Week 1, piling up an absurd 572 yards on 10.2 yards per play in Blacksburg against a Bud Foster defense. While Ohio State was trampling Virginia Tech, the other three programs were busy going 0-3.
Michigan and Nebraska have the excuse of first-year head coaches. If recent history is a guide, it's unreasonable to expect a new coach is going to have a great record in year one, even among coaches who eventually found success.
|Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
|Jim Tressel, Ohio State
|Pete Carroll, USC
|Nick Saban, LSU
|Urban Meyer, Florida
|Nick Saban, Alabama
|Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Meyer was great from the start in Columbus, although he was taking over a healthy program that fired its coach for rules violations, rather than lack of performances. Some coaches whom we might consider elite only had great success in year three. (Jimbo Fisher and Brian Kelly both come to mind.)
Michigan and Nebraska both look like seven- or eight-win teams, which are in line with Vegas' assessments in the summer. Both are currently below historical levels, but there is little reason to think they won't be better in the future.
Penn State's situation is more concerning. James Franklin is in year two, which is when we should be seeing progression, not regression. With 15 returning starters, including four on the offensive line, and a manageable schedule, this was supposed to be the year that Penn State took a step towards the perch that Ohio State and Michigan State have occupied. Instead, the Nittany Lions lost by 17 to Temple, all while allowing 10 sacks, one of which entered the GIF Hall of Fame for showing how a two-man rush can beat six blockers.
The fact that Penn State got off to a dismal offensive start in 2015 is especially worrying, because it fits with the big concern with Franklin teams.
|Offensive S&P+ ranking
Franklin's offenses have been getting worse each year. As he accumulates more talent and his players have more time in his system, his attacks should be improving. And even a second-year head coach at a sanctions-depleted Penn State should have enough talent to have an offense ranked higher than New Mexico State.
The three programs most likely to give the Big Ten depth at the top are a pair of wait-and-sees and a potential train wreck. The odds that the league can join the SEC and Pac-12 in having five or six teams in the Top 25 on a regular basis do not seem high at the moment.
So what does this mean for Ohio State and Michigan State, the two that have to do the lifting for a 14-team conference? In the short term, it's good, because both are likely to run up gaudy records. If the Playoff committee follows the decades of precedent that human voters rank mostly based on record, then both programs will be fine. And the notion that teams need to be tested by strong conference opponents is belied by Florida State's experience in the '90s, when they were miles better than the rest of the ACC and still managed to play well against teams from the SEC and elsewhere.
On the other hand, neither program has any margin for error.
If No. 5 Michigan State loses to No. 7 Oregon Saturday, the Big Ten likely isn't going to give the Spartans enough quality opponents to dig their way out of the hole, as far as the Playoff is concerned. And if Ohio State manages to blow a game (unthinkable, I know), the tailwind of "we're the defending champs" will meet the headwind of "you didn't play anybody." Maybe Michigan and Nebraska will change that dynamic in the coming years, but for 2015, it's lonely at the top of Jim Delany's league.
It's fitting that Ohio State played after the rest of its Big Ten brethren on college football's opening weekend, as if the Buckeyes' game was the Best Picture award at the Oscars and the remainder of the league's contests were Best Animated Short and Best Sound Effects.
The gap between the top two and most of the league has been significant since Meyer came to Columbus, without a single regular season conference loss for Ohio State. But now, the gap has become Bryce Canyon.