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Why you shouldn’t worry about the Big Ten’s bad start

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Despite some high-profile losses, the B1G is fine.

Rutgers v Kansas Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Just sticking to matters on the field — and, for now, not even including the self-inflicted wounds Urban Meyer and Ohio State committed in their mishandling of an allegedly abusive staff member — the Big Ten has had a pretty shoddy start to the season.

Three of its five preseason top-15 teams have lost games, and a fourth seriously considered it. Penn State has surged since surviving Appalachian State, but Michigan State lost at Arizona State, Michigan lost at Notre Dame, and Wisconsin just lost at home to BYU.

Of that group, only one of Ohio State or PSU can make it out of September with no losses, since they face in Happy Valley on September 29.

Week 3 of the season was one of the conference’s worst in quite some time.

Ohio State did survive TCU, and a few others won. The rest of the conference face-planted.

  • BYU 24, Wisconsin 21. The Cougars went just 4-9 in 2017, averaging what felt like negative points per game. They, perhaps most disturbingly, out-Wisconsin’d the Badgers.
  • Troy 24, Nebraska 19. NU has dropped six consecutive home games and is now 0-2 for the first time since approximately 1735. (Okay, 1957.)
  • Temple 35, Maryland 14. Temple had just lost to Villanova and Buffalo, and while VU is an FCS playoff contender, and UB is a MAC contender ... Villanova and Buffalo.
  • Akron 39, Northwestern 34. Granted, it was fluky as hell and required three defensive touchdowns from the Zips. Still, the one thing the Big Ten had absolutely been able to do, without fail, for more than a century was beat Akron.
  • Kansas 55, Rutgers 14. My god, Rutgers.
  • By contrast, Missouri 40, Purdue 37 and USF 25, Illinois 19 actually look encouraging. Purdue’s maybe the best 0-3 team in a long time, and, with help from the turnovers luck Northwestern didn’t get, the Illini lopped 18 points off of last year’s losing margin to the Bulls. Progress!

With these crippling setbacks, the conference has predictably bottomed out in the battle for power conference supremacy. In the most recent S&P+ rankings, the Big Ten has fallen all the way to ... wait, hold on ... it’s still tied for second?

FBS conferences, ranked by average S&P+ rating:

  1. SEC (plus-16.3, down 0.8 points)
  2. Big Ten (plus-9.4, down 0.9)
  3. Big 12 (plus-9.4, up 1.2)
  4. ACC (plus-6.9, up 0.4)
  5. Pac-12 (plus-6.5, down 0.1)

As always, the B1G has dead weight. Rutgers currently ranks 114th in S&P+, Illinois (99th) and Maryland (81st) aren’t all that far ahead, and even taking luck into account, 1-2 Northwestern (66th) and 0-3 Purdue (54th) have been disappointments.

Still, Ohio State ranks second, Penn State has stabilized at eighth, and the conference features five teams in the top 20.

Plus, Indiana has looked fantastic (albeit against less than stellar competition) and has risen to 23rd, undefeated Minnesota has risen to 48th, and while Iowa’s offense has been horrific, its defense ranks first in Def. S&P+.

In all, a few individual results aside, the conference has basically lived up to its preseason projections.

Big Ten S&P+ rankings through 3 weeks

Team Record Current Rank Preseason Rank Change
Team Record Current Rank Preseason Rank Change
Ohio State 3-0 2 1 -1
Penn State 3-0 8 7 -1
Michigan 2-1 10 10 0
Wisconsin 2-1 13 11 -2
Michigan State 1-1 20 13 -7
Indiana 3-0 23 49 26
Iowa 3-0 34 35 1
Nebraska 0-2 46 61 15
Minnesota 3-0 48 76 28
Purdue 0-3 54 51 -3
Northwestern 1-2 66 37 -29
Maryland 2-1 81 71 -10
Illinois 2-1 99 100 1
Rutgers 1-2 114 94 -20

On average, Big Ten teams rank 0.2 spots below their preseason average. For every disappointment (Northwestern down 29 spots, Rutgers down 20), there’s a happy surprise (Minnesota up 28 spots, Indiana up 26).

S&P+ isn’t yet amazingly down on Nebraska — Colorado needed turnovers luck to beat the Huskers, and Troy needed a punt return score — so that’s helping a little. Meanwhile, half the teams in the conference are within three spots of their original projections.

The Big Ten certainly hasn’t done itself many favors, but it also hasn’t bottomed out. It has two national title contenders, and a third (Michigan) isn’t that far away if it comes up with a couple more answers. And it’s got a few pleasant surprises to offset Purdue’s and Northwestern’s horrid starts.

Despite early losses, predictive measures show the Big Ten still has lots of teams who should turn out fine. Things could be worse.

The Big Ten could be the ACC, after all. If we’re talking early-season disappointments, that’s where we should begin.

ACC S&P+ rankings through 3 weeks

Team Record Current Rank Preseason Rank Change
Team Record Current Rank Preseason Rank Change
Clemson 3-0 4 2 -2
Boston College 3-0 17 47 30
Miami-FL 2-1 24 12 -12
Duke 3-0 33 38 5
Virginia Tech 2-0 41 34 -7
Georgia Tech 1-2 45 62 17
NC State 2-0 49 36 -13
Virginia 2-1 52 72 20
Wake Forest 2-1 57 41 -16
Syracuse 3-0 61 80 19
Pittsburgh 2-1 62 50 -12
Louisville 2-1 76 26 -50
Florida State 1-2 77 19 -58
North Carolina 0-2 87 53 -34

On average, despite a massive start by Boston College, that’s a difference of minus-8.1 spots between preseason and current rankings.

Only five of 14 teams are overachieving compared to their preseason projections, and three have underachieved by at least 34 spots. UNC, with 13 players suspended, has predictably struggled, but two other teams have managed to underachieve more: Louisville (minus-50) and FSU (minus-58).

So yeah, the ACC’s probably pretty happy that the Big Ten sucked up a lot of oxygen last week.