Tate | Power-packed Big Ten its own worst enemy

Tate | Power-packed Big Ten its own worst enemy

In the history of Big Ten football, the conference has never been this good.

That's a projection. Not exactly good news for the also-rans.

What was once the "Big Two and the Little Eight" has expanded dramatically. We are witnessing a renaissance at the top ... the nation's best coaches coming off a 7-1 bowl season ... an abundance of returning NFL prospects and quality quarterbacks ... five established programs ranked among the Top 15 in multiple preseason polls.

Northwestern and Iowa, with their lifetime coaches Pat Fitzgerald and Kirk Ferentz — ain't continuity great — don't get a nod in the July crystal-balling. They're overlooked even though the Wildcats carry an eight-game win streak into the Aug. 30 opener against revitalized Purdue, and the Hawkeyes are riding high after a wild November in which they rattled off 55 points against Ohio State and 56 at Nebraska as highlights of a three-year 28-12 run.

Loaded up top

It gets awfully crowded up there when Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin are peaking at the same time. And even as the Buckeyes must find a replacement for J. T. Barrett, the other four (plus Northwestern and Iowa) have established quarterbacks.

Actually, the Buckeyes aren't peaking. They're perennials. They're 47-3 in league games under Urban Meyer, always attract superior talent and are ALWAYS a national contender. But they'll face a series of fierce challenges, beginning with TCU in Dallas.

Penn State features all-league QB Trace McSorley and a blistering offensive line returning from an 11-2 season, and Wisconsin's offensive line boasts even more NFL-bound 300-pounders blocking for All-American Jonathan Taylor. The persistent Badgers came within 27-21 of the Buckeyes in the Big Ten playoff.

And in spite of the school's internal issues, Michigan State is bringing back 19 starters from a 10-win team representing a program that has subdued Michigan eight times in the last 10 years. OK, so you beat them once, Jim Harbaugh, but weren't you supposed to reverse that trend?

And maybe he will. Harbaugh, a "disappointing" 28-11 at Michigan, deserves a break after so many excruciating losses. With talented Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson expected to take snaps, Michigan is ranked as high as No. 5 by Athlon.

Outside looking in?

Here's the catch. The conference is so strong that it could have a reverse effect. It is probably a 50-50 tossup whether any of these Big Ten powers reach the Final Four playoff.

You saw what happened last year. Ohio State lost to Oklahoma and Iowa, beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten playoff, and had to settle for a Cotton Bowl assignment (a 24-7 win over USC). Alabama joined Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma in the playoff.

In four years of the four-team event, the selection committee has never chosen a two-loss team. And this season, it may be more likely that Alabama, Clemson, Washington and Oklahoma, as dominant forces in their conferences, will finish 13-0 or 12-1 than one of the five Big Ten super-powers.

Where's path to playoff?

What we have in the Big Ten is self-destruction. A first cousin of suicide. Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan play each other, and Wisconsin's Badgers draw Penn State and Michigan as well. The nine-game conference schedule, with overlooked members lying in wait, makes it ever more difficult to avoid upsets.

Michigan could be waylaid early. The Wolverines open with ranked Notre Dame on the road at night. Later on, they hit a consecutive stretch of Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State, and, of course, finish with Ohio State. Murderer's Row.

The Spartans, with their 19 returning starters, have it easier in drawing Northwestern, Purdue and Nebraska out of the West, thus avoiding Wisconsin. And the Badgers, anticipated rulers of the West, might have trouble securing the division if they falter at Michigan and Penn State, while also leaving Camp Randall to face Iowa, NU and Purdue.

All it'll take is an upset or two — explain, please, how Iowa routed the 2017 Buckeyes — and the Big Ten will be watching the playoffs from afar ... again.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.