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In the last two seasons, eight College Football Playoff invitations went out. Everybody RSPV’d.
The powerful SEC grabbed three, the ACC and Big 12 each gobbled two. And Notre Dame took one.
How about the Big Ten?
Zero. Zip. Zilch.
The conference that gave us Red Grange, Archie Griffin and Charles Woodson is in a playoff slump. Albeit it a short one.
Is Big Ten football in trouble? Is it time for fans to panic?
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the conference,” said Dennis Dodd, longtime national college football writer for CBSSports.com. “You are judged by teams you get in the playoffs and they haven’t. Any soul searching or high-minded plan to get it better, Ohio State can’t lose to Iowa and Purdue. It’s as simple as that.”
Sorry Buckeyes, you have been part of the problem.
“You had Ohio State struggling to get its act together,” said Bruce Feldman, who covers college football for Fox Sports and The Athletic. “To me it was one of the four most talented teams in the country the last couple of years. But when they stumbled that cost them.”
The Buckeyes lost by 31 to Iowa in 2017. They dropped a 29-point decision at Purdue in 2018.
Lose close in either game and the Buckeyes likely would have made the CFP. Those were “can’t look past it” moments for the selection committee.
The margin for error is greater at Alabama, which earned the No. 4 seed in 2017 despite a 12-point loss to Auburn at the end of the regular season. The Buckeyes finished fifth in the CFP rankings.
In 2018, Big Ten champion Ohio State was sixth just behind 11-2 Georgia.
“They really didn’t look great most of the year until they beat Michigan,” said Bill Rabinowitz, Buckeyes beat writer for the Columbus Dispatch. “Their resume, it was one of those deals where you look at them and they didn’t pass the eye test.”
Rabinowitz said the Big Ten is better than it was a decade ago. Ex-Ohio State Urban Meyer pushed everyone else.
“He forced everyone to say ‘It’s big-boy football,’” Rabinowitz said. “I don’t know that Michigan goes out and hires Jim Harbaugh if Urban hadn’t raised the bar. All these programs, they don’t want to get behind.”
Careful what you wish for
Partly in an effort to give its fans (OK and TV) more attractive matchups, the Big Ten went to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016. The move has not been kind to Illinois, which has won just four league games since the switch.
Do the math: more conference games means seven more losses for Big Ten schools.
Compare that with the ACC and SEC, where teams play just eight conference games. Defending national champion Clemson will be challenged by Texas A&M and South Carolina. But not so much in games against Charlotte and Wofford.
“In the ACC, it is Clemson and everybody else,” Feldman said. “Spinning it forward this year, there is a decent chance a lot of ACC teams are going to play one Top 25 team all year.
“Whereas if you’re in the Big Ten and you’re Ohio State, you’ve got to play Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Nebraska. I think that’s a factor. It’s more top heavy than the rest.”
The Big Ten tends to eat its own, which doesn’t happen as often in the SEC thanks to scheduling.
At no point in 2019 will Alabama play more than three consecutive Power 5 schools in as many weeks. Michigan plays seven Power 5 teams during a seven-week span.
“If you saw that type of inequality in the Patriots schedule versus the Dolphins schedule, everyone would cry foul,” Fox Sports football analyst Joel Klatt said. “In college football we don’t because we’re so fragmented. One conference does it one way and another conference does it the other.”
Klatt wants a college football commissioner added to address the schedule issue. And other items.
“I think we all need to be on the same playing field,” Klatt said.
End in sight
Looking at the early projections for 2019, it is possible the Big Ten will be left out of the CFP for a third consecutive year?
Ohio State is considered the best team in the conference. The Buckeyes have a new coach, with Ryan Day taking over for Meyer. And they have a new quarterback as Georgia transfer Justin Fields replaces NFL first-rounder Dwayne Haskins.
Feldman doesn’t think the Big Ten playoff drought will last very long.
“The coaches are too good,” Feldman said.
They’re No. 2
Ask Feldman to rank the conferences today and the SEC is an easy No. 1. The Big Ten comes next.
“The Big Ten East has a strong case to be the toughest division in college football, measured up against the SEC West,” he said.
Parity doesn’t always translate to championships. The Big Ten has won just two national titles since 2002, Ohio State in ’02 and ’14. The ACC has three titles during that span.
“I don’t think that the ACC is as close as good of a league as the Big Ten,” Feldman said. “The Pac-12 had the USC run and Oregon got into two title games. I wouldn’t say the Big 12 is better.
“Your measuring stick is the SEC and the reason why the SEC is what it is right now is because Alabama went on an all-time run.”
Dodd said the SEC “hijacked” college football, winning nine titles in 12 years.
“They are going to have a team in the playoff every year,” Dodd said. “In that sense, everybody’s trying to play catchup.”
In the beginning ...
The first year of the CFP, 2014, went well for the Big Ten.
Ohio State overcame an early loss at home to Virginia Tech to earn a playoff berth. A 59-0 win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game clinched the spot.
The Buckeyes kept rolling in the CFP, upsetting No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, then rolling over Oregon in the title game.
In the first five years of the CFP, the Big Ten earned three bids: the Buckeyes in 2014 and ’16 seasons and Michigan State in ’15.
Should there have been more? Klatt sure thinks so.
“I don’t know if there’s something wrong with the conference,” the former Colorado quarterback said. “I think something has been wrong with the committee. Their original criteria, they have strayed from that. If you ask me, they have taken the path of least resistance at almost every single opportunity rather than doing the right thing.”
Klatt plans to see how it works. He will participate in a mock committee meeting later this year.
“They think it’s going to change my mind,” he said. “It’s not. I’ll probably have more ammunition to bash them on.”
Tom Dienhart grew up in West Lafayette, Ind., and covered Big Ten football for The Sporting News and BTN. Now working at GoldandBlack.com, the Purdue Rivals website, Dienhart points out the lack of great quarterbacks in the conference.
Ohio State’s Haskins became the Big Ten’s first first-round pick in the NFL draft since Kerry Collins in 1995.
“We all know the importance of quarterback play,” Dienhart said. “There have been great quarterbacks at other Big Ten schools like Drew Brees, but nobody at Ohio State or Michigan during the playoff era.”
Eight is enough
Currently, four teams qualify for the CFP. But there has been lots of chatter about expanding by four teams.
That will help the Big Ten.
“You could argue they would have had more playoff participants in an eight-team playoff than anybody over the first five years,” Klatt said. “They seem to be perpetually in that three to eight range.”
Dienhart thinks an expanded playoff will be good for he Big Ten.
“It would have a team in every year,” Dienhart said.
He isn’t as sure about this year.
“Is Michigan really a playoff team? Is Ohio State?” Dienhart said. “I’ve got my doubts.
“The Big Ten didn’t join this club to get left out year after year after year.”
Rabinowitz figures Alabama and Clemson are near locks. Oklahoma will be good again, too.
“There aren’t a whole lot of spots,” Rabinowitz said. “I think a one-loss Big Ten champion is going to have a good chance to get in. But it’s not a guarantee.”
Voice from above
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is winding down his career. Plenty has changed since he took over in 1989.
The Big Ten only had 10 schools and the CFP was decades away. Television coverage of Big Ten football has increased dramatically, from 16 televised games to 90.
“I think many of the teams in our conference are built to win national championships as well as conference championships,” Delany said.
He disagrees with some of the CFP committee decisions regarding the Big Ten.
“I still don’t know how Ohio State was ranked sixth last year, by the way — but regardless, they were ranked sixth behind a divisional runner-up,” he said.
Delany expects more titles in the near future.
“I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see more of a dominating presence for Big Ten football over the next half decade to decade,” he said.
Penn State’s James Franklin came to State College after working at Vanderbilt in the SEC.
“ I think I’ve got a pretty good perspective,” Franklin said. “And I love our conference. I think we do it the right way, both on and off the field. We compete at a very high level. But I think obviously when you’re left out of the playoffs for two years in a row, I think there needs to be discussions, and there’s discussions that are going on, and I think we’ve got to look at it all.”
Making changes in the current divisions might be one answer. The East is considered better at the top.
“Probably similar in a lot of ways with what the SEC West is like,” Franklin said. “So I think we’ve got to at least have a discussion. Not necessarily saying we need to make any changes, but we need to have a discussion.”
Illinois football beat writer Bob Asmussen has been covering Big Ten football for 30 years. Here’s his plan to realign the divisions:
Always good to be the first alphabetically. The Terps are still trying to find their way in the new league.
The annual game against Michigan needs to be protected for the “Little Brother.” Cheer up, Spartans fans: Now you can potentially play the Wolverines twice.
Sorry to do this to you, Wildcats, but you have better airports. And playing Ohio State every other year will boost home attendance.
Winning the division figures to be easier without the threat of the School from the North. Of course, they will meet every year. Maybe two times.
If the Nittany Lions played seven home games against the FCS, they would fill up Beaver Stadium. Moving to the conference has been mostly a good thing.
Going to hate to give up those easy trips from C-U to West Lafayette. The annual squareoff against Indiana remains a thing.
A valid question: Will the Scarlet Knights ever compete for the division title? And do they miss the Big East.
The Land of Lincoln Trophy continues with a guaranteed game against Northwestern. And annual matchups with Michigan will be fun.
No, Hoosier fans, the division shakeup won’t impact basketball. Nice to have all the “I” schools on the same side of the conference.
Just a guess that if you asked Kirk Ferentz, “What division do you want to play in?” he would answer: “Wherever they tell me.” And he would say it in a folksy way.
The Wolverines will be able to reach the title game without having to beat the Buckeyes. Based on recent results that has to be welcomed.
Yes, a trophy game you can wrap your arms around and take a big swig. Great to see the Little Brown Jug become annual again with the Wolverines.
This gives Scott Frost a chance to answer questions every season about which team deserved to win the 1997 national title, Nebraska or Michigan?
As long as Minnesota stays on the schedule, the Badgers will be happy. After last year’s loss, they want the Axe back. If the Big Ten goes Northern and Southern, count on them as charter members.