The final weekend of the regular season in the Big Ten is in the books, and the top three teams in the conference once again separated themselves from the pack. Ohio State finished 8-0, Michigan State and Wisconsin end up 7-1, and all other teams in conference have 3 or more conference losses.
This should come as no surprise, as these three teams have dominated the last decade of Big Ten football. In fact, no other team outside this group has won a conference title since 2004 (Penn State split titles in 2005 and 2008 vacated).
That puts all three teams in or near the top 10 of the College Football Playoff committee rankings, and that’s important for one big reason: the top 10 of the final committee poll are guaranteed spots in one of the “New Year’s 6” major bowl games.
Just like the BCS bowls under the previous system, these are the showcase games that can help build positive (or negative) national perception of the conference. Unlike the BCS system, there is no limit of only having two teams from any single conference in these major bowl games.
Thus, thanks to this weekend, the Big Ten may be standing on the precipice of a massive opportunity. Yes indeed, the conference left for dead in mid-September may have three teams in the major six bowl games. Wouldn’t that be quite the unexpected finish?
But how specifically can the Big Ten get to this point? Let’s take a more detailed look.
First, Michigan State is done and safely in the clubhouse with a 10-2 record. The Spartans were already at No. 10 in this past week’s playoff committee rankings, and it seems likely that Michigan State will jump No. 4 Mississippi State (lost to Ole Miss), No. 8 UCLA (lost to Stanford), and No. 9 Georgia (lost to Georgia Tech) in this week’s rankings. Even if Arizona happens to jump the Spartans thanks to winning a spot in the Pac-12 Championship, the Spartans are no worse then 8th this week and likely also in the all-important final rankings.
That’s one team (MSU) locked into the New Year’s Six.
Just like 2013, Ohio State enters the Big Ten Championship with a chance to possibly make the championship or playoff with a win against a fringe top-10 opponent. And also like 2013, a win for the lower-ranked team (the Badgers) will vault them into the top 10 and give them the automatic conference champion berth.
That’s two teams (Wisconsin) locked into the New Year’s Six, assuming a win for UW.
If the B1G Championship is close, just like Michigan State’s win a season ago, OSU may not drop out of the top-10. To understand this possibility, let’s look at the worst-case scenario for rankings entering championship weekend, that being the committee deeming OSU the worst of the one-loss teams once again thanks to the season-ending injury to J.T. Barrett:
- Florida State
- Ohio State
- Michigan State
- Kansas State
- Mississippi State
- Georgia Tech
- Mostly Irrelevant 3 loss teams from this point on…
What is notable about many of the teams sitting behind Ohio State is that most of them play higher-ranked teams on championship weekend. Therefore, as long as chaos does not ensue outside Indianapolis, Arizona will pick up a third loss (Oregon), Kansas State will pick up a third loss (Baylor), Georgia Tech will pick up a third loss (Florida State), and Missouri will also pick up a third loss (Alabama).
Which means OSU falls behind MSU, Wisconsin, and Mississippi State. But who else would jump the 11-2 Buckeyes with three or more losses? That’s unclear at best, even if the Buckeyes get penalized some for the injuries to the top 2 quarterbacks on the roster. So even if one of those four games goes in favor of the lower-ranked team, the Buckeyes should have a soft landing no lower than No. 10 following a close loss to Wisconsin in Indianapolis.
That’s three teams (OSU) locked into the New Year’s Six.
Not bad for the conference down on its luck. Although attention will still be placed on Happy Valley and Ann Arbor to bring the conventional powers back to prominence, the fact is no three teams have dominated the Big Ten more than Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State in the past decade.
Those three teams may very well be rewarded for dominating once again, and this time, nobody gets left out. Despite the tougher bowl matchups that would create, the Big Ten would take it. And it would be ridiculously fun.
So for the non-partisan Big Ten fan bases this weekend, cheer for a Wisconsin close victory on Saturday. That could vault the conference to more major bowl appearances than everyone else, including the much-beloved SEC.