It’s like some sort of twisted blood sport.

Jess Cox

Throw nine of the most powerful, dangerous fighters in the country (and two weaklings) into a cage. Furnish them with swords, nunchucks, tridents, crossbows, axes, spears and javelins. Then lock the door, and see who – if anyone – emerges alive.

Welcome to Big Ten football.

No, you won’t find any Big Ten teams among the top-10 on this week’s poll. No, the Big Ten won’t be sending a representative to the Rose Bowl, this year’s national championship game. But when it comes to competitive, intense football week-in and week-out, no other conference holds a candle to this mighty midwestern league.

For starters, every single team in the Big Ten emerged from nonconference play with a winning record, a feat no other conference accomplished. Even pathetic Illinois went 2-1, including a 33-30 victory over Rutgers, the team now occupying second place in the Big East. It makes you wonder if the Illini would earn a BCS berth if they jumped ship and moved to that unimaginably awful conference.

Then, the bloodbath of a Big Ten season began. Wisconsin over No. 14 Michigan – Michigan over No. 11 Michigan State – Penn State over No. 6 Ohio State – Michigan over No. 8 Penn State – Northwestern over No. 22 Michigan State – and so on.

The bottom line is, on any given week, any Big Ten team – except maybe Indiana and Illinois – can take out any other Big Ten team. That’s why nine Big Ten teams have found their way into the top-25 polls during the course of this season. That’s why, more than halfway through the year, seven teams are within one game of the Big Ten lead. It’s this parity that makes the Big Ten unique – no other conference has that type of competitive depth.

I’m sure the player-haters are out there, getting ready to fire off their vicious e-mails in my direction. They say the SEC, ACC, Pac-10 and Big 12 are the toast of college football. They point to the Big Ten’s generally weak nonconference schedules and claim that parity is a sign of weakness. For these skeptics, I’ve prepared a fun and informative example: the Texas Tech Red Raiders.

After Texas, the Red Raiders are considered the second-best team in the Big 12 this year. How come? First of all, their “spectacular” offense put up a whopping 199 points during their three-game nonconference schedule. Their opponents? Florida International – ranked 118 out of 119 Division I-A teams in The Sporting News – and two Division I-AA squads: Sam Houston State (2-4) and Indiana State (0-8). The latter couldn’t even beat St. Francis (Ind.), an NAIA (read: not even in the NCAA) team.

Think things got much harder once the Big 12 season began? Think again. The Red Raiders faced off against Kansas, Nebraska and Kansas State. Combined, these three teams have spent a grand total of – you guessed it – zero days in this year’s top-25 polls. Still, Texas Tech’s efforts against these stellar opponents earned them a No. 10 ranking heading into its matchup with Texas. Of course, against their first real opponent of the year, the Red Raiders didn’t quite live up to their billing, falling 52-17.

It’s true most teams from other conferences don’t quite have a Texas Tech-style cakewalk. SEC and ACC teams, especially, have genuinely difficult stretches built into their conference seasons. But even their schedules are much more palatable than Big Ten slates.

First of all, the middle tiers of these “power” conferences are nowhere near as strong as the Big Ten’s. I’d take Iowa over Clemson or Minnesota over South Carolina any day.

Also, the very structure of the Big Ten conference season makes conference play much more intimidating. Big Ten games are scheduled in a block, after the nonconference season concludes. The SEC and ACC mix nonconference games within their conference season. The result? While Michigan is forced to play six consecutive games against top-25 caliber opponents, Virginia Tech can schedule teams like Marshall and Ohio to provide a nice breather in the middle of its conference season.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not disrespecting the undefeated teams in other conferences or implying that Michigan deserves to move up in the polls. What I’m saying is that, top to bottom, there is no tougher football conference than the Big Ten. Give any team in the country – even Southern Cal – eight consecutive games against Big Ten opponents, and I doubt any of them come out unscathed.

 

A– Matt can be reached at mattsing@umich.edu

 

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