The last couple of years it hasn’t been too hard to look at the Big Ten and place the football teams in one of three groups. There were the true title contenders: Michigan, Ohio State and, lately, Iowa. There were the solid teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue that always came up just short. And then there was Illinois and Indiana, two schools just biding time until basketball season started.
All right, maybe things haven’t changed for the Illini and Hoosiers, but watch a game between any two of the Big Ten’s other nine teams and – about four and a half hours later – you’ll likely get up off that couch satisfied. The way things are going, in a month when the regular season is over and five teams could have identical 5-3 conference records, the Big Ten may have to figure out who goes to which bowl game with a series of coin flips.
Just a couple of weeks ago, after Michigan’s loss to Minnesota, even the players readily admitted that the Big Ten title was a reach. Two thrilling last-play victories later, everyone is looking for ways for the Wolverines to creep back into the race. Can Penn State and Minnesota lose another game? Can Wisconsin find a way to lose two? And even if that all happens, can Michigan win what will arguably be its toughest road and home games of the season, against Northwestern on Saturday and Ohio State to end the regular season?
Suppose all that happens, and Michigan miraculously pulls out the conference title and automatic BCS bid. What exactly is its reward? It has no chance at the national championship game, and this year that game is the Rose Bowl, the usual destination for the Big Ten champ. Instead, the Wolverines could play a team like West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, a game that few people would care about. And what if the Badgers, who have to be considered the favorites right now, come out with the title? After falling short of the Rose Bowl last year in devastating fashion, how anticlimactic would an Orange Bowl berth be?
The Big Ten is probably the most exciting and wacky conference in college football right now, and it’s quite likely that nobody in the country is paying any attention. After all, Southern Cal and Texas are undefeated and heading toward an inevitable showdown while Virginia Tech and either Alabama or Georgia are getting screwed out of that opportunity.
I used to think that having no playoff in college football was a great thing. It meant that every week of the regular season was like a playoff round; every game was a must-win. But instead it has led to Michigan hosting random MAC team and fill-in-the-blank schools at the Big House to pad the win column. Sure, we play Notre Dame, and the Irish have given us more trouble than anyone could have expected or asked for, but that may not last for too long. For a team that has national championship aspirations, why unnecessarily risk throwing it away in September?
But what if instead the conference winners were given berths to the playoffs? Then people would look at the Big Ten completely differently. Maybe Wisconsin would emerge from conference with a worse record than the other teams in the playoffs, but the Badgers would be a battle-tested team that would know how to play a complete game for 60 minutes, something the Trojans and Longhorns will have had to do once at the most during the season.
It’s quite possible that no conference has ever been as unpredictable as the Big Ten currently is. Michigan State and Purdue were once top-10 threats, yet now both are in danger of finishing with losing records. Northwestern and Penn State have emerged out of nowhere, Ohio State is in the middle of the race as always, and Wisconsin appears to control its own destiny yet again.
The Big Ten title is always worth fighting for, and as many as eight teams could be fighting for it a month from now. It’s too bad the reward for winning it will hardly be as satisfying as the journey.
Sharad Mattu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.