Big Ten Power Struggle: What the League's Slow Start Means for Ohio State and Its Playoff Hopes

By David Regimbal on September 20, 2018 at 1:30 pm
Ill-intentioned Nick Bosa
© Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten was supposed to be college football's strongest conference in 2018, but after three brutal weeks of play, the league is trending down after suffering a number of high-profile non-conference losses.

The expectations were probably too high coming into the season. After ripping off seven consecutive bowl victories before Michigan spoiled a perfectly B1G postseason last year, preseason voters in both the Coaches and AP Polls had plenty of reason to stuff their ballots with Big Ten teams.

In both preseason polls, the conference took up more than a third of the top 14 teams nationally, with Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan all getting love. 

Fast forward three weeks and it's just the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions left standing inside the top 14 after the Badgers, Spartans and Wolverines suffered non-conference losses.

And the league seemed to bottom out last Saturday. Ohio State held its own in a neutral site win over TCU and Michigan and Penn State took care of business against their cupcakes, but the league still took its lumps in historically bad fashion.

The conference lowlight reel started right out of the gate, when Penn State needed overtime to hold off an Appalachian State rally on opening weekend. Later that night, Michigan traveled to South Bend, Indiana, and showed no signs of growth offensively, managing just 307 total yards, one offensive touchdown and a pair of turnovers in an uninspired 24-17 loss to Notre Dame.

A week later, Michigan State fell on the road to an unranked and underdog Arizona State team, Northwestern got clobbered by basketball-school Duke and Nebraska was out-hustled by Colorado.

But the floor bottomed out last week when Wisconsin lost to BYU, at home, as 23.5-point favorites. Then there was Rutgers losing by 41 to the Kansas Jayhawks. Maryland, Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa and Northwestern all lost to unranked opponents as well.

Is the Big Ten this bad? And if it is, what does that mean for Ohio State and its playoff aspirations?

There's reason to hope the league is better than its showing through three weeks. After the scare against Appalachian State, the Nittany Lions have averaged 49-point wins against Pitt and Kent State, neither of which are the breezy pushovers their names would suggest.

Michigan's offensive line is an absolute mess, but there's a sense of competence developing at the quarterback position that suggests the Wolverines could be slowly discovering their identity. That defense, too, is legitimate.

Michigan State is always balancing on a tightrope walk where falling to one side leads to total collapse, while stumbling over the other side results in an inexplicable 11-win season — because that's how logic works in whatever universe Jim Bollman operates in.

And then there are the pleasant surprises. P.J. Fleck has his Minnesota team rowing to an unbeaten start, albeit against non-stellar competition. Indiana has also navigated its schedule unscathed, with a notable win over Virginia in Week 2.

So while the league has its bruises to show after three weeks, it doesn't look as bad as it seems on the surface.

The Big Ten still has, at very least, a pair of College Football Playoff contenders remaining, and that's more than you can say for the ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12. And coincidentally, those two teams meet next week when Ohio State travels to Happy Valley for its primetime matchup against Penn State. 

And despite their early losses, the Badgers, Spartans and Wolverines are still in the playoff race — they're just at the back of the pack and in need of a surge.

In short, it's too early to panic about the Big Ten's slow start. While troubling, the league still boasts five Top 25 teams and the middle-of-the-pack squads look solid. The ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12 each have just three teams in the Top 25.

So if the Buckeyes continue to take care of business, it's hard to imagine the Big Ten being left out of the playoff for a second consecutive season.

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