Ohio State's 2021 Big Ten Competition is Looking a Little Weak, and That's Not a Bad Thing

By Johnny Ginter on May 28, 2021 at 10:10 am
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields escapes a Northwestern defender

The Oklahoma Sooners really, really want to play Nebraska in prime time.

As evidence, look at this amazingly Not Mad statement put out by Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione about the 11 a.m. start time for their epic matchup against a Cornhuskers team that has won a grand total of 12 games in three Scott Frost seasons and never finished better than 5th in the Big Ten:

I guess forcing farmers to wake up at the crack of 11 to watch a football game is bullying these days, but I personally think that there might be another explanation for their anger.

They're nervous.

The Oklahoma Sooners could claim to have one of the strongest strangleholds on any major conference in college football, right along with the Clemson Tigers (and the Ohio State Buckeyes, but we'll get to that in a second). Like the Tigers, the Sooners have won six straight conference titles, and they've done it in a conference with some traditional college football powers that one would assume would make them sweat with some regularity. But the truth is that the Big 12, in the absence of any kind of consistency from the Texas Longhorns and a dearth of top-to-bottom coaching talent, hasn't really risen to the challenge.

Oklahoma has then parlayed those conference championships into four College Football Playoff appearances, which they have promptly beefed every single time. Most recently, they could be found losing to LSU in the Peach Bowl by 35 points.

Still, having a near-guaranteed playoff berth is a pretty sweet position to be in on a consistent basis, and Lincoln Riley and company don't seem to be too willing to give that up. And in 2021, the Sooners have a real chance at changing their playoff narrative with a team that could finally live up to the hype. Except... the thing is, I had to qualify the coaching talent in the Big 12 by saying "top-to-bottom" because one man is trying to upset Oklahoma's apple cart.

Matt Campbell and Iowa State are projected to be pretty good in 2021, and potentially the only real challenge to Sooners hegemony in the Big 12. Should the Sooners drop a late game to the Cyclones (or should opposite happen and Iowa State fizzles out), Oklahoma will have to lean heavily on their only marquee out of conference opponent as a resume builder for a playoff committee that's increasingly skeptical about their ability to play against the best in the country. Blowing out Nebraska in prime time has worked wonders for Ohio State (apparently), and maybe Lincoln Riley wants to capture some of that magic.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that it's nice that the Buckeyes don't have these worries.

The Big Ten, on the whole, is not projected to have a great 2021. According to ESPN, Ohio State has the second weakest 2021 schedule of any team in their top 10 FPI-ranked teams. Conversely, much of the rest of the Big Ten has relatively stronger strength of schedules, in part because they have to play Ohio State. Point is, the Buckeyes are the giant shining ball of hot gas that the rest of the conference revolves around.

In fact, ESPN also gives the Buckeyes a 53.7% chance of the winning the Big Ten in 2021, the fourth highest odds in the country. They're also the only Big Ten team projected to win more than nine games, and no other squad in the conference is given anything higher than a 17% chance of taking the title from Ohio State.

What separates the Buckeyes from the Sooners, then, are two things: a lack of a strong conference rival, and recent College Football Playoff success. It is hard to overstate just how important narratively it was for Ryan Day and his team to beat the absolute hell out of Dabo's Tigers this past season; by definitively annihilating one of the most consistent college football programs of the past decade not named the Crimson Tide, Ohio State was able to cement their status in the very top tier of college football. In other words, Ohio State doesn't need a Michigan or a Penn State or a Wisconsin to establish their bonafides, because they have Justin Fields dunking on the Clemson secondary for four quarters to do that for them.

In lieu of that kind of win, the Sooners have to hope that they can maintain national relevance while also fending off a non-traditional Big 12 challenger. Hence, wanting to beat Nebraska by 50 in prime time.

The lesson in all of this is that in the College Football Playoff era, it's perfectly acceptable to be a big fish in a little pond, as long as you prove yourself in the postseason. The handwringing that was done about the relative strength of the Big Ten during the BCS era, motivated by computer formulas and calculations, doesn't really apply to today. As long as the Buckeyes continue to justify their presence in the playoff, they'll keep getting called to the party.

Case in point: earlier, I said that Ohio State had the second weakest schedule of any team in ESPN's FPI top 10. The weakest? The Clemson Tigers, who are projected to have a 72% chance of winning their conference, also have the 55th ranked strength of schedule in the country and are certainly not sweating their lack of rivals in the ACC. Neither is Alabama, who ESPN puts at a coin flip for getting into the national championship game.

What this says for the future of college football, I'm not sure. It's probably not fantastic to have less than a half-dozen teams with any real shot to win a national championship in any given year.

But for Ohio State, at least, a weak Big Ten will only serve to help the Buckeyes aim for that giant tube of lipstick at the end of the rainbow.

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