A B1G problem: Only Ohio State can compete at a CFP-worthy level
The Big Ten still has a B1G problem.
With 8 years of College Football Playoff semifinals in the books, Ohio State remains the only program in the conference built to compete and succeed at that elite level.
Granted, there is not a preponderance of evidence for this thesis. This year, Michigan joined 2016 Michigan State as the only non-Buckeyes program to represent the Big Ten in the CFP.
The collective score in the 2 resulting semifinals: SEC teams 72, Spartans-plus-Wolverines 11. And the Wolverines got all 11.
Simply put, the Big Ten is much closer to being the ACC than the SEC. Both the ACC and B1G are the domains of 1 top dog: Clemson and Ohio State.
The primary difference is that in the ACC, no one other than Clemson is ever actually good enough to reach the CFP. If someone other than Ohio State wins the B1G, it’s impossible to argue against their inclusion. But once they arrive, it’s equally difficult to believe they’re capable of advancing.
The 2021 Wolverines are a perfect example of why this is the case.
Jim Harbaugh did a masterful job of building a team with a very specific intent: Beating the Buckeyes.
After years of losses, Harbaugh mapped out a blueprint of what it would take to defeat Ohio State. This year, he finally found the formula: An offensive line that could push the Buckeyes around and keep their explosive offense on the sidelines. Coupled with a pair of otherworldly edge rushers that would disrupt Ohio State’s passing game, Michigan had exactly what it needed.
And that was THE goal for the program.
The problem is Michigan actually achieved that goal and thereby leveled up into waters where it can’t yet swim. Making mincemeat of Iowa and its 1980s offense in the Big Ten championship game is one thing. But when it comes to competing with the big boys, Michigan found itself in the same shoes as the Hawkeyes — completely unequipped to handle the team across the line of scrimmage.
Can anyone else in the B1G compete in the CFP?
Unless the Playoff field expands to 12 teams and increases the odds of a random outcome — in other words, semifinals other than No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3 — it’s going to be tough to make that happen.
As we noted here on National Signing Day, the SEC still has a decided recruiting edge on its Big Ten counterparts. Ohio State has been the biggest exception to that rule in the past decade, hence its ability to hang in a CFP setting.
Big Ten recruiting is getting better, at least.
In 2 of the past 3 years, there was just a single B1G team in the top-10 nationally on signing day. This year, there are 3 — Ohio State (4th), Penn State (6th) and Michigan (9th). Trouble is, SEC schools make up the entire top-3 signing classes. The Big Ten may merely be treading water against the SEC with the only benefit being that the ACC is slipping further into the abyss.
The outcome of the Orange Bowl certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise. Over the past 4 years, Georgia has, on average, recruited the No. 2 signing class in the country. In that same span, Michigan’s signing classes have an average rank of 13th.
Again: that’s good enough to get to the CFP. But not good enough to win in the CFP.
Could the transfer portal be the great equalizer?
Perhaps Michigan State, not Michigan, is the program that most needs to be emulated if the Big Ten is going to bridge this CFP gap.
Digging heavily into the transfer portal, Mel Tucker fortified Michigan State’s roster and flipped the Spartans from 2-5 in 2020 to winning the Peach Bowl and a probable top-10 poll finish this year.
If the SEC powers will continue building their rosters with ridiculously deep signing classes — the equivalent of pro teams building through the draft, only in this case the best teams get the top picks — the Big Ten might have to do it the other way pro teams do it. Build, in essence, through free agency.
That thought surely makes Big Ten traditionalists blanch. B1G fans pride themselves, generally speaking, on their programs doing things the right way. But that way isn’t exactly getting it done in the CFP. So it might be time to create a new right.