Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten. 

1. The B1G Story

Let me take you to the land of disbelief, of baffled fans and confused critics. Right into the belly of why polls are more dangerous than you think.

And why, 6 weeks from now on championship weekend, those same polls will have dictated a narrative so strong, it might just get the Big Ten 2 teams in the College Football Playoff.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the curious case of Ohio State.

“A crazy talented team,” says Maryland coach Mike Locksley.

We know this because the Buckeyes are ranked No.5 in the nation, ahead of 4 unbeaten Power 5 teams – including Big Ten rivals Michigan and Michigan State.

We know this because the Buckeyes have scored at least 41 points in every game but one (we’ll get to that juicy issue in a bit), and they have a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate (QB CJ Stroud) and the best freshman in college football (TB TreVeyon Henderson).

They are a complete team. How could they not be? They’re ranked No.5 in the nation.

Now let me tell you what we truly know about Ohio State, based on what has happened on the field:

  • The Buckeyes played one ranked team, and lost. At home.
  • The Buckeyes’ 5 wins have come against teams that haven’t beaten a ranked team. Two of those wins are against Group of 5 schools with losing records.

Yet there is Ohio State, weeks removed from coach Ryan Day demoting defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs because the defense was playing so poorly, and a breath away from the top 4 teams in the nation.

Polls don’t mean anything, you say. Oh, but they do – and don’t you ever believe anyone who tells you the CFP selection committee isn’t swayed by polls and numbers and trends.

I’ve been there before, been part of a mock selection (we mocked the highly controversial 2008 season) where arguments among mock committee members begin and end with beating ranked teams, losing to ranked teams, beating teams when they were ranked and when they were not, and beating and losing to unranked teams.

Rankings, rankings, rankings. They mean everything.

Until the last week of the regular season, when the eye test takes center stage and is the ultimate arbiter of who plays in the CFP and who doesn’t.

Getting to championship weekend with your best resume argument (because that’s what they are) gives you the greatest chance to pull off something rare. Such as, 2 teams from one conference playing in the CFP.

It’s a simple process, really. Just feed the rankings echo chamber.

The Big Ten office saw this, and brilliantly scheduled the East Division round-robin of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State over the last 5 weeks of the season.

The one glitch in the plan: Sean Clifford’s injury. Had the Penn State quarterback not gotten injured in the Iowa loss, the Lions would be unbeaten heading into an Oct. 30 game at Ohio State – and the first big scream into the rankings echo chamber.

Four teams go in, and if all goes well, two come out with a CFP-worthy resume. They’ll all have a loss or two, but those losses would be to each other – minimizing the reality that in the poll era, any loss is a damaging loss.

Unless it’s to another elite team.

Penn State’s marquee victory this season is Auburn at home, an Auburn team that also lost to Georgia and will have at least 4 losses by the end of the season.

Unbeaten Michigan State’s best win is against a Miami team whose coach will be fired by the end of the season.

Unbeaten Michigan hasn’t beaten a ranked team.

All 4 East Division teams are ranked in the top 8 of the coaches poll. Barring an upset this weekend, all will be in the same spot – maybe even higher – when the round-robin begins on Oct. 30 with Michigan at Michigan State, and Penn State at Ohio State.

Here’s where we circle back to Ohio State, which can’t afford a second loss in the round-robin because it already has a loss at home to Oregon. The Buckeyes were outplayed and outcoached in the September loss, and the game wasn’t as close as the 7-point margin.

Yet there is Ohio State, on the strength of 2 Group of 5 wins, no wins against ranked teams and no opponents wins against ranked teams, 5 spots ahead of 1-loss Oregon – which lost in overtime at Stanford.

You better believe rankings mean something. You better believe every single CFP committee member looks at those rankings every single week, and all the way up to the first week of the CFP poll on Nov. 2 – 3 days after the East Division round-robin begins.

And just in case those East Division games don’t produce 2 worthy CFP teams, they can strengthen the Ohio State argument against a one-loss SEC team (conference champion or runnerup) and, yes, even Oregon – the very team Ohio State lost to in Columbus.

2. The choice

Penn State is in the classic tweener position at quarterback, while still waiting to see how quickly starter Sean Clifford recovers from an unspecified injury.

The Lions know what they have in backup Ta’Quan Roberson, a potentially dynamic dual threat who struggled against Iowa when replacing Clifford. To be fair, the rest of the PSU offense didn’t help: pass protection was shaky, and receivers weren’t separating.

Then there’s intriguing freshman Christian Veilleux, the third-team quarterback who couldn’t press Roberson for the backup job in fall camp. In fact, it wasn’t close.

But it’s close now, and the Penn State staff has opened the competition this week. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

“If it’s close, it really shouldn’t be, right?” said Penn State coach James Franklin. “The guy that’s been in the program for a long time, and the guy that’s getting the most reps, should be able to widen the gap. And right now it’s somewhat close.”

Roberson has to start Saturday, if for no other reason than to give him a fresh look with the offensive line and receivers. He also needs to play in a controlled environment at Beaver Stadium to gain confidence.

If he still struggles, then move to Veilleux — and hope Clifford is healthy for Ohio State.

3. Portal pride

Kenneth Walker III might be the most important non-quarterback addition in the brief history of the transfer portal.

The most valuable player in the first half of the Big Ten season, Walker decided to leave Wake Forest in the first week of January – then chose Michigan State without seeing the campus in East Lansing, and without meeting Spartans coach Mel Tucker face to face.

“I talked to him on the phone, and felt pretty confident and comfortable about it,” Walker said.

Think about this: In Tucker’s first season last year — which seems like years ago – the Spartans had 2 rushing touchdowns. By a tight end and a quarterback.

Thirteen seconds into his Michigan State career, Walker ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run on the first carry of his first game. He had 264 yards in the season opener against Northwestern, and has 997 yards and 9 TDs in 7 games and is averaging 6.6 yards per game.

He has gone from sharing carries at Wake Forest in 2020, to a leading Heisman Trophy candidate for unbeaten Michigan State.

His former team, Wake Forest, is also unbeaten. One Deacons staffer told me the team was “shocked” when Walker decided to enter the transfer portal – even though he opted out of the final month of the Covid season.

“You don’t get guys like that around here that often,” he said. “He was right on the verge, and now everyone is seeing what we knew would happen.”

4. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: midseason unsung hero.

1. Ohio State: WR Garrett Wilson. It’s all Chris Olave, all the time. Wilson is more productive and consistent.

2. Michigan: LB David Ojabo. Aidan Hutchinson gets the All-America honors, Ojabo gets the double teams and still makes an impact.

3. Michigan State: S Angelo Grose. Tucker wanted an enforcer in the secondary. Grose is a big hitter with 6 passes defended.

4. Penn State: S Jaquan Brisker. The rest of an elite secondary gets more pub, but Brisker, a former JuCo transfer, brings it in run support and coverage.

5. Iowa: C Tyler Linderbaum. A mauler in the middle, and the heart of the Iowa offensive line.

6. Purdue: TE Payne Durham. Makes the tough catches look easy, a safe and consistent third down threat.

7. Minnesota: DE Thomas Rush. A microcosm of coach PJ Fleck’s Row the Boat mantra. A career backup who saved his best season for last.

8. Wisconsin: TE Jake Ferguson. Has never gotten credit for a strong, overlooked career. More of the same in 2021.

9. Maryland: RB Tayon Fleet-Davis. He’s 220 pounds and can run, and has terrific hands in the passing game. Needs more than 12.1 touches a game.

10. Indiana: LB Micah McFadden. Rare combination of pass rusher and coverage linebacker. Stout run stuffer.

11. Nebraska: CB Cam Taylor-Britt. A strong cover corner who plays with an attitude. Built and plays like an NFL corner.

12. Rutgers: P Adam Korsak. Punter, Rutgers, we get it. Don’t laugh, Korsak and his big leg will play in the NFL.

13. Northwestern: WR Stephon Robinson. Big play potential stuck in an offense without a big play quarterback.

14. Illinois: RB Chase Brown. An uber-talent who would have All-Big Ten hype at any of the league’s heavyweight programs.

5. The Weekly Five

Five picks against the spread.

Ohio State (-20) at Indiana

Illinois (23.5) at Penn State

Maryland at Minnesota (-5)

Northwester at Michigan (-23.5)

Wisconsin at Purdue (+3)

Last week: 4-1.

Season: 24-11.