One quick glance at the Amway Coaches Poll and you’ll notice something pretty special.
Four teams, one conference, all in the top 10.
Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin all found homes in the first 10 spots of the poll. If you wanted to judge a conference by the preseason rankings, it’d be hard to argue against the B1G sitting in the catbird seat.
In case you missed that poll, here’s where the four teams stacked up:
- No. 2 Ohio State
- No. 6 Penn State
- No. 9 Michigan
- No. 10 Wisconsin
Those four teams all battled for a berth in College Football Playoff last fall, a race which lasted until the final week of the season. Essentially, the Coaches Poll is saying the heavyweights of the B1G all of a legitimate chance to make a playoff push again this fall.
It’s quite the tribute to the B1G. Not that long ago, the B1G name was being kicked and dragged through the mud. It had lost the reputation as one of the toughest conferences in the country and was regularly getting pummeled by the bigger, stronger leagues. To climb out of a pretty deep hole in such a short amount of time is a pretty impressive feat.
Any respect the B1G has recovered has been isolated at the top. It’s not cascading down through the rest of the conference. No other team is ranked in the top 25. The B1G is tied with the Pac-12 for the fewest number of teams listed in the Coaches Poll. The SEC has six, the ACC and Big XII each have five.
Basically, the B1G’s argument for being the top league in college football lives and dies with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
No mention of Minnesota, which won nine games a season ago and is now led by P.J. Fleck one year removed from leading Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl. Northwestern and Iowa were omitted, despite returning some a good chunk of talent.
It wasn’t just the coaches poll that seemed unimpressed with the depth of the B1G heading into the fall.
USA Today predicted that, aside from Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, no other team in the East would finish above .500. Wisconsin is picked to win the West by a full two games. Minnesota and Indiana have been picked to finish the year with losing records.
Recently, Dan Wolken wrote a column on the B1G stealing the SEC’s title as the most overrated conference in college football.
Most of his argument was actually aimed at the conference occupying four seats in the top 10. But the article suggests the B1G is mostly watered down with middle-of-the-road programs that the juggernauts feast on throughout the season.
It’s fair to say the B1G didn’t exactly live up to the hype at the end of last season. The conference finished with a 3-7 record in bowl games. The mighty East – the division most regarded as the best in college football – was 0-5. The only team to win a significant bowl game was Wisconsin, beating Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl.
And a few B1G teams suffered some setbacks last fall. Northwestern plummeted from a 10-win campaign in 2015 to posting a 7-6 mark a year ago. Michigan State had a tumultuous fall, tumbling from conference champs and College Football Playoff contenders to a measly 3-9.
So yeah, the B1G isn’t flawless. It’s probably not even as high and mighty as it’s been perceived. And yeah, the bottom-feeders in the league – Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers – are really, really bad. But the pool isn’t as shallow as some want you to believe.
Overlooking the teams that typically occupy the middle of the pack in the B1G is easy. Programs like Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern haven’t proven they belong in the same conversation as the bluebloods of the conference. And, in all honesty, they don’t belong.
But heading into 2017, the Hoosiers have one of the most talented teams they’ve fielded in decades. They’re looking to reach a third-straight bowl game and – with a pretty favorable schedule – have the potential to get to the eight-win mark. That’s the equivalent of a Rose Bowl bid in Bloomington.
If Minnesota wins just four games, something is really, really wrong. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks make up one of the best backfield combinations in the conference. And are you really willing to bet Fleck doesn’t get the Gophers to the postseason? That doesn’t seem like a smart wager.
And in Evanston, Clayton Thorson made tremendous strides from his freshman campaign to his sophomore season. With Justin Jackson behind him in the backfield, Northwestern could be a serious contender to the Badgers in the West.
Iowa is always a wildcard. But would anyone be surprised if the Hawkeyes were the B1G race again?
Even though they’ve suffered a few setbacks, Nebraska, Michigan State and Maryland are all teams to keep an eye on, too.
Not everyone in the B1G can have a magical season. And it’s probably safe to say that Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin are the top dogs in the conference. They’re not head-and-shoulders above the competition, though, and winning games will be a chore every week.
Talk about those top 10 teams all you want. They have put the B1G on the map. They are the reason why so many believe the conference has passed the SEC as the best in college football.
For that, they deserve the credit.
It’s the rest of the league that can make a difference in defining a conference. Right now, they’re not getting enough attention.