B1G's brutal year just got even worse with Michael Penix Jr.’s season-ending injury
The Big Ten just can’t catch a break. Whether it’s a self-inflicted wound or circumstances outside of its control, it’s been a challenging season. And it’s getting worse by the day.
With the news that Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is out for the season, the Big Ten’s second-best team will be playing with its backup QB for its final 3 games, plus the bowl game. That marks the 3rd negative development in 4 days for the Big Ten, which was already reeling with Ohio State having to postpone its game at Illinois due to a COVID outbreak and previously unbeaten Northwestern losing to one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, Michigan State. And I’m not even counting the news that Michigan had to close its program Monday for potential positive COVID results (which would put the Ohio State game in jeopardy).
Penix’s injury hurts the Big Ten for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, Indiana had a real chance at winning the Big Ten, making a New Year’s Six Bowl and an outside, outside (like 0.7 percent outside, according to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor) chance at the College Football Playoff. All of those things are obviously still on the table, but it will depend on how well backup QB Jack Tuttle plays. Playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl or the CFP would tremendously benefit the Big Ten financially and in terms of brand recognition. At this point in the season, conferences root for their best teams to keep winning because upsets to non-contenders don’t deliver the sizable payouts that playing in big bowl games does.
Secondly, Penix’s injury decreases the capability of other Big Ten contenders to pick up a quality win. There is a perception that Penix has been one of the best quarterbacks in the country this season, and while I disagree with that assessment, it’s out there among media members. Anyway, any team that beats Indiana won’t get the benefit of notching a quality win. For Wisconsin (which is desperately trying to beef up its résumé after already having 3 games canceled) and Northwestern or Iowa (2 potential opponents in the Big Ten Championship Game), that’s a significant blow. Any victory over Indiana will come with the caveat of, “Well, they beat the backup QB, it doesn’t mean as much.” It will be difficult for other Big Ten teams to climb in the CFP rankings and get into a better bowl game.
Plus, Ohio State needed Indiana to keep winning in order to make that 42-35 win on Nov. 21 look even better, since it will need all the résumé help it can get if it only gets to play 6 regular-season games. Now, if Indiana loses without Penix, the anti-Ohio State crowd will have an opening to scoff at Indiana being a quality win. And on the surface, if Ohio State’s best win (or second-best win, depending on who Ohio State plays on Dec. 19) is against a team that finishes 6-3, it doesn’t look great. For the Big Ten’s sake, let’s hope the Selection Committee remembers that Ohio State beat the full-strength Indiana team. And with Iowa athletic director Gary Barta as the chair, that shouldn’t be a problem, but I’m sure there will be voices in that room that disparage Indiana.
For a Big Ten with an overcrowded middle class, this is all tough to overcome. The league was already in a difficult spot when its premier programs, Penn State and Michigan, are losing to teams like Maryland and Michigan State and going into triple overtime with Rutgers. Don’t forget, Penn State was ranked No. 8 when it played Indiana, and Michigan was No. 23, and now wins over those programs barely count for anything. Combine that misfortune with the league’s other premier program, Wisconsin, having only played 3 of a possible 6 games, and it’s obvious why the Big Ten may face credibility issues in the final rankings.
At this time last year, Ohio State was cruising right along toward the CFP. Now, it’s unknown whether the Big Ten will get a team in the CFP. Heck, given Penix’s injury, it’s even unknown whether either of the teams that wind up playing in the Big Ten Championship Game in 3 weeks will be among the top 2 in the Big Ten, at that point. Because of Ohio State potentially getting 1 more game canceled (there is a strong chance that will happen), it will likely be Northwestern and Indiana, a battle of Indiana’s second-string QB of 2019 against the third-string QB of 2019.
Northwestern, fresh off a stunning loss to B1G basement dweller Michigan State, will likely be there thanks to that 1-point win over Iowa in Week 2, but would anyone pick the Wildcats against the Hawkeyes now? Iowa, despite 2 losses, has the highest point differential in the Big Ten. The potential crossover game between Ohio State and Iowa could look like the real Big Ten Championship Game.
That said, I’d be cheating our readers if I painted the Big Ten as a victim. It is the victim of some unfortunate breaks, but it is responsible for its own destiny. Its leadership touted the flexibility in its initial conference-only schedule, then commissioner Kevin Warren pulled the plug 5 days later while the ACC, SEC and Big 12 were patient and stayed the course.
To think that any league could have pulled off 9 games in 9 weeks is preposterous, and they left themselves no choice but to try it. And don’t forget, no one forced the Big Ten to put in a rule that a team had to play 6 games in order to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game. There were some, like Fox’s Joel Klatt, who have been saying from the beginning that the rule didn’t make sense, and that appears to be the case, since it is only going to wind up hurting the Big Ten in the long run. It’s been one thing after another with this conference.
Ohio State was one of the schools that pushed so hard for this season to happen, and everything that can go wrong for them has (outside of actually losing a game). Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, who have a roster as good as any in college football, it’s becoming more likely that the CFP features 2 SEC teams and 2 ACC teams. That’s far from certain, but if Ohio State can’t get back on the field, it’s possible.
What is certain, though, is that we’re heading for a bizarre end to this 2020 season. Because of the unending number of variables, there will be a few teams that will be rightfully upset by whatever the CFP Selection Committee decides on Dec. 20.
The Big Ten, because of its own blunders combined with some tough breaks, may be on the outside looking in.