In a non-pandemic year, we pretty much know by now which teams and which leagues are, for lack of a better term, “good.” Or “bad.” But this isn’t a normal year, which is why the recent assertion from ESPN analyst David Pollack that “the Big Ten is really bad” was puzzling.

Here’s Pollack’s full comment:

“And the Big Ten, just the conference — listen, we have to do this year by year. It’s a year-by-year conversation. The Big Ten is really bad — really bad. Like, Michigan (2-4), Penn State (4-5), Wisconsin (3-3) — those aren’t good at all. They’re bad football teams. So naturally, Northwestern’s better. Indiana’s better — a great coach and great story, awesome program. But it’s a bad league. And now you’re saying you’re going to put in a team that only played 6 games from that league in there, no out-of-conference? I get the gripe, man. I understand it.”

Though this is just Pollack’s opinion, how could anyone say for certain whether the Big Ten is bad this season when the league hasn’t played a single non-conference game? In fact, all that we really know is that the Sun Belt is really good this season, and the Big 12 is not, since the Sun Belt beat the Big 12 in all 3 of their matchups this season (cc: College Football Playoff Selection Committee).

The fact that the Big Ten’s traditional powers — Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin — had down years isn’t great for the league, but how do we know that Indiana (6-1) isn’t every bit as good as Penn State was supposed to be? If the Nittany Lions had just one loss and it was by 7 to Ohio State, they would be a borderline Playoff team. But since it’s Indiana, it can’t even get a New Years Six bowl. Why isn’t Northwestern (6-2) viewed similarly to Wisconsin, considering the Wildcats lost by fewer points (12) in the Big Ten Championship Game than the Badgers did last year (13). Is there a 2-loss team that Iowa (6-2) couldn’t hang with?

There’s just no basis for Pollack’s comments because nearly half of the FBS leagues (Big Ten, SEC, Pac 12, MAC) played conference-only schedules. What data points would justify such a proclamation? Because Auburn and LSU were down this year, does that mean the SEC is really bad?

The best way to determine how strong a league is by seeing how the teams stack up when on the field with teams from other conferences — be it in the non-conference slate or in bowl season. In conference-only schedules where the teams know each other extremely well, there are bound to be some wacky results (see LSU/Florida, Kansas State/Oklahoma, Oregon State/Oregon). While judging conferences based off a few marquee non-conference games isn’t perfect, it’s at least some data to understand how these teams stack up.

Look at all the games we missed out on due to the pandemic that would’ve actually told us how strong the Big Ten was this season:

  • No. 3 Ohio State at No. 25 Oregon
  • No. 15 Iowa vs. No. 10 Iowa State
  • Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Notre Dame
  • Michigan at Washington
  • Penn State at Virginia Tech
  • Nebraska vs. No. 8 Cincinnati
  • Michigan State vs. No. 18 Miami (FL)
  • Minnesota vs. No. 16 BYU

If the B1G performed poorly in some of these matchups, then yeah, it’s fair to wonder how good the league is. But without these games, no one knows for sure.

Sure, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin have struggled at certain points this season, but look closer. Penn State has been decimated by opt-outs (Micah Parson) and injuries (Pat Freiermuth, Journey Brown, Noah Cain) to NFL-caliber guys. Michigan was decimated by opt-outs (Nico Collins, Ambry Thomas) and injuries (Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye, Jalen Mayfield) to NFL-caliber guys. Wisconsin looked unstoppable the first 2 games when it had its full lineup, but its 2 starting wideouts have played in 1 of a possible 8 games since then.

Knowing all that, isn’t it a good sign that those teams had down seasons? If they could lose legit NFL players from their rosters and still roll through the Big Ten, wouldn’t that be a sign that the conference isn’t that good? Isn’t the fact that Indiana was able to rise up and end long losing streaks to those teams a positive sign for the league?

Oh, and about this bowl season — it won’t tell us anything, either. Coming from someone who believes the Big Ten should do reasonably well in its 5 games, I won’t overreact to the B1G’s second-best team (Indiana) playing the SEC’s eighth-best team (Ole Miss), or the B1G’s fourth-best team (Iowa) playing the SEC’s sixth-best team (Missouri), or the B1G’s third-best team (Northwestern) playing the SEC’s fifth-best team (Auburn, which just fired its head coach). I won’t overreact to the B1G’s fifth-best team (Wisconsin) playing the ACC’s 10th-best team (Wake Forest). Since so many teams and so many players are opting out due to the pandemic, it isn’t fair to pretend that this is a legitimate way to judge these leagues.

While David Pollack is entitled to his opinion, I respectfully disagree. Coming to any sort of conclusion about the Big Ten based off this season is shortsighted. There’s nowhere near the necessary amount of data to really know.