- Could this be the year the Big Ten puts two teams into the playoff? The top of the conference is as good as it gets—as long as it doesn't cannibalize itself.
If there’s one way-too-early prediction I’m willing to make after Week 1, it’s this: 2018 will be the Year of the Big Ten. Sure, the conference wasn’t perfect last weekend—logistically, with one in-conference game, it couldn’t have been—but it ended up 11–2, with one upset win over a ranked team. (Nebraska’s game was canceled due to weather.) Going into the weekend with more top-15 teams than any other conference, the Big Ten did not disappoint, providing viewers with everything from blowouts to a near-catastrophe.
The eventual outcomes validated those high early rankings. The top of this conference is as good as the game gets.
In a sport that’s anything but predictable, the Big Ten offered few surprises among its best teams in Week 1, apart from Penn State’s squeak past Appalachian State. Going into opening weekend, Wisconsin was the top-ranked Big Ten team, at No. 4, followed by Ohio State at No. 5, Penn State at No. 10, Michigan State at No. 11 and Michigan at No. 14. Even though the Wolverines—which lost by a touchdown to No. 12 Notre Dame—dropped to No. 21, Week 2’s rankings still had four Big Ten teams in the top 15, with Ohio State and Wisconsin switching spots in the top five. A year after the SEC got two teams into the College Football Playoff, there’s reason to wonder if the Big Ten might pull off the same coup a year later—reason that got a tiny bit stronger when the Pac-12’s best playoff hope, Washington, lost to Auburn on Saturday. It’s an eon too early to say that one loss eliminated the conference from playoff contention, but it was the first step toward 2018 looking a lot like 2017, when only three Power Five conferences were deemed fit to field teams in the final four.
But let’s step back from December into September for a moment, and consider what we learned this weekend. Ohio State, even without coach Urban Meyer—who returned to weekday coaching this week but won’t see the sideline of a game until Sept. 22—is a juggernaut, good enough with new quarterback Dwayne Haskins to rout Oregon State, 77–31. Penn State is still finding its rhythm without running back Saquon Barkley and former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, but it’s not out of the hunt, and quarterback Trace McSorley showed flashes of the Heisman potential that could usher the Nittany Lions to their first playoff berth. Michigan started slow but eventually lost by just a score to a Notre Dame team that started the year ranked No. 12 and might be even better than expected.
It says a lot that Wisconsin and Michigan State are afterthoughts here. The Badgers played Friday night and won, 34–3, ho-hum, beating Western Kentucky. That same night, Michigan State defeated Utah State by a touchdown, 38–31.
If Week 1 is any indication, then, the conference has four teams with convincing playoff cases and a fifth, Michigan, with an outside shot at contending—and plenty of potential to play spoiler in the loaded Big Ten East. (Speaking of spoilers, let’s take a moment to remember the most surprising Big Ten moment of the weekend, when a Maryland team surrounded by uncertainty beat a supposedly resurgent Texas team, 34–29.) That glut of talent can mean many things, though, and the most compelling thing about the Big Ten down the stretch will come down to one question: Will the conference manage to help itself with its high caliber of play or be its own worst enemy?
In the West, Wisconsin has a strong case to go undefeated, with its toughest games coming against Michigan on Oct. 13 and Penn State on November 10—both on the road. (The Badgers’ Oct. 6 home matchup with Nebraska may also prove challenging.) But on the other side of the conference, cannibalism could take effect in a big way. This isn’t the SEC, whose West division is always stronger but seems to always come down to Alabama. The Big Ten East looks wide open, and the teams in the East with the best chances of advancing to the title game might just be those who don’t have the Badgers on their schedules this year. That’s been the case three of the last four seasons—each time Wisconsin has been the West’s representative.
So what do the Big Ten’s hopes come down to, in its most distilled form this season? That Wisconsin can finally be good enough to win a conference title for the first time since the divisions were realigned in 2014. That Ohio State’s offense behind Haskins can be just enough more dynamic to keep it from a midseason upset. That McSorley is a true Heisman contender. That Michigan State’s offense can rely a little bit less on quarterback Brian Lewerke as the season goes on, and that its defense can find its rhythm.
To go from left out to two playoff teams in the span of a year would be a lot to ask for the Big Ten—and we’re a long way from that final vote. But as the season unfolds and loaded Big Ten matchups hit the schedule—first up: Ohio State at Penn State on Sept. 29—Jim Delany’s conference is shaping up to have the highest stakes in the game in 2018.