The Big Ten Football Food Chain

Top to bottom, the Big Ten Conference is one of the toughest conferences in all of college football. While the top spot spot is solidified for now, there is no shortage of legitimate challengers and perennial underdogs fully capable of making a run at the conference title during any given year.
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The hierarchy of the Big Ten conference typically shakes out the way you would expect it to.  Generally speaking, Ohio State sits firmly atop the food chain - feasting on everyone within the conference year after year.  The mid-tier programs spend much of the season fighting over second place while the bottom feeders fight over what little scraps remain.  This got me thinking - what exactly does the Big Ten Food Chain look like?  Who belongs where and why?  

I explain below:

big ten football tiers

The four tiers of the Big Ten Football food chain

Tier One

Ohio State

This comes as no surprise to anyone. Ohio State has owned the Big Ten Conference now for the better part of the last two decades and it doesn’t appear that the Buckeyes plan on surrending the top spot anytime soon. Ohio State has won the divisional title seven times since 2012 and has captured the Big Ten title five times during that same nine year span, including the last four straight (2017-2020). The Buckeyes have also appeared in the College Football Playoff four times and have participated in the National Championship game twice (2014, 2020), capturing one national title (2014).

In short, the Ohio State Buckeyes currently stand alone atop the Big Ten Football food chain.

Tier Two

Wisconsin

Wisconsin is tied with Ohio State for the most appearances in the Big Ten Title game (6) and has captured two conference titles since the inception of the conference championship game (2011, 2012). The Badgers have reached double-digits in the win column in five of the last seven years, including a 6-1 bowl record during that same seven year span. 

Year after year, Wisconsin emerges as the most likely candidate to challenge the Buckeyes for a shot at the conference championship title.

Penn State

There’s no question that the 2020 season was a brutal one for Penn State. Just over the halfway point of the shortened season, the Nittany Lions arrived in Ann Arbor with an 0-5 record for the first time in program history. Fortunately for Penn State, they would knock off a Wolverine football program that was struggling in its own right, kicking off a four-game winning streak to finish the season. 

Looking beyond the anomaly of the 2020 season, Penn State is routinely in the hunt for the Big Ten title and has become Ohio State’s biggest problem in the East Division. The Nittany Lions have reached 11 wins in three of the last five seasons with a win total (45) that is second only to Ohio State (56) during that same five year span.

Michigan

Michigan is a tier two program that is in serious jeopardy of becoming a tier three program. The good news is that Jim Harbaugh has elevated the win totals in Ann Arbor since his arrival, with the Wolverines notching 10 wins three times during his first six seasons.  The bad news is that, while the Wolverines generally get off to a hot start, they've also developed a track record of limping toward the finish line under Harbaugh's leadership - particularly against Ohio State (0-6) and in bowl games (1-4).  While Harbaugh's record against ranked teams outside of the top ten is impressive (9-3), his record against top ten compeition is concerning to say the least (2-12).

The bottom line is this: It has been a long and painful stretch both for the Michigan Football program and for the Michigan fan base.  After coming within an inch (literally) in 2016, Michigan remains desparate for a breakthrough season that includes a win against Ohio State and a Big Ten Conference title.

Iowa

Under the leadership of Ferentz, you can usually count on the Hawkeyes to do three things each season: finish with 8-ish wins, beat someone they shouldn’t, and lose to someone they shouldn’t. That, in a nutshell, is the Iowa Football program - consistently “ok”. With that being said, they are still one of just seven Big Ten teams to have competed in the Big Ten Championship game in Indy (2015), ultimately losing a close one to the Michigan State Spartans by a score of 16-13. 

Factoring in good (not great) win totals year after year and the ability to knock off another tier two/tier one program in any given year, the Hawkeyes remain a solid tier two program.

Tier Three

Northwestern

The Northwestern Wildcats have appeared in two Big Ten Championship games since its inception back in 2011 - trailing only Ohio State (6), Wisconsin (6), and Michigan State (3) in number of appearances. While the Northwestern Football program is no stranger to stringing together a solid season in terms of wins and losses, it also no stranger to finishing with more losses than wins by season's end. 

Northwestern is a bit of a rollercoaster football program looking at its record over the last two decades. Generally speaking, Northwestern is a middle-of-the-road Big Ten football program that will randomly surprise a lot of people - for better or worse. 

Indiana

Indiana is not a tier two program - yet. Though the Hoosiers put together a solid 2020 season, they’ll need more than one really good season to ascend up the food chain. Prior to the 2019 season, the Hoosiers had suffered through 11 consecutive seasons with a losing record. After barely missing out on a trip to the Big Ten Championship game in 2020, head coach Tom Allen seems to have this program on the right track. 

If Allen can string together a few more 8+ win seasons and proves that Indiana is indeed for real, we might have to rethink their position in the food chain. 

Michigan State

It wasn’t all that long ago that former head coach Mark Dantonio had built the program into one of the most dangerous within the Big Ten, routinely nipping at the heels of Ohio State for best within the conference.   That is no longer the case.  Over the last four seasons (not including 2020), the Michigan State Football program is averaging just over six wins each season - including a 3-9 finish in 2016 and a pair of 7-6 seasons in 2018/2019.

Though the Spartans were able to steal one from the Wolverines in Ann Arbor this past season, they still finished the year with a 2-5 record that included a 38-27 home loss to Rutgers, a 49-7 blowout loss on the road against Iowa, and home loss against Indiana where they were shut out by a score of 24-0.  It remains to be seen what kind of program Michigan State will become under Mel Tucker’s leadership as he enters his second season as head coach, but for now they remain as a tier three program within the Big Ten.

Minnesota

The arrival of PJ Fleck led many to believe that Minnesota would soon be a legitimate contender within the Big Ten Conference. After coming close with an impressive 11-win season in 2019, Fleck is still searching for his first divisional title as he enters year five. Under Fleck’s leadership, the Gophers have participated in - and won - two bowl games. Unfortunately, the Gophers have also failed to make a bowl game in his other two seasons - though one of those was the oddity of the 2020 season. 

There’s still plenty of time for Fleck to turn Minnesota into a legitimate contender, but for now they remain a solid tier three program.

Tier Four

Illinois

The Fighting Illini have put together nine consecutive losing seasons dating back to 2012. With new head coach Bret Bielema taking over for the 2021 season, there’s a slight chance that Illinois might begin to put together some respectable win totals. Maybe.

Until they prove it on the field, there’s really not much to talk about with Illinois Football program.

Maryland

I originally had Maryland ranked as a tier three program based on the outlook for the program moving forward - particularly after landing some highly-rated recruits in the 2021 class. However, after taking a second look at what the football program has accomplished since joining the Big Ten in 2014, they are clearly still a tier four program. The only winning season for the Terrapins over the last seven years came during their first year in the Big Ten - finishing with a record 7-6. 

Maryland looks like a team that might be on the rise, but they’ll definitely need to put together some winning seasons before working their way up the food chain.

Purdue

Have you ever seen that meme of Chris Farley where he asks a guest if they remember something and then says, “that was awesome”? That’s what comes to mind when I think about the Purdue Football program. The Boilermakers shocked the college football world in 2018 after destroying the No. 2 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes by a score of 49-20. It was the kind of legendary win that will live on forever among the Purdue faithful - which is good news as there hasn’t been much else to talk about in a very long time. 

Outside of that extraordinary 2018 victory over the Buckeyes, the Purdue Football program has put together eight losing seasons over the last nine years - including a stretch from 2013-2015 where the Boilermakers achieved just six total wins over that three year period.

Nebraska

The Nebraska Football program got off to a solid start when it joined the Big Ten back in 2011. After averaging just over nine wins each season through its first four years within the conference, the Cornhuskers have fallen off dramatically - averaging just four wins each season over the last four years. 

The good news for Nebraska head coach Scott Frost is that, though he has an uphill battle to fight, his Cornhuskers are still in a very winnable west division.

Rutgers

I mean...it's Rutgers.