Can anybody stop Ohio State in its quest for a fifth straight Big Ten championship?
Short answer: No.
This is similar to the days when Tiger Woods was dominating the golf world. Before a major tournament, the question would be: ``Tiger Woods or the field?’’
Today, the question is: ``Ohio State or the Big Ten field?’’
Where would you put your dollar?
Do you really like the chances of Penn State or Wisconsin or Northwestern or Michigan or Iowa or any of those other guys against the Buckeye juggernaut?
The situation is somewhat similar with Clemson in the ACC, Oklahoma in the Big 12 and Alabama in the SEC.
Clemson, which has won six straight league titles, is the most dominant in this area. Someone snatching the ACC from the Tigers’ grasp would be seismic change.
The Sooners have won the Big 12 six straight times. But at least there are glimmers of challengers—at Iowa State and, one of these autumns, Texas. Any number of other teams are capable of making life difficult for defensively challenged Oklahoma on any given Saturday.
The Crimson Tide, which has ``only’’ won five of the last seven SEC titles, might be the most vulnerable. But that’s only because the SEC, which is clearly the nation’s best conference, is loaded with programs capable of winning the league—and the national championship. LSU, the 2019 SEC champ, and Georgia, which won in 2017, have had the greatest success lately. And several other programs, notably Texas A&M and Florida, could rise up without shocking the college football world.
Who could do that in the Big Ten?
With the exception of Clemson in the ACC, someone unseating Ohio State in the Big Ten is looking like the tallest order.
The truth is, the Buckeyes aim higher and score higher in recruiting than any other Big Ten program. It’s not even close. With the seamless transition from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day, Ohio State’s coaching also has a strong case for being the best.
And heading into 2021, the gap seems to be wider, not closer.
That’s because Penn State and Wisconsin had subpar seasons in last fall’s disjointed pandemically-shortened season. The Nittany Lions were exposed in their opener against Indiana and never really recovered. The Badgers were shut down by Covid-19 and never really had a chance to hit their stride.
Meanwhile, Michigan, the third usual suspect in the chase to unseat the Buckeyes, continued to under-achieve under the burden of expectations that accompany enigmatic Jim Harbaugh, who seemed like the perfect choice to revive the Wolverines.
Those three remain the best bets to give Ohio State a challenge. That said, they still look like long shots. The Buckeyes are simply that good. Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan may have very strong seasons, but any of them would need to show major improvements to deny Ohio State a fifth straight Big Ten title.
Beyond the likely top four, there is cause for optimism at many other Big Ten schools.
Tom Allen, at Indiana last fall, and P.J Fleck, at Minnesota in 2019, showed they have the leadership skills to guide those schools to success.
Northwestern, which has won the West twice in the last three years, would seem to be in a rebuilding mode. But never under-estimate Pat Fitzgerald.
Whether Iowa can put together one last hurrah for Kirk Ferentz, the senior senator among Big Ten coaches, is an open question. The Hawkeyes aren’t flashy, but are solid enough that one surprise spark can make a big difference.
Second-year coaches Greg Schiano (Rutgers) and Mel Tucker (Michigan State) had encouraging debuts amid the Covid-19 chaos.
Purdue was pretty dead in the water. And Nebraska’s inability to show progress under Scott Frost remains puzzling. It’s still difficult to assess Mike Locksley’s upside at Maryland.
And the more I think about it, the more I think it will be interesting to see what Bret Bielema can accomplish at Illinois, which is in the discussion for toughest places to win in the Big Ten.
So. . . optimism at many Big Ten schools? Yes.
But one thing is certain: If anyone is going to unseat Ohio State, it will be led by a big-time candidate for national coach of the year. And that guy will be in line for bogglingly big raise.