This year has been of Big Ten resurgence. After going through a phase of being a punching bag for the SEC and Big 12 during the mid 2000’s, the Big Ten has asserted itself as one of if not the best conference in the country. Ohio State remains one of the marquee programs in the country, but now Michigan has re-established itself as a powerhouse nationally. Wisconsin is quietly one of the most consistent programs in the nation. Year in and year out the Badgers win 9+ games despite the fact that they don’t recruit from the same national base as other teams. James Franklin has Penn State playing great football after a rocky start to the season, including an ugly loss to Michigan at the Big House. These four teams have solidified themselves as top 10 teams. Which leads us to ask, who are the best of the best in the Big Ten?
Despite the fact that they are the youngest team in the Power 5, the Buckeyes have been dominant once again this season. The reason they have been able to be so consistent this season is QB JT Barrett. Barrett has been the steadying force that has kept a young Buckeye offense on track. This was never more evident than in their comeback victory over Michigan. After looking fairly anemic for most of the game offensively, Barrett took the game over by running the ball. Barrett slipped out of sacks and continually made big plays with his legs. After losing to Penn State Barrett led Ohio State to two absolutely dominant victories over Maryland and Nebraska. While the Buckeyes will not play for the Big Ten title, they have been one of the best teams in the country all season long.
Not being a conference champion shouldn’t hurt the Buckeyes’ playoff chance. It is difficult to make the case that they aren’t one of the four best teams in the country.
Before the Iowa game, there was a legitimate case to be made that Michigan was the second best team in the country behind Alabama. Their defense has been nothing short of suffocating all season. Everyone loves to talk about Jabrill Peppers, and rightly so he’s one of the most electric players in all of football, but this defense is about more than just him. Jourdan Lewis is arguably the best cover guy in the Big Ten, and Taco Charlton consistently gets after the QB (just ask JT Barrett). The issue for Michigan has come offensively, where they have become fairly stagnant. Wilton Speight, who has been very solid all year, came crashing to earth Saturday against Ohio State. Speight threw a pick-six and another interception that was returned deep into Michigan territory. It was evident that Michigan’s defense wore down throughout the game, and part of that was due to the fact that their offense was unable to sustain drives in the second half. This team is difficult to judge because they were so dominant early in the season, and they are victim to the bias that comes with losing games late in the season.
They are an excellent team, and it is truly unfortunate that they are likely disqualified from the playoff.
No team has had to deal with a more difficult schedule than the Badgers. They have weathered the storm, for the most part because of a dominant defense. Emerging stars TJ Watt, D’Cota Dixon, and Ryan Connelly have spearheaded an attack that has kept the Badgers afloat while the offense has been sputtered at times. Give Paul Chryst a ton of credit for making subtle adjustments on offense that have given the offense some life. After a very dismal performance against Michigan, Chryst started to incorporate Jazz Peavy more, getting him touches on a jet-sweeps that have been a nice wrinkle. The biggest move Chryst has made is alternating quarterbacks, going to veteran Bart Houston for a series or two at a time. Normally this is a move that disrupts the rhythm of an offense, but Houston has provided a spark when he has been called on. The two losses were absolute slug fests against Michigan and Ohio State, and the Badgers have put themselves in position to secure a Big Ten title, which few could have seen coming during the preseason when they looked at their schedule.
This team is good enough to compete with anyone outside of Alabama, and if Clemson or Washington falls and the Badgers take care of Penn State they deserve a spot in the playoff.
After a very rocky start to the season, including a loss to instate rival Pittsburgh, James Franklin has the Nitanny Lions going in the right direction. Penn State was sloppy in the early going, struggling to beat Minnesota and getting slapped around by Michigan, but after the victory over Ohio State they have been clicking, particularly Trace McSorely at QB. McSorely has been extremely solid of late, especially in the regular season finally against Michigan State when he tossed four touchdowns. He engineered a comeback against Indiana, leading them to 24 fourth quarter points en route to a 45-31 victory. The Nitanny Lions have ripped off eight straight, but outside of Ohio State their schedule has been relatively soft during that run.
They beat Ohio State, so if they beat Wisconsin and were conference champions there are some that would argue they should get in ahead of the Buckeyes. But losing to a team by 39 disqualifies you from playing for a potential national championship.