Training camps are open but the Big Ten conference has a real problem sending a team to the College Football Playoff. Big Ten Football simply has too many good teams. Of the fourteen teams in the conference, no fewer than 8 are ranked in the top 25 pre-season NCAA poll. It’s going to be a struggle for anyone to get through the tough conference schedule undefeated. And undefeated may be the only way for a Big Ten team to crack the SEC-dominated playoffs.
In most pre-season polls, Ohio State is the best bet to come out of the Big Ten East and into College Football Playoff consideration. Second on the list are the University of Michigan Wolverines. Rising in interest with a bullet are the Nittany Lions of Penn State. But take a look at the schedules for these potential Big Ten champs.
Ohio State Buckeyes #3 in the Polls (+100 to make the playoffs)
Last year OSU was not invited to the College Football Playoff because of a mid-season loss to Purdue. It wasn’t a close loss (49-20) and the Boilermakers ended the regular season with a mediocre 6-6 record. But Ohio State finished 13-1, beat Michigan and won the Big Ten Championship game. Still they were a distant fifth in the minds of the playoff selection panel.
This year the Buckeyes road to the playoffs is even tougher. After a fairly light early season schedule, OSU will play back-to-back-to-back-to-back the #19 Nebraska Cornhuskers, followed by #22 Michigan State. Next on the schedule without a break are the #24 Northwestern Wildcats and then the #16 Wisconsin Badgers.
Two more easy games follow those four ranked opponents, but last year Purdue was one of those soft off-weeks and that derailed the Buckeyes chance at a national title. The Ohio State season ends with games against #13 Penn State and then the traditional regular season-ender with #6 Michigan.
Speaking of potential powerhouse but recent flop Michigan. Their schedule might rival Ohio State’s.
Michigan #6 in the polls (+200 playoffs)
There are several prognosticators who believe the Wolverines should be ranked above Ohio State. But recent history says the Wolverines need to prove that have what it takes to challenge the Buckeyes. Coach Jim Harbaugh is 0-4 against archrival OSU and last year’s shellacking (62-39) suggests Michigan ain’t there yet.
Before the big game with Ohio State, Michigan must fight through a tough schedule. After a soft opener against Middle Tennessee State, Army comes to town. The Army cadets won eleven games last year and are likely bowl-bound again this year. Then Michigan faces #16 Wisconsin, #18 Iowa and #13 Penn State. An unusual non-conference game mid-season brings #10 Notre Dame to the Big House in Ann Arbor on October 26th. And the huge in-state rivalry game with #22 Michigan State is an away game in East Lansing.
The season ends with the signature season-making or season-ending clash with Ohio State. Potentially, both teams could be undefeated and ranked in the top three in the country. Also, potentially, they both could be twice-defeated afterthoughts to the playoff committee.
Penn State #13 in the polls (+800 playoffs)
Penn State may be the sleeper in the Big Ten conference this year. Though there are a lot of questions about the Nittany Lions depth chart. Along with the usual graduation losses, the team lost 5 starters to the early entry NFL draft. Also a stunning eleven players used the transfer portal to get out of State College. The good news is that most of the departures were in reaction to 3 solid recruiting classes. New young, more talented recruits have bolstered the Penn State prospects for this year.
The schedule is also in the favor of a Penn State resurgence. Yes, they have to face both Ohio State and Michigan. But they also play 5 of the 6 unranked teams in the Big Ten to give them time to build up steam for the Wolverines in week 7 and the Buckeyes in week 11. According to power rankings, Penn State has the 2nd easiest conference schedule this season, right behind West Division favorite Nebraska.
At the Top of the Preseason Polls
Most preseason polls have Alabama and Clemson ranked #1 and #2 or maybe #2 and #1. By comparison to the Big Ten pre-season favorites, these two perennial powerhouses have very different schedules.
The Crimson Tide play 3 teams in the top 25: #7 Louisiana State, #11 Texas A&M and #17 Auburn. Also on the Alabama schedule in week 11 are the fearsome West Carolina Catamounts. Alabama is perennially questioned for their soft out-of-conference scheduling.
Clemson also plays #11 Texas A&M, however that is the only football squad in the top 25 on the entire Clemson schedule. But the Wofford Terriers in week 9 should present a real challenge.
Yet both Alabama and Clemson are penciled in for the College Football Playoff before a single first down has been made. Each year other conferences look at the SEC and ACC schedules and wonder aloud “when are you guys going to play somebody?”
Why don’t the Big Ten and the SEC enter a pact to play one another? They do that in basketball already. Imagine opening day with Auburn coming to the Horseshoe in Columbus or Georgia coming to The Big House in Ann Arbor. Alabama and Wisconsin have just signed a two-year home and home series for 2024-2025 that could be a good first step.
In the meantime, the Big Ten needs to find a way to address the issues of simply being the strongest conference top-to-bottom in Division 1. Right now they are just too good for their own good. Or just too good for a bid to the College Football Playoffs.
Tim Lavalli holds a Ph.D. in psychology and has focused his work on the mental aspects of competitive games. He co-authored Check-Raising the Devil, the autobiography of poker pro Mike Matusow. You can follow him on Twitter @timlavalli.