In the eight-year history of the Big Ten Championship Game, red and green have been the it colors.
Between Wisconsin’s five appearances, Ohio State’s four and Michigan State’s three, only three other teams — Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern — have managed to break into the title game. But this year, change is afoot.
The West Division, for example, might have the most parity since the conference title game began. The East Division, which has won every trophy since the conference went with geographical alignment in 2014, doesn’t seem as insurmountable as usual.
“I’m not a gambler, by any means. But I don’t know how people put bets down on different things these days, especially on the West,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “There’s so much uncertainty, which makes it exciting.”
Fleck added he wouldn’t be shocked if any of the seven teams in his division ended up atop the standings. And a major drive for that ambiguity comes from what newish coaches like himself and Nebraska’s Scott Frost have done in just a couple of seasons.
In the East, Ohio State as eventual champion has essentially been a forgone conclusion in recent memory. But without storied coach Urban Meyer leading the Buckeyes, other programs see a small break in the clouds.
“We have a lot to prove,” new Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “This is a new staff. This is a new team. We haven’t done anything, and we need to do that.”
That said, what’s that old saying? The more things change, the more they stay the same. A third Ohio State/Wisconsin matchup wouldn’t be a major surprise.
“The rearview mirror is small and the windshield is big for a reason” is how Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald explained how being stuck in the past prevents different futures. “If you get caught looking back as you’re moving forward, you’re going to be on a collision course with failure.”
With Meyer gone, Jim Harbaugh is the highest-profile coach in the conference. But his reputation with the Wolverines has been for falling just short.
Entering his fifth year, the coach has an opportunity to finally take down Ohio State and win a major bowl game. This wouldn’t be the first time Michigan failed to reach high expectations, but the Wolverines return one of the most experienced teams. And veterans tend to navigate vagueness the most successfully.
Quarterback Shea Patterson — who threw four interceptions in Michigan’s final three games last year, including losses to Ohio State and Florida — can build on his first season under Harbaugh and will be working behind one of the top offensive lines in the country.
“To win the Big Ten championship, qualify for the playoffs, win the national championship — those are our goals,” Harbaugh said. “Like an anaconda, you want to just keep squeezing it tighter and making it better, and that’s where our football team is.”
No Big Ten allowed
While there’s internal grappling for a Big Ten title, the conference has a common enemy in the College Football Playoff committee.
The Big Ten hasn’t cracked that four-team bracket the past two years, despite strong cases from the Buckeyes. And that’s starting many discussions, from revising an unbalanced divisional alignment to backing off from nine conference games.
“The hard part, I think, with that is the set of criteria that you’ve been told are going to impact being able to make the playoffs — strength in schedule and things like that — there’s a lot of variables there,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “There’s a lot of things you can’t control. And also, the people that are in that room are different every single year.”
The Cornhuskers were a 4-8 team last season, yet somehow many pundits picked them to top the West. In his first season, Frost lost his first six games but finished strong, beating Michigan State and giving Ohio State a scare. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez has an outside chance at the Heisman Trophy in Year 2.
“Any time you take over a business, an organization, a sports team, Year 2 gets easier than Year 1,” Frost said. “There’s a lot of groundwork that had to be laid. Nebraska is one of the teams that, for a long time, was one of the blue bloods of college football and winning as many games as anybody. That wasn’t built overnight.”