Four years ago, entering the final week of the college football regular season, the Big Ten didn’t have any team ranked in the top 10 of the BCS standings.
The SEC had four of the top seven slots with Alabama (2), Georgia (3), Florida (4) and LSU (7). Ohio State was undefeated but ineligible for the postseason, so Nebraska was the highest-ranked Big Ten team, at No. 14.
No wonder this feels like a dream season for Big Ten fans.
The SEC has undefeated Alabama sitting at No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but the next SEC team on that list is No. 13 Auburn.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten is the one with four teams ranked in the top seven of the CFP rankings — Ohio State (2), Michigan (3), Wisconsin (6) and Penn State (7).
All four of those teams have a legitimate chance to make the playoff, and No. 16 Nebraska still could reach the Big Ten title game. Keep in mind, the Cornhuskers haven’t won a conference title since Frank Solich’s team won the Big 12 in 1999.
To stay alive, Nebraska must go to Iowa on Friday and beat the Hawkeyes, who upset Michigan two weeks ago. If that happens, Wisconsin must hold serve at home, fending off a hungry Gophers team determined to win Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003.
A Wisconsin victory or a Nebraska loss sends the Badgers to Indianapolis for the fourth time in six years.
Meanwhile, in the Big Ten East, Michigan controls its destiny. A victory over Ohio State on Saturday sends the Wolverines to Indianapolis. But they will be playing at the Horseshoe, and Michigan starting quarterback Wilton Speight (shoulder) is reportedly a game-time decision.
The Buckeyes seem like a good bet to knock off their archrivals, but that wouldn’t even decide the East. Ohio State’s one loss came to Penn State five weeks ago. So if Michigan loses Saturday, Penn State would win the division crown with a home victory over Michigan State.
The Spartans are 3-8, but last week’s 17-16 loss to Ohio State showed how dangerous Mark Dantonio’s team can be.
From a CFP perspective, things would really get interesting if Ohio State beats Michigan to improve to 11-1, only to miss the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes would have three victories over top-10 opponents, including No. 8 Oklahoma.
Would the committee be willing to take the Buckeyes and a two-loss Big Ten champion — either Penn State or Wisconsin? Penn State got demolished by Michigan 49-10 earlier this season, but the Badgers’ two losses were by seven points to Michigan and in overtime to Ohio State.
A lot depends on the other CFP contenders. Assume, for a moment, that Alabama and Clemson win out to claim two of four spots.
No. 5 Washington could still beat Washington State and then avenge its only loss against a red-hot USC team in the Pac-12 title game. At that point, Pac-12 fans would have a legitimate gripe if they miss the playoff because two Big Ten teams had made it.
Personally, I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the sport to leave two of the major conferences out of the playoff. That leaves bitterness and apathy in wide swathes of the country.
I think Big Ten fans would have a really hard time to see the tables turned — for example, if two SEC teams made it but none from the Big Ten.
It’s messy. It’s complicated. I wouldn’t want to be on the selection committee. But it sure is fun to watch.
• Beyond the division races, how about the Big Ten Coach of the Year battle? Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh have raised the bar for the whole conference, but even stronger cases could be made for Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst or Penn State’s James Franklin. The votes are due Sunday, but for now, Chryst has this voter’s nod. He has masterfully juggled two quarterbacks through a murderous schedule, and the Badgers have come to play every single week.
• The 40 nominees for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, include several deserving names. Chryst clearly made a great decision when he hired new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, and the same goes for Franklin with Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Another new hire, Indiana defensive coordinator Tom Allen, helped Kevin Wilson revamp a long-woeful Hoosiers defense.
• The Big Ten East remains top-heavy with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, but when it comes to East-West interdivision games, the West actually leads 11-9. Last year, the West was 7-7, before the Big Ten added an extra interdivision game for each team. Michigan State killed the East with losses to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Illinois. There is one more to go — Purdue at Indiana, the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
1. Ohio State (10-1, 7-1): Heading into Michigan’s visit, the Buckeyes are 18-1 in November under Urban Meyer.
2. Michigan (10-1, 7-1): Jim Harbaugh is the first Michigan coach to win 10 games in first two seasons since Fielding Yost.
3. Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2): Gophers have started fast, but the Badgers haven’t given up a first-quarter TD all season.
4. Penn State (9-2, 7-1): Shutting out Rutgers, allowing just 87 total yards, showed how far this defense has come.
5. Nebraska (9-2, 6-2): A win Friday gives the Huskers their first 10-win season since 2012.
6. Gophers (8-3, 5-3): They have 33 sacks this season after notching 22 all of last year. School record is 41 (1997).
7. Iowa (7-4, 5-3): Defense is rolling. Stifled Michigan, then blanked Illinois for first Big Ten shutout since 2009.
8. Northwestern (5-6, 4-4): Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr questionable for Illinois after concussion vs. Gophers.
9. Indiana (5-6, 3-5): If Gophers/Wisconsin seems one-sided, the Hoosiers have dropped 21 in a row vs. Michigan.
10. Michigan State (3-8, 1-7): L.J. Scott continues to be a force, averaging 5.9 yards per rush in Big Ten conference games.
11. Maryland (5-6, 2-6): Ground game has gone completely stagnant. Terps rushed for just 11 yards vs. Nebraska.
12. Illinois (3-8, 2-6): Fans said good riddance to Wes Lunt on Senior Day (19-for-41, 137 yards).
13. Purdue (3-8, 1-7): David Blough and DeAngelo Yancey hit on a 75-yard TD last week.
14. Rutgers (2-9, 0-8): Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State outscored the Scarlet Knights 223-0.