It was only one game, but the Big Ten was the clear winner Saturday with Michigan State’s 31-28 home victory over Oregon.
If we learned anything from last year, the first of the College Football Playoff era, it’s not to overreact to one game or one weekend, but the Spartans’ win at least puts the Big Ten in position to have two teams in a four-team playoff.
Taking up half of the playoff field — “Why not all four teams, Paaawwwllll?!?” — was once considered only possible for the powerful SEC, and its legion of fanboys like ESPN radio host Paul Finebaum, but the tides (lower case “t”) shift quickly in college football, especially when the Tide (capital “T”) is not the same dominating force it once was under Nick Saban.
It was just this week last year that the Big Ten was given up for dead after Ohio State lost at home to Virginia Tech and Michigan State lost at Oregon. The Big Ten was surely going to get shut out of the playoff after such a disaster (and written off as such in this space).
But then Ohio State reeled off 10 straight regular-season wins, the Big XII race got complicated by the conference’s own semantics (two teams were deemed “One True Champion”), and the SEC only had only one one-loss team by the end of the regular season.
The postseason went to pot for the SEC with Alabama losing in the playoff to Ohio State, Wisconsin beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl, Georgia Tech hammering Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl and Notre Dame dropping LSU in the Music City Bowl.
The SEC, which had 10 teams — and all seven of its West Division teams — ranked by the AP this week, has actually gotten deeper since Saban and Alabama won three titles in four years from 2009 to ’12, but that’s actually not good for the SEC.
Arkansas’s loss to Toledo won’t be good for business, especially if the Razorbacks snipe off Alabama, LSU or Auburn during the regular season. Auburn’s close call with Division I-AA team (31-24 overtime win over Jacksonville State) will probably be forgotten by Selection Sunday but it’s also a bad sign for Auburn’s SEC fortunes.
The problem is the SEC has too many good teams and not enough great teams. With Kentucky improving, and Big XII expats Texas A&M and Missouri more than holding their own, the SEC’s meaty middle consists of 10 teams. That makes for good weekly theater for the SEC Network but the path to a national title more difficult than that of Ohio State or Michigan State.
The Big Ten is not better than the SEC, but there’s a real possibility both Ohio State and Michigan State could wind up in the playoff.
The Big Ten has tapped into the SEC’s old formula. The Big Ten has two great teams and a bunch of so-so teams. The Big Ten even has it set up so the third-best team (Wisconsin) doesn’t play either Ohio State or Michigan State during the regular season. The SEC mastered the scheduling twists of avoiding crossover games and protecting its best teams, while almost never playing anyone of consequence outside the conference.
Ohio State and Michigan State will play on Nov. 21 but if they both go into that game at 10-0 and the loser finishes 11-1, then what? The Pac-12 and ACC will need unbeaten champions. That doesn’t seem likely after Oregon’s loss, while Georgia Tech might be the best team in the ACC but has the toughest schedule.
There are four seats for five conferences in the CFP but with Michigan State’s win, the Big Ten is set up to take half. The benefit for everyone else is we would be that much closer to an expanded playoff field but in the interim, the Big Ten will enjoy the spoils.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
A weekly review of who’s trending:
MAC-tion (UP): The Mid-American Conference is not just for people who like to gamble on Tuesday nights any more. Toledo stunned No. 18 Arkansas (16-12) and Bowling Green knocked off Maryland (48-27) to score a pair of big road wins for the little guys.
Dalvin Cook (UP): Andre Williams’ ACC rushing record (2,177 yards) is only a year old. It won’t make it much longer if the Florida State sophomore running back stays healthy and out of trouble. Cook, a rare talent even by FSU’s standards, had 266 yards in Saturday’s 34-14 win over South Florida and has 422 for the season..
Louisville (DOWN): Texas fans aren’t crazy about Charlie Strong right now but the Cards would take their old coach back without a second thought. Louisville’s 0-2, after a home loss to Houston, and it will probably get worse, with Clemson up next, before it gets better.
The Cards trip to N.C. State on Oct. 3 is shaping up to determine the fate of each team’s season and immediate future.
More injuries (DOWN): Quarterbacks Connor Mitch (South Carolina) and Malik Zaire (Notre Dame) joined the growing list of high-profile players lost for the season with injuries. Mitch, who’s from Raleigh, hurt his shoulder in the Gamecocks’ 26-22 home loss to Kentucky. Zaire broke his ankle in Notre Dame’s 34-27 win at Virginia.