With the advent of the College Football Playoff, the question as to the best conference has become much more prevalent.
Over the past decade, the Southeastern Conference has undoubtedly reigned superior, winning seven national championships in a row from 2006 to 2012.
However, many would argue that college football is beginning to establish a sense of parity, as Florida State claimed the national title in 2013, followed by Ohio State’s eighth national title in 2014 in the first SEC-free championship game since 2005. Moreover, the Sept. 27 Associated Press poll pits two Big Ten teams — No. 1 OSU and No. 2 Michigan State — at the pinnacle, followed by TCU of the Big 12, before finally finding an SEC team in Mississippi at No. 4.
All this considered, the difference between the Big Ten and other Power 5 conferences is definitely diminishing — and might already be gone.
First, the Big Ten’s record in bowl games last year should be examined. While the 5-5 mark might not blow minds away, it should be noted that Las Vegas oddsmakers labeled all 10 bowl-eligible teams as underdogs in their respective games. Additionally, the upper-echelon Big Ten teams (OSU, Wisconsin and Michigan State) all won their bowl games, with two of those being against SEC West opponents (Alabama and Auburn) and the other being against a formidable Big 12 opponent in Baylor.
While some of the mediocre teams in the conference struggled during last year’s bowl season, the top teams more than made up for it in what might have been the best New Year’s Day for the conference in several years.
Next, let us look at the Big Ten nonconference schedule against Power 5 conferences. To date, Michigan State might own the most impressive nonconference win of any with its triumph over Oregon on Sept. 12. Additionally, OSU has a win over Virginia Tech on its résumé, and Iowa has a win against its in-state nemesis Iowa State on the road.
But the most impressive Big Ten team of this young season has to be Northwestern. Completely off the radar, Northwestern pulled off a stunner against then-No. 21 Stanford, holding the Kevin Hogan-led offense to just six points. For reference purposes, Stanford went to Pasadena, California, and defeated Southern California by 10 just two weeks later.
On top of that victory, Northwestern traveled down south to Durham, North Carolina, and knocked off a decent Duke team behind the Wildcats’ stymying defense. While the Big Ten has had some hiccups from its traditional bottom-feeders (such as Illinois, Purdue and Maryland), impressive performances at the top, coupled by a handful of respectable losses (for instance, Minnesota falling to TCU by only six points in Week 1), have reinforced its position as one of the best conferences in football.
Finally, a good measure of each conference’s depth and strength comes when respective conferences’ average and lower-caliber teams are further analyzed. With respect to the Big Ten, this comes from the likes of Purdue, Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers and Illinois. All of these teams have accumulated bad losses to date, and they all have struggled in nonconference and postseason play lately.
Because of the fact that these schools constitute nearly half of the conference, it would be naive to proclaim the Big Ten as the best conference in the country. Quite simply, the worst SEC teams (such as Kentucky and Vanderbilt) aren’t nearly as noncompetitive as those in the Big Ten and in other conferences. However, strength at the top cannot be ignored, which firmly places the Big Ten as the second-strongest conference in the country.