In recent memory, Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have won the Big Ten five of the last seven years and four straight times. In my recent piece I wrote about Nebraska coaches’ records over the last 50 years broken down by into tiers based on opponent quality. This week, I want to look at the contemporary Big Ten using the same methodology. This system allows us to see beyond just the simple win and loss columns and see who is playing, and winning, big games.
Like my Husker Coaching Résumés article, I am using Bill Connelly’s SP+. A Tier 1 game is defined by the opponent SP+ being a top 10 ranking. Tier 2 is for ranks 11-25. Tier 3 is 26-75 and Tier 4 is 76+. A few differences with this analysis: time frame and bowl games. I am only looking at recent Big Ten history. I chose a first season of 2014 to correspond with the start of the CFP. This analysis also includes bowl games. In my first article I intentionally left out bowl games to focus on the strength of the relative strength of the schedules each coach faced in the regular season. Only FBS team are included in this analysis.
As you likely already know, Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten in recent history. The Buckeyes are the only team in the Big Ten to manage a positive point differential in Tier 1 games during the CFP era. Only one of their four Tier 1 losses has come outside of the College Football Playoffs – the 2017 Oklahoma game. Iowa is the only other team that keeps its Tier 1 games within one score on average helped by its 2017 demolishing of Ohio State. Six team are still waiting for their first Tier 1 win since the start of the CFP era: Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers.
Michigan’s performance jumps in Tier 2 matchups to cement their “good but not great” status with the second highest point differential in Tier 2 games. The four teams that have been preseasons CFP contenders lately all have winning records against Tier 2 teams. Northwestern and Iowa have shown why they have been competing for Big Ten Championships with their performance in these games, keeping games within one score. Only Rutgers has yet to win a Tier 2 game since 2014.
Tier 3 is the same four contenders as Tier 2 but Wisconsin and Penn State join Ohio State as the only teams to average double digit wins. Ohio State has an impressive record with only three losses (2014 Virginia Tech, 2017 Iowa, and 2018 Purdue). Iowa and Michigan State also take care of business at this tier helping them reach NY6 games. This is where Nebraska’s struggles start to become apparent as it one of six schools in the Big Ten with a losing record against Tier 3 opponents.
The Big Ten has four teams that have been perfect against the bottom tier and unsurprisingly they are the conferences four perennial preseason contenders. These four teams also win Tier 4 games by an average of 30+ points. The large margin of victories is important as the lopsided wins provided a great opportunity for younger players to get in the game and develop. Purdue, who had the third best point differential in Tier 1 games, drops to 13th in the category against the lowest level of competition.
This analysis confirms the eye test of the last seven years of Big Ten football. The numbers show Ohio State’s dominance in the conference during the CFP era. Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan, Iowa and Michigan State have all performed well, on average, in the games they need to win, and all have been rewarded with trips to the NY6 games.