College Football Weekly: Big Ten Contenders' Path To Indianapolis

Every week we take a look around college football to see what the biggest story lines are.

Big Ten Contenders Route to Indianapolis

The non-conference slate was less than ideal for the Big Ten. There were some horrible losses, as chronicled in last week's column.

However, the non-conference part of the season is largely behind us. A few teams have some non-conference games remaining but every team has played one conference game now and the primary contenders are all still alive.

Oddly enough, a quarter of the season has been played. It feels like the season just started but we now have a big enough sample size to rank the contenders in the Big Ten Conference.

Here is how they stand.

Ohio State

Odds to win conference: 1.3/1

The Buckeyes are the clear leaders in the clubhouse of the Big Ten at the moment. Through their first four games, they have shown exactly what most expected from them before the season, that they are the team to beat.

OSU has not exactly played the toughest schedule in the world -- it ranks 23rd nationally per teamrankings.com -- but what they have done with the games they’ve played is impressive. The Buckeyes are scoring 54.5 points per game, which is good for second in the nation. They have 17 passing touchdowns through four games, which is five more than they had last year at this time.

They also had an impressive 40-28 win in Dallas against No. 15 TCU, who plays in Fort Worth, making the game at AT&T Stadium a de facto home game for the Horned Frogs (though TCU subsequently lost to Texas and is now 2-2 and unranked). They also played the first three games of their season without head coach Urban Meyer due to his suspension for the mishandling of the domestic violence history of wide receivers coach Zach Smith.

OSU has what is, perhaps, the biggest game of the college football season thus far coming up on Saturday at Penn State. The two squads both come in undefeated and whoever is able to notch a victory will have a major leg up in the Big Ten East race. Each of the last two seasons, the winner of this matchup has gone on to win the conference (PSU in 2016, OSU in 2017.)

The Scarlet and Grey are fortunate they avoid playing Wisconsin and Iowa in crossover matchups, meaning that they have essentially three games for the rest of the year that will determine their season, barring a major screw up. The first one is Saturday against PSU, the other two being Michigan State (Nov. 10) and Michigan (Nov. 24). They are 3.5-point favorites in Saturday’s game against PSU.

Unless something remarkable happens, they will be favorites at Michigan State and at home against U-M as well.

If they win either two or three of those games, they will probably make the Big Ten Championship Game and most likely the College Football Playoff if they win the conference championship game. Last year OSU was 10-2 and they still nearly made the playoff.

The path is lying right in front of OSU, all they have to do is take care of business.

Penn State

Odds to win conference: 4/1

The only other undefeated team in the conference through four games is Penn State. They struggled in Week 1 against Appalachian State, winning 45-38 in overtime but they have been absolutely killing teams since.

Since their poor performance in Week 1, they have outscored their opponents 177-40. Their 55.5 points per game is first in the nation. So much for missing Joe Moorhead, their offensive coordinator last season who departed for the head coaching job at Mississippi State.

Penn State has a much more difficult road ahead of them than OSU does. First of all, PSU doesn’t have the strong non-conference win that Ohio State has against TCU. The Nittany Lions’ best non-conference win was against 2-2 Pittsburgh.

PSU gets to play both OSU and MSU at home (this weekend and Oct. 13 following a bye), but they play them in consecutive games. They also have to play arguably the two toughest cross-division opponents, Iowa and Wisconsin (who are a combined 6-2). Lastly, they get Michigan on the road, a team that beat them 49-10 the last time they played at the Big House in 2016.

PSU has been really impressive in its last three weeks and if they want to make the Big Ten Championship game they will have to keep it up.

Wisconsin

Odds to win conference: 4/1

Wisconsin started the season as No. 4 in the nation and was expected to be one of the teams competing for the College Football Playoff.

They easily took care of business in Week 1 and Week 2 but they had a really weird 24-21 loss to BYU in Week 3.

The Badgers currently have the 63rd best offense in the nation with 32.0 ppg. and the 14th best defense, allowing just 14.5 ppg.

Luckily for Wisconsin, they are in the West Division of the Big Ten which means they usually get to avoid a lot of the best Big Ten East teams.

Last year they somehow avoided the top three teams from the East division, OSU, MSU and PSU, and played Michigan at home.

This year they aren’t so lucky. They have to travel to Ann Arbor to face Michigan Oct. 13 and to Happy Valley for a battle with Penn State Nov. 10.

Even with the tougher schedule this year, it doesn’t feel plausible that UW won’t win their division. Even if they have an off year, there is basically no one who can compete with them in their division. UW beat Iowa last week 28-17 and Purdue and Northwestern, seemingly the other two teams to compete with Wisconsin for their division, started 0-3 and 1-2, respectively.

Wisconsin will need to win its tough games against Michigan and Penn State if they want to have a chance at the College Football Playoff, but even if they don’t they will most likely make it to Indianapolis.

Michigan

Odds to win conference: 6/1

The Wolverines are tough to judge right now because of their history of starting the season off strong under Jim Harbaugh and then not continuing it throughout the season. In Harbaugh’s four seasons coaching the Wolverines, Michigan is 14-2 in their first four games of the season.

Michigan is 3-1 right now with blowouts in all three of their victories. They have outscored their opponents 150-33 in their three wins, including putting up 56 points against Nebraska.

Their 41.8 ppg. on offense ranks 23rd in the nation while their 14.2 ppg. allowed on defense is 13th.

Shea Patterson looks to be better than anything Michigan has had at quarterback under Harbaugh with the possible exception of late-season Jake Rudock in 2015.

They have one of the most talented defensive units in the country.

Yet still, it’s hard to make any definitive statements about where the Wolverines are at right now. Last season, Michigan started off 4-0 before losing at home to Michigan State. In 2015, they were 6-0 before losing at home to MSU. Harbaugh is 0-3 against OSU.

With Michigan, as unfair as it may be, it really is wait-and-see mode until they can prove it against a rival.

The Wolverines also have a very difficult schedule ahead of them - the toughest in the country per teamrankings.com. Some of the teams in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten have proven to be not as good as once thought, such as Northwestern and Nebraska. However, Michigan still has to face Penn State and UW at home, and MSU and OSU on the road.

The Wolverines have a tough road ahead, but if they keep playing like they did against Nebraska last week and solve their woes against rivals, the rest of the conference might be in trouble.

Michigan State

Odds to win conference: 10/1

The Spartans started off the season with a close victory over Utah State, winning 38-31. They followed that up with a very disappointing loss to Arizona State where the Spartans basically crumbled at the end of the game.

Beginning the season ranked as No. 11 in the nation, it was a rough start for the Spartans.

There is still hope for the Green and White though. MSU went into Indiana and beat a feisty 3-0 Hoosiers team to notch their first win of the conference season. In typical MSU fashion, the Spartans controlled the game for a large portion of the contest and then let Indiana make it close at the end.

Quarterback Brian Lewerke has had his ups and downs, but the ability of the team to move the ball largely falls on his shoulders. The two running backs who played for Michigan State, La’darius Jefferson and Connor Heyward, combined for 57 yards rushing against Indiana.

The Spartans played all of the Indiana game and most of the ASU game without starting running back L.J. Scott due to a reported ankle issue. The Scott injury is one of a litany the Spartans have been dealing with early on in the season including key ones in both the secondary and on the offensive line. (CB Josiah Scott, OL Cole Chewins, OL Kevin Jarvis)

The main thing the Spartans have going for them is their schedule - it ranks 19th nationally compared to Michigan (1st), Ohio State (3rd) and Penn State (4th). They have to travel to Happy Valley but will be facing a Penn State team in their first game after an emotional test against OSU. Then the Spartans get both Michigan and Ohio State on their home turf. Winning all three of those games will be a massive challenge, but it sets up about as well as Michigan State could ask for.

If MSU wins at least two of those and have no other screw ups they will have a shot at the conference championship game. If they win one, they will have no chance.

MSU will need to improve how they have played thus far. Some mistakes have to be cleaned up, such as Lewerke’s four interceptions through three games. The Spartans also have to establish the run, which has been a major struggle thus far.

On the defensive side of the ball, MSU has been really strong against the run, ranking as the No. 1 rush defense in the country and allowing just 32.7 rush yards per game. However, they have allowed 323.7 passing yards per game which is 123rd in the nation. Teams are largely attacking them with short, quick passes on the perimeter to great effect. Since MSU often has the box stacked to attack the run, they are a lot more vulnerable on the edge.

The Spartans have shown a history of cleaning these issues up as the season goes on. As it currently stands, MSU has the chance to make the Big Ten Championship game but only if they fix the issues they’ve shown thus far.

Iowa

Odds to win conference: 25/1

Quite frankly, the only reason that the Hawkeyes make this list is because they play in the West division.

Iowa lost its Big Ten opener to Wisconsin but still has a shot at making the conference championship game largely due to schedule. Iowa plays just one of the Big Ten East powers and finishes its season against four teams currently with losing records: Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois and Nebraska.

The Hawkeyes have played really well on the defensive side of the ball thus far, allowing just 13 ppg., which is sixth in the nation. Their 25.2 offensive ppg. ranks 97th in the nation.

The path to Indianapolis is for the Hawkeyes to win at Penn State and then to take care of the rest of the teams on their schedule who they should be favorited against. Now, even if they do that there is the potential for them to not make it because Wisconsin holds the tiebreaker.

However, if Wisconsin loses to both PSU and U-M, they would have two losses and Iowa wouldn’t need the tiebreaker and would essentially back into the conference championship game.

Since Iowa lost their key game against Wisconsin in Week 4, their odds of making the championship game are much lower but because of how weak the division is, they still have a reasonable chance.

Comments
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"They have 17 passing touchdowns through four games, which is five more than they had all of last year."

Lifetime Buckeye fan here...

I am at work and don't have the time to track down the TD passes total from all of last year. But I would bet my '98 Toyota Camry it is more than 12. Being charitable, I will assume that you meant to say that they have 5 more passing TDs through the first four games than last year. Other than that enjoyable read Mr. Birkle!

I also think that you discredit Iowa's chances to end up in Indy in December. Their path is to beat PSU and their lesser West foes, which I would say is easier than Wisconsin winning at Penn State and Michigan.

Finally looking at the last couple of editions of The Game, your wolverines were a healthy Wilton Speight away from wins. So I would say that Vegas is undervaluing your chances at the B1G title game.

Good luck this week, beat Northwestern!