It Was A Bad Week For The Big Ten… Or Was It?
You saw the results from the Big Ten last weekend. It wasn’t good. Or at least that is what you might think at first.
The conference had seven non-conference losses on Saturday, all of them to unranked teams. That’s the first time that has happened since the AP poll was created in 1936 (The conference only had 10 or 11 teams for the majority of that time, but still stunning, nonetheless.)
The losses were ugly, too. The No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers lost at home 24-21 to unranked BYU after missing a game-tying field goal at the buzzer. Rutgers got spanked 55-14 by Kansas. Yes, the basketball school Kansas, who went 1-11 last season!
The losses continue. Nebraska and first-year head coach Scott Frost lost at home to Troy 24-19. Temple beat Maryland 35-14 in College Park. South Florida beat Illinois 25-19. Purdue lost at home 40-37 to Missouri. Lastly, Northwestern held a 21-0 lead at home against Akron and went on to lose 39-34.
On paper, it was a disastrous weekend for the Big Ten.
But let's look at the big picture for a second.
This is 2018, which means all that really matters for a Power Five conference is having a team that makes the playoff. The Big Ten has had a team in the playoff three out of the four years the playoff has existed. Ohio State in 2014, Michigan State in 2015 and Ohio State again in 2016.
The only time the conference hasn’t been represented was last year when it was the perfect storm of Wisconsin going undefeated against a weak schedule, then losing in the Big Ten championship. Also, the Big Ten East was a complete meat grinder. Ohio State ended up winning the division and the conference with a 10-2 record. Penn State was also 10-2, MSU was 9-3 and Michigan was 8-4.
One key detail from last season was that Ohio State ended up missing the playoff because they had to play a frisky Iowa team on the road. The Buckeyes were able to play well and win against the three key teams in their division (MSU, U-M, PSU) but had a lapse in focus against Iowa. The Hawkeyes ended up being good enough to beat OSU on an off-day, knocking the Buckeyes out of the playoff.
After three weeks, it seems like there are far fewer of those frisky, middle-of-the-pack teams than we anticipated.
Michigan’s schedule is a good example of this. The tough games still remain on their schedule. Wisconsin and Penn State at home and Michigan State and Ohio State on the road. However, the rest of the games on the schedule that at one time seemed prime for a trip-up game aren’t there anymore.
The next three weeks, the Wolverines play Nebraska at home, Northwestern on the road and Maryland at home. Those three teams just lost to Troy, Akron and Temple, respectively, and are a combined 3-5 overall.
Had those teams been as good or better than we expected preseason, that would have been a tough lead in to an even tougher stretch where the Wolverines have Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State consecutively. Now it looks like Michigan should take care of business in their next three games and will be looking at a 5-1 overall record (and 3-0 in the Big Ten) and will be riding a five-game win streak when they face the Badgers.
Michigan’s task has been drastically simplified now. Win the big games and take care of the teams who couldn’t beat their non-Power Five opponents and there is a path to the playoff.
The same basic concept is true for the other four main competitors for the conference title, MSU, OSU, UW and PSU.
Yes, the conference no doubt took a short term blow. But the results from Saturday show a conference that sets up perfectly for the teams at the top.
First-Year Head Coaches Tanking
In total, 12 Power 5 college football programs have new coaches in 2018.
Through the first three weeks of the season, the new Power 5 coaches have a combined record of 18-17.
That number doesn’t really pop off the screen, but it doesn’t tell the full story.
Some of the nation's most elite programs are among those who made switches last offseason.
Nebraska, Florida, Florida State and UCLA are all respected, top-tier college football programs who made high profile coaching changes this offseason. They are off to a combined 3-8 start.
Some of those losses have included Troy (NEB,) Syracuse (FSU,) Cincinnati and Fresno State (UCLA,) and Kentucky (UF.)
Florida State’s lack of success has been the biggest story out of those teams mentioned above. The Seminoles had to replace national championship winning coach Jimbo Fisher after seven seasons in Tallahassee when Fisher decided to leave for a massive new contract with Texas A&M.
The Seminoles brought in Willie Taggart, who spent four seasons with USF and then just one season with the Oregon Ducks before taking over at FSU. Taggart was 2-10 in his first season with the Bulls before going 10-2 in year four, but he likely won’t get that much wiggle room with a program the size of Florida State. Taggart was 7-6 in his one season with the Ducks.
It has been disastrous thus far for Taggart at FSU. The Seminoles have simply been unable to move the ball. Their 15.3 points per game is 123rd in the nation.
They opened the season with a 24-3 loss to Virginia Tech, narrowly escaped FCS opponent Samford 36-26 in Week 2 and then lost 30-7 to Syracuse last week.
In their two games against conference opponents, they have scored a combined 10 points.
Taggart remains positive, but after a start that has shown little glimpses of hope, fans are getting nervous.
"I am confident that we will get it done," Taggart told ESPN. “But all the words and coaching clichés and insistence that we must do better won't help us play better. That comes in the form of coaching. That is why we coach. It is on me and our assistants to get this right, and we will. I believe in this team. I believe this team will get it done."
UCLA hasn’t been much better than Florida State in their first three games under former Oregon, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers coach Chip Kelly.
Kelly was brought in for Jim Mora, who was relieved of his duties after a two year stretch where he went 9-14.
Kelly is known for his fast-pace, revolutionary offense that he popularized at Oregon before successfully running a variation for a few years with the Eagles. So far, revolutionary is the one word you would not use to describe the Bruins offense.
UCLA is scoring 17.3 ppg., which ranks 121st in the nation. Their defense hasn’t been much better. They’ve allowed 37.7 ppg., which is good for 114th in the nation.
Other than the blowout loss on the road to No. 6 Oklahoma, UCLA's losses have been at home to beatable teams. Cincinnati beat UCLA 26-17 in Week 1 and Fresno State smacked them 38-14 last week.
The Florida Gators decided to part ways with coach Jim McElwain last year after he got off to a 3-4 start in his third year at the helm. They hired Dan Mullen away from in-conference Mississippi State and the results so far have been mixed.
The Gators have clobbered their two non-conference opponents, beating FCS opponent Charleston Southern 53-6 and beating Colorado State 48-10.
However, the Gators did something they haven’t done since 1986, lose to Kentucky. The Wildcats beat the Gators 27-16, ending Florida’s 31-game win streak in the series. It was the first time UF has lost to UK in Gainesville since 1979.
Whenever a loss of that magnitude occurs there are going to be nervous fans, but Mullen isn’t putting too much stock into it.
"One game never defines anything. That’s one game in a long season,” Mullen told Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times.
Lastly, there is Nebraska. The Cornhuskers brought in their former quarterback, Frost, to take over after his incredible season with UCF last year where they went 13-0 and won the Peach Bowl against Auburn.
Frost was presented as the savior for the Nebraska program that hasn’t found their stride since letting go of Bo Pelini in 2014.
The Cornhuskers were rained out in their home opener. In Week 2 they lost at home 33-28 to Colorado. Then last week they lost a shocker to Troy 24-19.
Their 23.5 ppg. ranks them as the 103rd offense in the nation. They have allowed 28.5 ppg., which is 90th in the nation.
There are some first-year coaches who have found some early success. Herm Edwards, who was on ESPN as an analyst last season and hasn't coached at the collegiate level since 1989, has far outdone expectations, beating No. 15 Michigan State in just his second game.
Jimbo Fisher has Texas A&M ranked No. 22 and is 2-1 with the only loss being a 28-26 loss to No. 2 Clemson. Former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is 3-0 in his first year in charge at Mississippi State.
Nonetheless, there are quite a few coaches who wish they could re-do their first three weeks as the man in charge.
Based on the way college football works today, they likely won’t be given much time to fix it.
Look no further than many of the new coaches’ predecessors. McElwain was given less than three seasons to right the wheel at Florida and he won 19 games in his first two years. Mike Riley was given just three years at Nebraska. Mora went 9-5, 10-3, 10-3 and 8-5 in his first four years but was fired after just two bad seasons.
There is no grace period in college football anymore, especially at major programs. The clock is ticking. These new coaches better not blink or they'll miss their chance.