If you look at the new AP Poll, you’ll find one common theme: Big Ten. And lots of it. Even as SEC power Georgia sits at the top of the polls, the five middle America powerhouses are stealing the show.
No. 2 Iowa, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 Penn State, No. 8 Michigan and No. 10 Michigan State all sit in the top 10 halfway through the season. And while we expected the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions to be there, nobody could have predicted the Hawkeyes knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff. Or Sparty undergoing a quick rebuild under head coach Mel Tucker, who has to be the frontrunner for Coach of the Year. But here they are, and ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit has taken notice.
Speaking with ESPN anchor Matt Barrie on the ESPN College Football Podcast, Herbstreit went as far to liken the Big Ten East to the old and vaunted SEC West.
“By the way, and I know you know this, four teams from the Big Ten East in the top 10 this week,” Herbstreit said. “I’m not saying it’s gonna finish that way, but with what Michigan State and Michigan have done, pretty fascinating to see. It’s just like the SEC West forever. We’ve always bragged about the SEC West and the depth and it’s the toughest division in football.
“All of a sudden, with Mel Tucker and Jim Harbaugh, with what their teams are doing, to join Ohio State and Penn State, it’s a heckuva — throw in Iowa, and you have five teams in the top 10. The Big Ten is really enjoying a big year.”
The Big Ten’s success even spreads to 3-4 Nebraska, who has been much better than their record might indicate. After a brutal 30-22 loss on Aug. 28 to Illinois, the Cornhuskers have played three top-10 teams close in recent weeks. Losses to Oklahoma, Michigan State and Michigan by a combined 13 points show that Nebraska is on the upswing, perhaps a victim of the tough conference. They have, however, struggled in critical situations in all three of those games, despite playing well enough to win all of them.
“Nebraska’s played well enough to be (six) and one right now, and they are creating ways to lose games,” Herbstreit said. “They have been snakebit. They are turning the ball over in critical moments. They played well enough to beat Michigan State. They played well enough to hang in there with Michigan and maybe win that one at home. You just feel bad.”
While the Big Ten seems destined to see at least one team in the College Football Playoff, the road ahead will get tougher. Of the five teams currently in the top 10, only Iowa and Penn State have played so far.
The critical week in which we’ll see who rises to the top of the conference will come on Halloween eve. On that night, Penn State and Ohio State will do battle in Columbus, while Michigan will travel to play Michigan State in East Lansing. Those two games will dictate how this plays out, but until then, the Big Ten has the distinction of being the best conference in college football.