We’re heading into the eleventh week of college football. More importantly, though, we’re heading into the seventh week of Big Ten conference play. The Big Ten isn’t really more or less important than any other conference at any given time, however, this year it’s the most consistent. For example, before this season I would’ve told you that to beat Boston College you only needed to score about 17 points, which to be fair, wasn’t going to be easy against their defense. However, since a 23-10 loss to Virginia Tech October 7th, the Eagles have scored 35 or more in every game. Admittedly, these are against bad teams, but Boston College used to be a bad team with an inept offense. Now they’re a mediocre team that can put up a ton of points on you if you’re not careful. That’s weird!
Another example: the Pac-12 hierarchy is usually very cut and dry. The teams that are good and teams that are bad have been consistently so for the last few years, save for the occasional upstart season by say, Colorado in 2016. But look at the 2017 standings, and things get weird.
Oregon is 2-5 and would be last if Oregon State wasn’t a perpetual chaotic mess! Arizona State and Arizona were supposed to be bad this year but they’re still very much in the Pac-12 South race! This is most unusual!
Even the SEC isn’t making sense this year. Auburn, a team coached by Gus Malzahn, is relying on stellar defensive play and has no passing game whatsoever. LSU lost to a Sun Belt team and then two weeks later came back from a 16-point deficit against Auburn to win 27-23. ‘Bama…well, ‘Bama is still ‘Bama, but we have to have some consistency somewhere. But that brings me back to my point: consistency.
For all the weird stuff that’s happened in 2017, the Big Ten has had the least amount. There’s maybe one or two exceptiona to this, but even those come with a caveat. In any case, I felt it important to put together a survival guide for fans of Big Ten teams and college football alike to understand what Big Ten teams should and definitely should not do in conference play.
Do not play Northwestern late in the season.
This might seem like a weird one to lead off with, but it’s true. If you’re a Big Ten team, you do not want Northwestern in November. Ever since 2013, when the Wildcats lost all but one conference game, they’ve been money in the last month of the regular season. In 2014, the Cats lost by one to Michigan before beating No. 18 Notre Dame in overtime at South Bend and stomping Purdue. In 2015 they went 10-2 and won five of their last six, including a 13-7 win at Wisconsin. Last season, Northwestern came into November at 4-4, but went 2-2 in November and played highly-ranked Ohio State and Wisconsin all the way to fourth quarter.
In 2017, the Wildcats have won their last three games, all in overtime, becoming the first FBS team to do so. After a 2-4 start they’ve won four-straight, are second in the Big Ten west division, and have a very good chance to end the season with nine wins with a manageable November slate. Avoid the Wildcats like the plague in the second half of the season.
You have to score more than 24 points to beat Wisconsin.
This is, I think, one of the wildest thing I’ve noticed about the Big Ten over the last few years. Since Paul Chryst took over in 2015, the Badgers are 30-6. The crazy part? In 32 of those 36 games, the Badgers held their opponent to 24 points or less, and in those games they’re a staggering 29-3. That’s ludicrously consistent. In games in which their opponent kicks as many or more field goals than they score touchdowns, Wisconsin is 15-1, with their one loss being in overtime to no. 2 Ohio State last season. Simply put: you can not kick field goals against Wisconsin. You can’t play for field position or try to grind out a low-scoring win. The Badgers’ history suggests that they’ll almost certainly win.
DO NOT FOR, THE LOVE OF GOD, GO TO IOWA CITY.
This is good advice all year, but especially in the second half of the season. The Hawkeyes have made a habit out of turning games at Kinnick Stadium into dangerous ventures for their opponents, whether their highly-ranked or not. It’s not as if they’re impossible to beat at home – since 2013 Iowa is 23-10 when they play in Kinnick Stadium. But in those ten losses, Iowa’s average margin of defeat is a mere six points, meaning that even beating the Hawkeyes on the road isn’t fun. It’s going to be close, it’s going to be frustrating, and it’s going to leave a bad taste in your mouth. In the last two season, especially, the Hawkeyes have made a habit of making their home field a tough place to play for good teams. Last year they edged out no. 2 Michigan 14-13 and blew out no. 17 Nebraska 40-10, and just last weekend they pasted Ohio State 55-24 (full disclosure: that game and score don’t make any sense at all, even with Iowa’s record for making teams struggle on their home field). It’s looking very smart of Wisconsin to be hosting the Hawkeyes next weekend, as opposed to playing them on the road, though if Iowa is putting up half a hundred on good teams now, Wisconsin can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye.
You probably want to play Nebraska in November.
The Huskers got a bad rap for November performance under Bo Pelini. While the media covering the program liked to point out his teams’ inability to close out seasons, in his seven seasons as head coach Nebraska went 21-8 in November. That’s not all that bad, though when you compare it to his 40-13 record in August-October games, it does indicate that his teams tended to get a little worse down the home stretch of the regular season. Under Mike Riley, though, the Huskers are only 4-4 in the three Novembers he’s coached. They’ve haven’t won more than twice in the final month of the regular season since 2013 (in which they played five November games instead of four) and haven’t won every game in the month since 2012. Nebraska replaced Pelini with Riley in the hopes that they could win both the big games and the games late into the season. They’ve yet to show that they can consistently do either, and the odds are that Riley’s tenure at Nebraska will end with a November record below .500. Yeesh.
Avoid Michigan State if you’re pissed off or trying to make the playoff.
This one is particularly funny, more than anything else. The Spartans have made a habit of both stopping playoff hopefuls dead in their tracks as well as causing pissed off teams to spin their tires and leave even more frustrated than before. Exhibit A: last weekend, in which Michigan State topped a Penn State team fresh off their first loss of the season – a final minute, one-point loss to Ohio State. The Spartans won a weather-delayed, slog of a game on a last second field goal to win 24-21. That’s not all though; even in 2016 when Michigan State went a horrific 3-9, they still only lost to Ohio State by a single point after a.) opting for and failing to score a two-point conversion that would’ve given them a lead with five minutes left to play in the game and b.) getting the ball back with two minutes left and a chance to drive for a game-winning field goal, which was ended by an interception. Oh, and speaking of Ohio State, there was that time in 2015 when they won on a last-second field goal, handing the Buckeyes their first and only loss, and frustrating them so badly that half of Ohio State’s roster opted to enter the draft. That was also the season they played undefeated Iowa in the Big Ten championship, who just needed to win and secure their first playoff birth, and won 16-13 after a 9:22 fourth quarter drive to score (one of the best I’ve ever seen in the sport, if I’m being honest).
The Spartans stole the final playoff spot from both the Buckeyes and the Hawkeyes. Never mind what they did after that, it doesn’t matter, just don’t ask.
Surely every team in the Big Ten has learned to absolutely avoid Michigan State in a scenario in which you’re either pissed off, looking for a playoff berth, or both, right?