Thing are about to get crazy in the Big Ten.
At least I think they will. Right now, Minnesota has a two-game lead on the rest of the West Division with four games to play. Over in the East, Ohio State and Penn State are tied atop the division. Those two will play in a couple of weeks. This week, the Nittany Lions head to Minneapolis.
Despite the Buckeyes' excellence, and the Gophers' record, this has the feel of one of those Kentucky Derbies where most of the field comes around the turn tightly bunched (which is most of them). There's going to be bumps and jostling, fouls and randomness, poor decisions and great ones, and some team is going to be left standing at the end of it. But the amazing thing is, with three-quarters of the race already run, how much still has to happen over the last quarter.
ESPN's FPI has eight Big Ten teams ranked in the top 20 based on remaining strength of schedule. In the can't-catch-a-break category, Rutgers has the most difficult remaining schedule in the country. The Scarlet Knights (2-7) still have to play Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State. Michigan (4th-toughest), Indiana (7th), Nebraska (9th), Maryland (11th), Minnesota (12th), Illinois (15th) and Purdue (16th) also have tough roads ahead.
There's a lot of intrigue here. Nebraska and Illinois will have to fight uphill to get bowl eligible. Minnesota and Indiana will try to hang on to special seasons against the traditional powers of the Big Ten. (They'll still be special seasons even if the Gophers or Hoosiers drop a few.) Penn State, which doesn't have one of the 20 toughest remaining schedules according to FPI, could have a say in both division races (and it faces Indiana, too).
It's been a strong year for the Big Ten. In Bill Connelly's latest conference/division rankings (to transition to a different power ranking), the Big Ten East came in second, which isn't that out of the norm in recent years, but the Big Ten West was fourth.
SP+ conference and division averages.
The only change from last week: the AAC West jumped the Pac-12 South to move into sixth overall. Damn. pic.twitter.com/xGUgCKwqJo
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) November 3, 2019
That is different.
Nebraska lost the November game it absolutely couldn't lose on Saturday. That's been received about as you'd expect and deserves to be examined for exactly what it is. But when we get to the offseason and start zooming out to get a better sense of why the Huskers' 2019 season went the way it did, a surprisingly strong year in the Big Ten might have to be part of that conversation.
Maybe just a tiny part. Nebraska has plenty it needs to figure out internally before worrying about how good every other team is, but trying to figure those things out in a year when the Big Ten appears to be a little stronger than usual is particularly bad timing.
That's not meant as any sort of excuse for Nebraska sitting at 4-5, but it might help explain why, after losing to the worst team left on the schedule, the Huskers’ drop perhaps wasn’t as drastica in the three power rankings we've looked at each week as you might have expected. Nebraska fell seven spots in Sagarin and six spots in SP+, but didn't move at all in FPI.
It was a zeroing of the scale in one sense. Nebraska's SP+ rank is now 3.7. The Huskers finished last year at 3.4.
The Grab Bag
- Is it time for Nebraska’s quarterbacks to start getting tackled in practice?
- Jacob Padilla previews the Nebraska basketball season ahead with a roster breakdown. (Premium)
- Greg Smith caught up with Canadian lineman Leif Magnuson following a Sunday visit to Lincoln.
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.