Is the Big Ten East the best division in college football?
It may not be yet. But it could be very soon. And just think for a moment how remarkable that is.
It was only a couple years back when College Football Nation still thought of the Big Ten as a football has-been; for a good long while, it seemed it was only the efforts of the Ohio State Buckeyes that kept the league relevant on a national scale. And even the Buckeyes had a nasty habit of falling on their faces when they came up against the nation’s big boys.
There were some who even proclaimed the Big Ten to be dead for good.
Well, they were wrong. And today, the Big Ten East is a big reason why.
We’ll take a closer look at one of the best divisions in America right here, as we continue to examine the biggest issues facing the Big Ten ahead of the 2015 college football season.
Can the Big Ten East really become the best division in college football?
It won’t be easy. But it’s certainly possible.
Look, I know last season was not exactly a stellar one for the SEC West. Alabama got steamrolled by Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal, and the Tide’s fellow West programs fared poorly in bowl season as well. LSU lost in somewhat embarrassing fashion to an average-at-best Notre Dame team in the Music City Bowl. Ole Miss barely showed up and got flat-out obliterated by TCU in the Peach Bowl. Mississippi State, after a dream start to the season, faded down the stretch and then saw its campaign end with a whimper against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. And perhaps most tellingly for the division, Auburn gave up more than 400 rushing yards in a loss to Wisconsin—the same Wisconsin team that Ohio State so completely dominated in the Big Ten title game.
So, yeah, it was a rough end of 2014 for the SEC West, and the nation—especially those who have grown SEC-weary over the past decade—relished the bowl results for the supposed “best division in college football.” Putting those bowl results aside, though, I happen to believe that, yes, the SEC West enters 2015 as … still the best division in college football.
Those programs may have been laid low last year, but the simple reality is that the SEC West has more programs with a higher ceiling—right now, at least—than any other division in the country. I believe the Big Ten East is good. I believe the Big Ten East has the potential to be outstanding. But it’s not quite there yet.
The reason is obvious: Neither Penn State nor Michigan are anywhere near running at full capacity.
Both programs have been thrown off track for various reasons, and both are still a good ways short—in both talent, and in depth—of being able to compete with the Alabamas and Auburns and even LSUs of the world. Now, it’s true that both Ohio State and Michigan State are at that level, and I have to assume that both will remain there so long as their respective coaches stick around. But this division simply cannot reach its full potential until it has both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines firing on all cylinders. With James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh in charge, both are well on their way, but it will be at least two more years before both programs have the kind of depth that Auburn and LSU currently have.
Beyond that—and I say this with all due respect to the good folks at Maryland and Rutgers—I don’t foresee a day when either the Terps or Scarlet Knights are going to be operating on a level even close what to what the Mississippi schools offer. Neither Ole Miss nor Mississippi State are ever going to be consistent powerhouses. But they are good programs with avid fan bases who have managed to find a way to compete, occasionally, in an absolutely brutal division. Just look at what happened to Maryland against the better teams in the Big Ten last year. Now imagine how they would would far in the SEC. They’re not built for it.
Is there any chance that anyone tops Ohio State for the divisional crown this season?
I find it to be extremely, extremely unlikely. But of course, it’s possible.
One of the traps we tend to fall into when it comes to preseason predictions is basing too much or our team evaluations on what happened at the tail end of last season; it’s only natural of course. But any coach will tell you that, even if you’re returning 90 percent of your starters in any given year, each and every team is different. The leadership is different. The confidence is different. The expectations are different. And the willingness to work is different. Ohio State had a phenomenal season in 2014. The Buckeyes are the rightful preseason No. 1, and the obvious favorite to win their own division.
But Michigan State is a Top-10 team that is no longer scared of the Buckeyes. Penn State is slowly rebuilding under James Franklin. And, yeah, you can be certain that Harbaugh would like nothing more than to knock off the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor in his first season with the Wolverines.
Ohio State, on paper, is the best team in the division. But it has work to do. It would be wise to take nothing—not even wins over the lower lights of the league—for granted. Because that’s how titles are lost.