Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the Big Ten’s hottest topics.
1. The history of B1G
Let me take you to the land of disbelief, bewildered fans and confused critics. Right in the gut of why polls are more dangerous than you might think.
And why, 6 weeks from now, Championship weekend, those same polls will have dictated such a strong narrative it just might bring the Big Ten 2 teams into the college football playoffs.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the curious case of the state of Ohio.
“A crazy talented team,” said Maryland coach Mike Locksley.
We know this because the Buckeyes are ranked No.5 nationally, ahead of 4 undefeated Power 5 teams – including rivals Big Ten Michigan and Michigan State.
We know this because the Buckeyes have scored at least 41 points in every game but one (we’ll get to this juicy issue in a moment), and they have a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender (QB CJ Stroud) and top freshman. at college football (TB TreVeyon Henderson).
They form a complete team. How could they not be? They are ranked No. 5 in the country.
Now let me tell you what we really know about the state of Ohio from what has happened on the ground:
- The Buckeyes played against a ranked team and lost. At home.
- The Buckeyes’ 5 wins came against teams that did not beat a ranked team. Two of those wins are against schools in the Group of 5 with record defeats.
Still, there’s Ohio State, weeks away from coach Ryan Day demoting defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs because the defense was playing so poorly, and a blast from the top 4 teams in the country.
Polls don’t mean anything, you say. Oh, but they do – and never believe anyone who tells you that the CFP selection board isn’t swayed by polls, numbers and trends.
I’ve been there before, been part of a fictional selection (we made fun of the highly controversial 2008 season) where arguments between fictional committee members start and end with beating ranked teams, losing to ranked teams, beating teams when they were ranked and when they weren’t, and beating and losing against unranked teams.
Rankings, rankings, rankings. They want to say it all.
Until the last week of the regular season, when eye testing takes center stage and is the ultimate arbiter as to who plays in the CFP and who doesn’t.
Coming to Championship Weekend with your best CV argument (because that’s what they are) gives you the best chance of pulling off something rare. Such as, 2 teams from a conference playing in the CFP.
It’s a simple process, really. All you have to do is feed the rankings echo chamber.
The Big Ten office saw it and brilliantly scheduled the Eastern Division round robin at Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in the final 5 weeks of the season.
The only problem in the plan: Sean Clifford’s injury. If the Penn State quarterback hadn’t been injured in the loss to Iowa, the Lions would be undefeated heading into an Oct. 30 game at Ohio State – and the first loud scream in the leaderboard’s echo chamber .
Four teams enter, and if all goes well, two leave with a CV worthy of CFP. They will all have a loss or two, but those losses would be reciprocal – thus minimizing the fact that in the polling age any loss is a damaging loss.
Unless it’s another elite team.
Penn State’s victory this season is Auburn at home, an Auburn team that also lost to Georgia and will have at least 4 losses by the end of the season.
Michigan State’s best unbeaten win is against a Miami team whose coach will be fired by the end of the season.
Unbeaten Michigan didn’t beat a ranked team.
The 4 teams in the East division are ranked in the top 8 in the coaches survey. Barring a disruption this weekend, all will be in one place – maybe even higher – when the round robin tournament kicks off on October 30 with Michigan at Michigan State and Penn State at Ohio State.
Here’s where we get back to Ohio State, which can’t afford a second round robin loss as it already has a home loss to Oregon. The Buckeyes were dominated and coached in the September loss, and the game wasn’t as close as the 7-point margin.
Still, there’s Ohio State, based on 2 Group of 5 wins, no wins against ranked teams and no opponents against ranked teams, 5 places ahead of Oregon – which lost in overtime to Stanford.
You better believe the rankings mean something. You better believe that every CFP committee member reviews these rankings every week, and until the first week of the CFP poll from November 2-3 after the start of the Eastern Division round robin.
And just in case those East Division games don’t produce 2 worthy CFP teams, they can bolster the Ohio State argument against a one-loss SEC team (conference champion or runner-up) and, yes, even Oregon – the same team that Ohio State lost to Columbus.
2. The choice
Penn State is in the classic tween position at quarterback, waiting to see how quickly starter Sean Clifford recovers from an unspecified injury.
The Lions know what they have in backup Ta’Quan Roberson, a potentially dynamic dual threat who struggled against Iowa in Clifford’s replacement. To be fair, the rest of the PSU offense didn’t help: pass protection was shaky and receivers weren’t separating.
Then there’s scheming freshman Christian Veilleux, the third-team quarterback who couldn’t put pressure on Roberson for the fall camp replacement. In fact, it was not close.
But it’s close now, and the staff at Penn State opened the contest this week. This is not necessarily a good thing.
“If it’s close, it really shouldn’t be, right?” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “The guy who’s been in the program for a long time, and the guy who gets the most reps, should be able to widen the gap. And right now, it’s a bit close.
Roberson is due to start on Saturday, if only to give him a new look with the offensive line and receivers. He must also play in a controlled environment at Beaver Stadium to gain confidence.
If he’s still struggling, move to Veilleux – and hope Clifford is in good health for the state of Ohio.
3. Pride of the portal
Kenneth Walker III could be the most significant non-neighborhood addition in the transfer portal’s brief history.
Most Valuable Player in the first half of the Big Ten season, Walker decided to leave Wake Forest in the first week of January – then chose the state of Michigan without seeing the East Lansing campus and without meeting the ‘Spartans coach Mel Tucker face to face.
“I spoke to him on the phone and I felt pretty confident and comfortable about it,” Walker said.
Think about this: In Tucker’s first season last year – which appears to be years ago – the Spartans had 2 rushing touchdowns. By a tight end and a quarterback.
Thirteen seconds into his career in Michigan, Walker hit a 75-yard touchdown on the first carry of his first game. He had 264 yards in Game 1 of the season against Northwestern, and has 997 yards and 9 touchdowns in 7 games and averaged 6.6 yards per game.
He went from sharing races at Wake Forest in 2020 to being one of the top Heisman Trophy contenders for the undefeated Michigan State.
His former team, Wake Forest, are also undefeated. A Deacons staff member told me the team were ‘shocked’ when Walker decided to enter the transfer portal – even though he pulled out in the last month of the Covid season.
“We don’t often have guys like that here,” he said. “He was just on point, and now everyone is seeing what we knew would happen.”
4. Power on
This week’s Power Poll, and one important thing: an unsung midseason hero.
1. State of Ohio: WR Garrett Wilson. That’s all Chris Olave, all the time. Wilson is more productive and consistent.
2. Michigan: LB David Ojabo. Aidan Hutchinson gets All-America honors, Ojabo gets doubles and still has an impact.
3. State of Michigan: S Angelo Grose. Tucker wanted a high school executor. Grose is a big hitter with 6 defended passes.
4. Penn State: S Jaquan Brisker. The rest of an elite high school gets more publicity, but Brisker, a former transfer from JuCo, brings it in for support and cover.
5. Iowa: C Tyler Linderbaum. A mauler in the middle, and the heart of the Iowa offensive line.
6. Purdue: TE Payne Durham. Makes tough catches seem easy, a safe and consistent third-try threat.
7. Minnesota: FROM Thomas Rush. A microcosm of Coach PJ Fleck’s Row the Boat mantra. A career save that saved his best season to the end.
8. Wisconsin: TE Jake Ferguson. Never got the credit for a strong, neglected career. More of the same in 2021.
9. Maryland: RB Tayon Fleet-Davis. He weighs 220 pounds and can run, and has formidable hands in the passing game. Requires more than 12.1 keys per game.
10. Indiana: LB Micah McFadden. Rare combination of pass rusher and cover linebacker. Stout run stuffer.
11. Nebraska: CB Cam Taylor-Britt. A strong blanket that plays with an attitude. Built and played like an NFL wedge.
12. Rutgers: P Adam Korsak. Bettor, Rutgers, we understand. Don’t laugh, Korsak and his big leg will be playing in the NFL.
13. Northwest: WR Stephon Robinson. Big playing potential stuck in an attack without a big playing quarterback.
14. Illinois: RB Chase Brown. Super talent that would have the All-Big Ten hype in any heavyweight program in the league.
5. The five weeklies
Five picks against the spread.
Ohio State (-20) at Indiana
Illinois (23.5) at Penn State
Maryland vs. Minnesota (-5)
Northwest Michigan (-23.5)
Wisconsin to Purdue (+3)
Last week: 4-1.