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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Column: Big Ten down, but do not change title game structure

In the Wisconsin football team’s ninth game last season, it lost a heartbreaker in Columbus, Ohio. Not only did freshman quarterback Braxton Miller throw the game-winning touchdown with 40 seconds left, but the Badgers had lost on a Hail Mary just seven days earlier to Michigan State.

Compounding the loss was the sense that all title hopes were out the window. National title dreams vanished with no time on the clock in East Lansing, Mich., the week before, and then in the first year of divisional alignment in the Big Ten, it appeared conference title hopes were dashed as well.

We all know what happened. Penn State had a killer finish to its schedule and it couldn’t be overcome. Wisconsin won its remaining three games and wound up in Indianapolis and eventually, Pasadena, Calif. Through the whole gauntlet, not many questioned the talent on the Badger sideline. It just looked, for a while, that late-game shenanigans would cost them dearly.

Fast forward a year. Wisconsin’s ninth game ended in its third loss of the season  Saturday at Camp Randall against the Spartans. It was ugly and got uglier when news came that redshirt freshman Joel Stave played his last snap of the season thanks to a broken collarbone. Yet the Badgers are still the overwhelming favorite to represent the Leaders Division in the conference title game Dec. 1. They are a game ahead of Indiana in the loss column, and neither Illinois nor Purdue can win the league.

At the beginning of the season, not many would have picked Wisconsin at Indiana Nov. 10 as a circle-the-calendar game. Really, it isn’t. Yet still, it will matter in the Leaders race this year.

That isn’t sitting well with some observers—and some members—of the conference. Before the season ever started, knowing that both Penn State and Ohio State would be ineligible for post-season play, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald suggested a committee pick two teams for the title game at the end of the season, regardless of whether that team is a Legend or a Leader. It didn’t gain much traction at the time. More recently—Monday afternoon, to be exact—ESPN’s Brian Bennett penned a column suggesting the Big Ten couldn’t be faulted for revisiting the idea or for letting Ohio State play in Indianapolis. The thinking being that, even if the Buckeyes can’t play in the bowl, it would be better than having a mediocre team representing the Leaders Division.

Let me start by getting a couple things out of the way. First, I really like the work Bennett and his Big Ten blog mate Adam Rittenberg do for ESPN. For the number of teams and amount of ground they have to cover, the really do a good job and they’re putting out fresh content nearly around the clock.

I also will not have any problem saying Wisconsin backed into the title game if it doesn’t beat Ohio State or finish with the best overall record in the Leaders division. That’s not guaranteed yet, but it could very well happen. The Badgers can only play the hand they’re dealt, but we can also be real about the situation.

That aside, here’s why the conference ought to just roll with the current setup. First of all, it would be more embarrassing for the league to allow Ohio State or Penn State to play than it would for Indiana to represent the conference in its own title game. The Buckeyes have a tremendous future under Urban Meyer and I’ve got nothing but respect for the job Bill O’Brien, and all the players that elected to stay in State College, Penn., have done this year for the Nittany Lions. PSU quarterback Matt McGloin might be the best story in the league, and it’s really nice to see him have a terrific senior year.

However, both schools are ineligible for very good reasons, and the game would be even less meaningful if 1) the league allows teams that are otherwise being punished the reward of playing at Lucas Oil Stadium, and 2) the Legends Divison winner is assured a trip to the Rose Bowl before the game even kicks off, as Bennett suggests.

That becomes even more acute when you consider that the top two teams in the Legends, Michigan and Nebraska, haven’t exactly been world-beaters in their own rights.  The Huskers allowed 63 points against the Buckeyes, beat Northwestern by one and still have to visit the Spartans and play Penn State. The Wolverines haven’t scored a touchdown since Oct. 13 against Illinois.

Consider the fact that Alabama and Louisiana State have, by and large, dominated the Southeast Conference the last few years. They’re both in the league’s West Division, but nobody changed any rules to let them play each other in the SEC title game—though the Bowl Championship Series still pitted them against each other in the national championship game.

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Changing the rules would essentially be saying, “Well, Purdue and Wisconsin aren’t as good as we hoped, so we’d better re think our brand new, much-heralded championship game.”

This is what the Big Ten signed up for with divisional play. Sometimes, the two sides aren’t going to be equal. You hope the league members will avoid NCAA sanctions down the road, but they’re also a reality of major college athletics. Sometimes, the whole darn league is just going to be mediocre. This year, it might not even be that.

Just deal with it and hope for better next year.

Do you think the Big Ten should send Ohio State to Indy? Email Parker at sports@dailycardinal.com.

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