After two weeks of the 2016 college football season, two surprising truths ring clear: The Big 12 is awful, and the SEC is no longer king of the hill. Aside from the Tide, the conference is in shambles, dropping marquee matchups to middling Big Ten teams, ACC contenders, and whatever conference Southern Mississippi is in now.
If it wasn’t for Nick Saban welcoming new USC Coach Clay Helton to big time college football in such a resounding fashion, you’d have to wonder if the SEC had been drinking their own kool-aid, though this time in an attempted suicide pact.
The Big 10 was once considered a rather terrible conference. That’s what happens when you have Jim Tressel, Kirk Ferentz, Brett Bielema, and whoever Michigan was tossing on the sidelines. It just wasn’t pretty for the Big 10. Today, though my sports knowledge must come into question with my last two “locks,” I cannot formulate an argument for the best conference in college football not being the former relic of the Midwest.
Personally, I evaluate a conference on three levels. First, the top end talent overall. This is the most difficult category to differentiate, as three of the major conferences possess at least a singular elite team at the head of their standings. This is where the Big Ten is fascinatingly strong, both at the top, and in terms of depth. There is little question Ohio State, Iowa, and Michigan are double-digit win seasons waiting to happen, but with Michigan State and even Wisconsin (congrats, Jared) starting strong, it is plausible the conference possesses five elite teams, undoubtedly more than any other conference. Currently, all five of the aforementioned members of the Big Ten are ranked in the top 13 of both major polls, and if Nebraska is able to upset Oregon at home next weekend, look out for a sixth Big 10 representative in the top 15.
The second criteria is overall depth. Again, the wealth of likely top 25 programs in the conference cannot be matched. I would be absolutely shocked at this point if any of Michigan, MSU, OSU, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa did not end the season ranked in the top 20, with Penn State, Maryland, after a surprising 2-0 start, Minnesota, and possibly even Illinois in Lovie Smith’s first season becoming bowl eligible. The ACC, for example, aside from its de facto “big three,” though it mirrors the original Miami Heat version in which the third wheel, in this case, Louisville, garners far less attention, currently has just one other ranked team: Miami at number 25. So far, with perennial doormats Purdue and Rutgers expected to be awful, only Northwestern has served to underperform expectations during what has been a far better than predicted first two weeks for the Big Ten.
Finally, the third criteria is out of conference play. LSU, thought to be the best or, at worst, runner-up to Alabama in the SEC, lost to a Wisconsin team predicted to slog through an outrageous schedule towards fringe bowl eligibility. The top four teams coming into the season — Michigan, OSU, Iowa, MSU — have pulverized early season competition from rival and lesser conferences, winning by an average margin of victory exceeding 40 points per game, while supposed SEC powers Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, have all lost, and lesser SEC programs Kentucky, Mississippi State, and nearly Georgia, fell to non-Power Five opponents.
The Big Ten possesses the most elite teams, with Ohio State and Michigan likely comparable to any “big two” in the nation, all while maintaining superior depth of competition, stellar head-to-head success, and an out of conference record trumping the other major conferences. For the first time since the early days of the mercifully retired Bowl Championship Series, the SEC has fallen.
Long live the new king: the Big Ten conference..
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