Soft music is playing in the background, the gentle glow of candlelight illuminates the faces of the College Football Playoff Committee. There’s even a hot tub. And a magnum of champagne.
Given that it’s the Big Ten’s big date with the committee, an opportunity to entice the bracket-makers to seed one of its worthy members – the rendezvous is taking place in the Poconos. The conference commissioner makes his case from atop of a seven-foot Champagne Glass Whirlpool bath, situated just above a heart-shaped pool.
Surely, it’s enough to get the Big Ten into the Playoff? Right?
Well, if the committee is indeed committed to the second of its four pillars of protocol – schedule strength – then even all the votive candles in Pennsylvania might not be enough to sway the voters.
Though it’s hard to argue that Big Ten members won’t have plenty to grapple with in-conference, six of its 14 members are listed in ESPN’s debut edition of the Way-Too-Early Top 25, the collective non-league schedule is beyond weak.
BIG TEN 2019 NON-CONFERNCE SCHEDULE
ILLINOIS: Akron, at UConn, Eastern Michigan (MAC, AAC, MAC)
INDIANA: Ball State (at Indianapolis, Ind.), FCS Eastern Illinois, UConn (MAC, FCS, AAC)
IOWA: Miami Ohio, at Iowa State, Middle Tennessee State (MAC, Big 12, C-USA)
MARYLAND: FCS Howard, Syracuse, at Temple (FCS, ACC, AAC)
MICHIGAN: Middle Tennessee State, Army, Notre Dame (C-USA, IND, IND)
MICHIGAN STATE: Tulsa, Western Michigan, Arizona State (AAC, MAC, Pac-12)
MINNESOTA: FCS South Dakota State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern (FCS, MWC, Sun Belt)
NEBRASKA: South Alabama, at Colorado, Northern Illinois (Sun Belt, Pac-12, MAC)
NORTHWESTERN: at Stanford, UNLV, UMass (Pac-12, MWC, IND)
OHIO STATE: Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati, Miami Ohio (C-USA, AAC, MAC)
PENN STATE: FCS Idaho, Buffalo, Pitt (FCS, MAC, ACC)
PURDUE: at Nevada, Vanderbilt, TCU (MWC, SEC, Big 12)
RUTGERS: UMass, Boston College, Liberty (IND, ACC, IND)
WISCONSIN: at South Florida, Central Michigan, Kent State (AAC, MAC, MAC)
Of the 14 members, five – or 36% – won’t face a Power 5 member outside of Big Ten play. Compare that with the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC, all which have only ONE member each that won’t play a Power opponent in non-league action in 2019. As a note, we’ve counted Notre Dame and BYU as Power programs across the board.
So, while Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Wisconsin are on the “naughty” list from the Big Ten – only Wake Forest, Baylor, Washington State and Arkansas are on it from the rest of the nation.
It’s a big deal.
Beyond that – only one Big Ten member doubles-down on non-conference Power programs in 2019 – Purdue, which is slated to play Vanderbilt and TCU in back-to-back home games. Compare that to the ACC and SEC with three such members apiece. From the ACC – Boston College (Kansas, at Rutgers), Clemson (Texas A&M, at South Carolina) and Louisville (Notre Dame, at Kentucky). From the SEC – Georgia (Notre Dame, Georgia Tech), Florida (Miami Fla., Florida State) and South Carolina (North Carolina, Clemson).
As far as FCS action, Indiana, Minnesota, and Penn State all get the “gimmee” game this season. Though the Big Ten originally (in 2016) banned members from scheduling FCS opponents, it softened its dictate in 2017, allowing teams with only four conference home games to play an FCS program.
While the Hoosiers and Nittany Lions both have the required number of Big Ten home games necessary to comply, Minnesota (which plays FCS South Dakota State in its opener) has five Big Ten opponents at home in 2019. #whoops
From a bigger picture standpoint, it means that not only will Minnesota and Indiana not play a Power team out of Big Ten play, they’ll also get an opponent they’re 90% likely to beat.
It’s a two-game swing and worthy of an asterisk.
Next, let’s look at the cumulative strength of the non-league Power opponents the Big Ten will play in 2019:
Arizona State: finished 7-6 in 2018, last ranked in the postseason AP in 2014
Boston College: finished 7-5 in 2018, last postseason AP in 2007
Colorado: finished 5-7 in 2018, last postseason AP in 2016
Iowa State: finished 8-5 in 2018, last postseason AP in 2000
Notre Dame: finished 12-1 in 2018, last postseason AP in 2018
Pitt: finished 7-7 in 2018, last postseason AP in 2009
Stanford: finished 9-4 in 2018, last postseason AP in 2017
Syracuse: finished 10-3 in 2018, last postseason AP in 2018
TCU: finished 7-6 in 2018, last postseason AP in 2017
Vanderbilt: finished 6-7 in 2018, last postseason AP in 2013
The ten combined for a 78-51 finish last season, with only two (Notre Dame and Syracuse) finishing the season ranked in the AP Top 25. Only three of the nine that made it to the postseason managed to win their bowl game – Stanford (edged Pitt 14-13), Syracuse (downed West Virginia 34-18) and TCU (outlasted Cal 10-7).
Moving forward, only three of the ten are mentioned in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early rankings: Notre Dame (No. 5), Syracuse (No. 15), and Iowa State (No. 20).
Perhaps the most effective way to illustrate the weakness is by narrowing the discussion to contenders. In other words, it’s all well and good that Minnesota’s schedule is weak, but it’s doubtful that the Golden Gophers resume will reach the CFP committee’s desk at decision time.
Though Michigan (at No. 11 in ESPN’s premature Top 25) has No. 5 Notre Dame at home on Oct. 26 – the biggest of the Big Ten dogs Ohio State (No. 4 according to ESPN) has the easiest non-conference schedule of any major contender. That includes Alabama, which also has a super-soft non-league slate in 2019 but at least had the decency to schedule an opponent from a Power league. Rankings are via ESPN’s early Top 25.
(1) CLEMSON – (9) Texas A&M, Charlotte, FCS Wofford, at South Carolina
(2) ALABAMA – Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Miss, FCS Western Carolina
(3) GEORGIA – FCS Murray State, Arkansas State, (5) Notre Dame, at Georgia Tech
(4) OHIO STATE – Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati, Miami Ohio
(5) NOTRE DAME – at Louisville, New Mexico, at (3) Georgia, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, at (11) Michigan, Virginia Tech, at Duke, Navy, Boston College, at Stanford
(6) OKLAHOMA – Houston, FCS South Dakota, at UCLA
(7) FLORIDA – Miami Fla., FCS UT Martin, FCS Towson, Florida State
(8) TEXAS – Louisiana Tech, (10) LSU, Rice
(9) TEXAS A&M – at (1) Clemson, FCS Lamar, UTSA
(10) LSU – Georgia Southern, at (8) Texas, FCS Northwestern State, Utah State
(11) MICHIGAN – Middle Tennessee, (25) Army, (5) Notre Dame
It’s the first time since 1934 that the Buckeyes haven’t faced a current Power 5 program outside of Big Ten play.
As long as there are five Power leagues vs. only four slots in the CFB Playoff bracket, comparative schedule strength is a crucial conversation. Throw an undefeated Notre Dame into the equation and the number of available spots is reduced to three.
For this coming season, the Big Ten is at a disadvantage before the debate even begins.