As the Big Ten season draws near, more predictions and projections are sure to come from fans and experts alike. Maybe Michigan State’s No-Fly Zone will make the difference and it will repeat as champions. Or maybe Ohio State’s high-powered offense will propel it to the title game.
There are plenty of angles here. But how do we know what’s most important for a team to win the conference championship? What does make a Big Ten champ?
We decided to take a look at the last decade of Big Ten champions to find out, statistically, what all those winners had in common. We looked at 20 statistical categories to find patterns or similarities, to discover what's historically been important. Did sacks allowed have any bearing on winning? Run defense? What about time of possession or penalties?
Statistical categories such as as tackles-for-loss on defense and even third-down conversion percentage were mostly all over the map. Sure, some teams finished near the top of the nation there, but just as many were mediocre or worse. Having a great red-zone offense didn’t exactly hurt, for example, but it wasn’t a prerequisite, unlike a few other numbers. (The last two champs, Michigan State and Wisconsin, didn’t even crack the top 60 in that category.)
To make sure the best teams’ numbers factored into this, we included the Ohio State and Penn State teams that later vacated their titles. Counting those teams, 15 champs – shared titles included, obviously – were examined. And here’s what we learned:
Run, run, run the ball – and forget about the pass: No passing offense from the last 15 Big Ten champions ranked nationally within the top 35, but 11 of the champs’ rushing offenses ranked within the top 30. Let that sink in for a moment, because that’s quite a contrast. As a matter of fact, more than half the time, the B1G champion's passing game wasn’t even above average, as it ranked below No. 60. So, to win that title, forget the air – it’s all about the ground.
Defense > offense: Apparently there’s some truth to the saying that “defense wins championships,” at least in the Big Ten, where defense appears to be much more important. It’s not that above-average offenses were rare; they weren’t. But the median champion’s total offense was ranked No. 46 nationally. The total defense? No. 12. One-third of champions’ defenses were ranked within the top five and 13 of 15 were ranked within the top 20. No team that won an outright championship finished worse than No. 15 in total defense or No. 17 in scoring defense.
Control the turnover battle – and the clock: This one shouldn’t come as a shock, but it was surprising to see the extent of just how important these two elements were. Only two champs – Ohio State in 2005 and 2007 – were able to win a title without a positive turnover margin. More than half of the champs (8 of 15) ranked nationally within the top 15 of turnover differential. In time of possession, every Big Ten title winner has controlled the clock since 2006. Is that a coincidence? You be the judge. But, since 2007, all but one champ has also ranked within the top 25 nationally by averaging more than 31 minutes, 30 seconds of possession each game.
Run defense > pass defense: If you continue the logic of that first bolded point, this makes sense. If championship teams are defined by great rushing games, it stands to reason that great rush defenses are paramount to counter that. The numbers bear that out; in the Big Ten, a strong front seven seems to trump a strong secondary any day. Eight Big Ten champs had rushing defenses that rank within the top 10 nationally, while half that number could say the same about their pass defense. Again, that’s not to say pass defenses aren’t important. But of the last 15 Big Ten champs, 12 had a better run defense than pass defense, and two of those had both their pass and run defenses rank within six spots of one another. Wisconsin’s 2011 team was the lone statistical anomaly; it ranked No. 60 in run defense and No. 4 in pass defense.