College football never fails to bring the weird. This weekend marks the end of a season in which the Big Ten has been front and center in that wonderfully odd cocktail of the controversial, debatable and unexpected twists the sport delivers on an annual basis.
It’s been a year of surprises, from James Franklin and a surging Penn State offense to Michigan State's collapse to Indiana parting ways this week with a head coach who had lifted the program to heights it had not reached in a quarter-century. And if you thought the end of the regular season would bring a close to those brushes with chaos, just wait until the postseason gets rolling this weekend.
It’s been a year for the Big Ten to shove its way squarely into the driver’s seat of college football’s relevancy bus. If you need any more evidence of this, keep watch for the number of angry, slighted coaches, players and fans when this weekend comes to a close. No matter what happens Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, someone in the Midwest is going to be peeved.
If Wisconsin wins Saturday night in Indianapolis and doesn’t climb into the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings, its argument for indignation starts with its admirable preseason intentions. Isn’t the playoff system supposed to encourage aggressive scheduling? No one had a more grueling-looking gauntlet than the Badgers earlier this season. Is it their fault that LSU, Iowa and Nebraska didn't exactly deliver on their promise? Wisconsin's losses are on the road against a tough Michigan team and in overtime against No. 2 Ohio State. That’s two toss-ups, and isn’t a league title in the country’s toughest conference supposed to mean something?
Penn State might have an even stronger case to be irate if it finishes an unexpected run to the Big Ten championship game opposite the Badgers with one more victory and gets shunned by the committee. The Nittany Lions would be conference champs and have a head-to-head victory over the Buckeyes. Sure, there’s that ugly Michigan loss, but Happy Valley can quickly explain that away by producing the linebackers’ injury report that week. Plus, isn’t this committee supposed to be able to discern who is playing best at the end of the season? Penn State’s most recent loss was in September. That’s something no one else in the Big Ten can say.
Then there’s No. 5 Michigan and a fan base that has had a week’s head start on these other two in crafting its rage. The Wolverines couldn’t have played Ohio State much closer. Their coach, and just about anyone else in maize and blue, will point out that they were a controversial fourth-down spot away from taking Penn State’s spot in Indy. Yes, Penn State, the team the Wolverines beat by 39 points earlier this season. Remember that? It was sandwiched between wins against fellow top-10 teams Wisconsin and Colorado. Isn’t this playoff about making sure the four best teams are left standing? If it comes down to the eye test, that Michigan defense looks pretty darn good if Clemson or Washington falls this weekend.
All of that angst adds up to a good reason for supporters of the Big Ten to be thrilled with 2016. It’s unprecedented in the playoff era for any league to have four teams with a non-ridiculous argument for a playoff spot at the end of the regular season.
Most thought the Big Ten would be the odd man out in the five-league-four-spots formula when the playoff first arrived with the 2014 season. The SEC and Big 12 have both had two teams in the running at this stage in previous seasons. To have twice that many hanging around at this point speaks to the Big Ten's rapid ascent in the past few years. (And maybe a bit to the futility of conference divisions, but that’s a subject for a different column.)
Does that mean everyone at Lucas Oil Stadium should raise their voices in unison for a “B-1-G!” chant Saturday night? No, that would be the biggest surprise of all. Some fan base will still be breathing into a brown paper bag this weekend to calm its anger. At least none of them will be trying to poke out eyeholes and pull the bag over their heads, which is where many thought the league was heading not so long ago.