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Big Ten building depth heading into final November stretch

Football in November begins this weekend. We’ve reached the point of the season when wheat and chaff head in their own directions -- Separation Saturday, as it were.

Those that survive the on-field battles in the coming weeks will soon after find themselves fighting a new war. It’s a war waged on paper and by Internet prognosticators aimed at belittling the accomplishments of one group or another. The Ain’t-Played-Nobody tribesmen are stirring in their dens.

The Big Ten will no doubt be on the receiving end of some conferencewide smear campaigns based on the league’s lack of depth in recent history. But do they still deserve it? If last season was the year that Ohio State pulled the Big Ten back into relevance, then 2015 is shaping up to be the year that a hearty portion of others continues to push things forward.

Consider first, Wisconsin: If the Badgers run the table in November, they will finish 10-2 with losses to current No. 4 Alabama and currently undefeated Iowa. Even if Wisconsin does win out (ESPN’s FPI index gives them a 44 percent chance, the best odds of any Big Ten team), they still may finish with only the fourth or fifth best résumé in the league.

Right now, there are five Big Ten teams in the College Football Playoff committee’s Top 25, and the Badgers aren’t one of them. Only the mighty Southeastern Conference has more ranked teams. No one has more undefeated teams with a clearly-marked path to a national semifinal game than the Big Ten.

During October, the Big Ten shook itself loose from the old Big Two, Little Eight stereotypes. The murky middle class of the league shrunk considerably. There were as many teams on the upswing as there were teams falling into the depths of despair.

For the first time in more than a century, the conference has three teams with 8-0 records. Not far behind them are four more sitting at 6-2. The top six teams in this blog’s weekly power rankings at the moment have a combined record of 42-6 as the final month of the season approaches. That doesn’t include 6-2 Northwestern, which lost two games by big margins but still sits at No. 21 in the committee’s eyes.

Take it one degree further and the impressive first two-thirds of the season still looks strong. Those six losses among the top six teams have come against Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan State, Iowa, Utah and Temple -- all of them are ranked in the Top 25 and none has more than one loss so far this year. In other words, there are a half-dozen Big Ten teams that could potentially finish the year without a glaringly ugly loss or, really, even a bad loss.

“It’s obviously good to win more than lose,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who will likely be on the front lines of the ain’t-played-nobody offensive. “But when it comes to it, they don’t give prizes out for where you’re standing after two laps. They usually let the runners run four laps.”

This is true, but as the Big Ten gets ready for the home stretch the quality of the race itself and the size of the pack up front is better than it’s been for a while in these parts. At most only one team will cross the finish line unscathed. Whoever that happens to be awfully hard to keep out of the national title hunt.