When big sporting events approach, there is no shortage of prop bets to keep fans interested in the games within the games. How long will a rendition of our national anthem last? What is the over/under on the number of completions "Quarterback X" will make?
With that idea in mind, Brian Bennett and Jesse Temple share their opinions all week on the Big Ten blog about various over/under marks they've set in anticipation of the 2016 season. In today's Take Two, they look at how many league teams will finish the season in the Top 25. The over-under is 5.5
Jesse Temple: Under
Last year, the Big Ten finished the season with six teams ranked in the final AP Top 25: Ohio State (4), Michigan State (6), Iowa (9), Michigan (12), Wisconsin (21) and Northwestern (23). I'd expect most people to project the first four teams there -- Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan -- to find their way into the last top 25 poll of the 2016 season. After that? Things become far less certain.
Let's start with Wisconsin. We all know the Badgers face a murderer's row of teams to open Big Ten play, in addition to their season opener against LSU. ESPN's Football Power Index projects Wisconsin to finish with seven victories, and it's difficult to argue against that given the first six league games against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern. Five regular-season losses would likely knock the Badgers out of the top 25.
Northwestern is another team that figures to fall back to the pack in 2016. After a stellar 10-win season, the FPI projects the Wildcats to finish 6-6. Northwestern is listed as underdogs against Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Nebraska and Penn State have a chance to replace Wisconsin and Northwestern in the final top 25 poll. The FPI favors both the Cornhuskers and Nittany Lions in nine of their 12 regular-season games. But even if one of those teams takes a big jump and creeps into the rankings, that still leaves the league one short of matching last season's performance. At this point, it's difficult to trust any of the other Big Ten teams to make noise on the national stage.
Brian Bennett: Over
OK, Jesse, I'll play the optimist here.
I think we can both agree that three teams are all but locks to finish the season ranked: Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. Iowa has the schedule and the talent to have its second straight Top 25 finish, though probably not another 12-2 record. All we would need is two more teams to crack the rankings, and I think that will happen -- even if I'm not sure who those two teams will be.
Here's the thing, though: Somebody is going to finish second in the Big Ten West, and that team will probably have a pretty good record. It could be Northwestern, who will likely fall back a bit from last year's 10-win pace but who should still remain highly competitive with a strong defense and running game. It could be Wisconsin. Yes, the schedule is more torturous than Ramsay Bolton, but it also creates opportunities for high-profile victories if the Badgers can pull off a couple of them. We should have learned by now not to underestimate that program's staying power.
Perhaps Nebraska and/or Minnesota rise up. Neither is unreasonable. Both teams went 5-7 in the regular season last year but dealt with all kinds of bad luck and bad breaks. Yet don't forget that the Cornhuskers regularly won nine or 10 games per season before 2015 and could easily get back there in 2016. Or that the Golden Gophers were ranked going into the final week of the 2014 regular season and will face the easiest schedule they've had in a few years.
The point is, there are always surprises. No one was projecting Iowa as a Top 25 team this time a year ago. The Big Ten is all but guaranteed to have four ranked teams this season. It's fair to project that two others will have better-than-expected seasons, as well.