Is This the Historical Bottom of the Barrel for Big Ten Football?
In case you still haven't looked at the Week 4 AP Poll, it's grim. Ohio State is the top Big Ten team, sitting at No. 16, while Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska are all barely scraping by—only Michigan joins Ohio State in the Big Ten in the Top 20. Yes, it's even worse in the USA Today coaches poll, where Ohio State is ineligible to be voted on. But the coaches poll is horrible, and we shun horrible polls around here.
Naturally, one starts to wonder exactly how bad this is for the Big Ten—not only relative to the rest of the conferences today, but to the Big Ten's history as a whole. And we're pleased to announce that this is not the Big Ten's worst week of polling in modern football history.
But it's really, really close.
How many teams will the Big Ten have in the AP Poll Top 10 at the end of the year?
In fact, even with four of the 12 member teams ranked, this is the worst week of polling for the Big Ten in over a decade—and one of the five worst since the end of World War II.
The metrics we're using are relatively simple. Just as top-ranked teams get 25 points in poll ballot scoring, second-ranked teams get 24, and on and on down to No. 25 being worth one point, we're using the same points system and then totaling up the conference's total.
Additionally, since the quality of a conference usually depends most on the best the conference has to offer, we are doubling the top team's point total. After all, if the Big Ten has one team ranked third and then not another one until 23rd or so, that's generally better for the conference's image than piling up a bunch of teams in the low teens and 20s.
Past that, we're taking the obvious step of excluding teams that wouldn't become members until later. So there's no counting Nebraska before 2011, no counting Penn State before 1993, and no counting Michigan State before 1953 (you didn't forget that Michigan State joined the party late, did you?).
Last, before we get started, an enormous debt of gratitude to CollegePollArchive.com. Resources like that turned this from at least an all-day project to a few-hours project.
So with all that said, here's our baseline of horribleness.
2012, Week 4: No. 16 Ohio State, No. 18 Michigan, No. 21 Michigan State, No. 25 Nebraska
Numbers: Four of 12 teams ranked, 24 total points, 34 weighted points
It takes some digging—about 11 years' worth—but back in the opening weeks of 2011, the Big Ten was worse than what we see. But just barely.
2001, Week 3: No. 16 Northwestern, No. 20 Michigan, No. 21 Ohio State
Numbers: Three of 11 teams ranked, 21 total points, 31 weighted points
This was a pretty ugly year of football in the Big Ten (to say nothing of the impact of 9/11, which occurred just two days after this poll was released). At the end of the season, only two teams were ranked: No. 12 Illinois and No. 20 Michigan (the only Big Ten teams with fewer than five losses). That's actually one unweighted point lower than even this Week 3 poll, but adjusting for Illinois' strength, it's up to 34 weighted points. Still a pretty awful poll.
Going back to 1992, Michigan sat alone among Big Ten schools in the poll for three weeks, but at the very least the Wolverines were ranked No. 3 in the nation. So it didn't look too bad for the Big Ten as a whole. Eventually Ohio State joined the rankings as well and order was restored.
But things really got bleak in 1988. That was the last year that the AP Poll was comprised of 20 teams and not 25 (there was also an eight-year stretch of the poll just being a Top 10, but the Big Ten put a team in every single one of those polls—and usually more than one).
At any rate, Michigan tumbled to No. 19 after starting the season 0-2. And if you're wondering why exactly any 0-2 team would deserve a single vote in the polls, keep in mind Michigan's losses were by a total of three points to Notre Dame and Miami—the two teams that would finish Nos. 1 and 2 at the end of the season. Pollsters were smarter back then.
Ohio State also fell out favor from No. 18 that week after catching a 42-10 whipping from previously unranked Pittsburgh, while Iowa dropped out from No. 19 after a home loss to unranked Colorado.
And so here are the sad, sad numbers.
1988, Week 4: No. 19 Michigan
Stats: One of 10 teams ranked, seven total points, 14 weighted points
For the last time the Big Ten couldn't put anyone in the poll, you have to go back to 1982. Illinois had been the lone Big Ten representative in the AP for a few weeks, vacillating in the lower portion of the poll before Ohio State pulled out a 26-21 win in Champaign to knock the Illini straight out of the Top 25 the following Monday.
And there it is, 30 years ago, minus one month. Let's hope it never comes to that this year for the Big Ten, but that depends on the conference actually showing up to play against opponents that matter, which hasn't been terribly common so far this season.
In the 27 years prior to 1982 (the post-war era when college football really picked up as a national phenomenon) the Big Ten was usually one of the two strongest conferences in the land. As mentioned before, when the poll was at 10 teams, the Big Ten was always in it at least once and usually twice or more.
Even in an era historically known as the "Big Two," where Michigan and Ohio State were at their most dominant, the conference routinely put four or more of its members in the AP Poll, including some great stretches by teams like Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.
Heck, did you know Northwestern was the top-ranked team 50 years ago? Seriously, that Northwestern was a consensus No. 1 two weeks in a row in October of 1962. That's how legit the Big Ten was historically—even the worst of its programs were able to be the best in the nation every now and then.
But we're not at that point anymore, and we probably never will be again—and that has nothing to do with the relative failings week to week or year to year of the Big Ten specifically. There are more college-ready athletes now. There's more money now. The have-nots are getting closer to the haves.
The power conferences obviously don't like that—especially since most of their leadership is old enough to remember the more clearly delineated power structure and would like to preserve that—but it's the changing face of collegiate athletics and there's no way to undo such progress.
Ah, but we digress. Back to the topic at hand: This is 2012, and the Big Ten is just about as bad at football as it's ever been. Let's hope that doesn't keep up.
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