For a conference dying to get its respect back, the Big Ten is not doing itself any favors. Its projected top four teams—Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State—will be feasting on cupcakes this year.
Ohio State plays Buffalo, San Diego State, at Cal and Florida A&M for its non-conference slate. Its conference schedule is Wisconsin, at Northwestern, Iowa, Penn State, at Purdue, at Illinois, Indiana and at Michigan.
Columbus, we have a problem.
The most dangerous team on Ohio State's schedule is Northwestern. The Wildcats return 17 starters after posting a 10-3 record that included a 34-20 Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State.
Phil Steele ranked the Buckeyes' schedule difficulty at No. 67. Their schedule includes only two teams that finished the 2012 season with an AP Top 25 ranking: No. 17 Northwestern and No. 24 Michigan.
A team should not be downgraded due to being forced to play its conference brethren. While the Big Ten's reputation has taken a dive in public opinion, it is better than most fans think. But why does it risk polarizing itself more with weak scheduling?
Soft schedules are a headache for pollsters. They want to reward a team for doing well but should they downgrade teams who faced only moderate challenges?
Virginia Tech's 2012 Sugar Bowl berth caused fans to have apoplectic reactions. Sports Illustrated's George Schroeder encapsulated the whole controversy:
Virginia Tech lost only two games, but both were blowout losses to Clemson—including in the ACC Championship Game. And the Hokies don't have a signature win, unless you count Arkansas State.
Ohio State is not the only Big Ten team with a weak schedule. Wisconsin's is ranked No. 69, Nebraska's is 66 and Michigan State's is 61. Meanwhile, poor Purdue has the fourth-most difficult schedule.
If the league had a better overall image, it could get away with weak scheduling.
Alabama has a very soft schedule this year. The Tide play three teams that had winning regular season records last year: Texas A&M, LSU and Mississippi State.
No one will question their resume if they run the table with a 13-0 record. Alabama has earned the benefit of any doubt.
Big Ten teams are not there yet. Neither are AAC or ACC teams. Big 12 and Pac-12 teams are on the cusp. Oklahoma or Texas needs to make a big statement and USC needs to recover from last year's debacle.
Ohio State's bowl history with SEC teams has been well-documented. Its 1-9 record—0-10 if you include the vacated Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas—hangs over its head like a dark cloud.
If Ohio State beats an SEC team in the BCS Championship this January, it will have validated its soft schedule. A loss will further erode its credibility among pollsters and fans and potentially endanger its future.
Next year's team could be the best ever but the BCS selection committee may hesitate to put the Buckeyes in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
This is a tricky situation for the Big Ten. The better solution would have been to schedule stronger non-conference opponents in the first-place. An undefeated season would have been met with less skepticism.
These aren't your old Jim Tressel-led Buckeyes. But it is difficult to change the perception of a team, much less a conference.
Skating in to California this January on a wing and weak schedule is only reserved for the conference whose performances in title games have been superb.
The SEC can get away with soft schedules.
The Big Ten cannot.
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