This article uses a scoring system to rank the 11 Big Ten teams in terms of their success since the start of the new century. The motivation for the rankings system comes from the "Prestige Rankings" created for college basketball and originally published on ESPN.com a few years ago (and shortly after, improved by yours truly on Bleacher Report).
The Points System
I created a simplified points system which seems reasonable for quantifying a team's success in a given year. The system yields one point for each win in the regular season non-conference schedule, two points for each win in the regular season Big Ten schedule and then additional points for performances in any Bowl game.
For bowl games, I distinguished between BCS bowl games and all other bowl games. If a team reaches a non-BCS bowl and loses, I give them two points. If a team wins a non-BCS bowl, they get four points. Reaching a BCS bowl and losing earns you five points, while winning a BCS bowl will give you 10 points. Naturally, failing to reach a bowl game gives you no additional points.
In the case that a team won the national championship (the conference's only National Champion was the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes), then I award another 10 points in addition to the 10 points earned for winning a BCS bowl.
The system is designed to reward teams for performance in conference play and also performance in the bowls. The one visible weakness is that wins in the non-conference are weighted equally, whether they are against Youngstown St. or Texas. I argue that trying to account for the quality of non-conference opponent will not add enough value to the system to be justified.
Using the 11 most recent seasons (2000 through 2010), the final rankings are as follows:
- Ohio State—262 points
- Iowa—174 points
- Michigan—172 points
- Wisconsin—160 points
- Penn State—158 points
- Purdue—133 points
- Michigan State—123 points
- Northwestern—121 points
- Minnesota—116 points
- Illinois—91 points
- Indiana—64 points
The Buckeyes are clearly head and shoulders above all the rest of the teams. They have notched one national championship, eight BCS appearances (including five victories) and 71 Big Ten wins over the last 11 years.
Ohio State has been consistently good (and usually great) throughout the 2000's, never finishing a season with a losing overall record or losing record in conference.
In the next tier of teams, both Iowa and Wisconsin have been consistently good for the whole study, while Penn State and Michigan have been upper tier teams for enough years to still accumulate fairly high point totals.
Of the remaining teams, most have had a handful of good seasons. Purdue and Illinois each have at least one appearance in a BCS bowl, Michigan State is coming off of a 7-1 Big Ten record last season, and Minnesota had three straight bowl wins from 2002 through 2004. Despite having a record above .500 in Big Ten play in six of the 11 years, Northwestern did not win a single bowl game during the time period. And clearly Indiana has been the league's worst team, having not a single winning season in Big Ten play over the last 11 years and only one bowl game appearance.
Why Is Penn State So Low?
The answer is simple. 2000 through 2004. Penn State did not have a Big Ten record over .500 in any of these five seasons and only reached one bowl game (which they lost, in 2002). This time period was one of the darkest in memory for Nittany Lion fans, as many began to call for the removal of legendary coach Joe Paterno.
The Lions burst back onto the national scene in 2005 however, posting a one-loss season and a BCS victory. Since then, PSU has been an elite team in the conference. The Lions have been at least .500 in conference play and played in a bowl game every season since (winning in four of the six tries).
If we look at the same ranking system from only 2005 through 2010, Penn State is actually a solid second place in the conference (still trailing Ohio State by a significant amount). In the last six years the point totals (for just the top five teams) looks like this:
- Ohio State—151 points
- Penn State—116 points
- Wisconsin—109 points
- Iowa—94 points
- Michigan—78 points
Eliminating the five-year period of mediocrity, Penn State trails only a team who has been a national contender every season.
As we look toward the future, the recent scandals and departures from Ohio State look like they could clear space for the Nittany Lions to take over as the conference's dominant team. Of course, they will also need to outperform Nebraska with the new conference alignment.