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The Big Ten Is A Big Slog

As Saturday’s college football schedule wound down, the lights shined on the last two of four matchups between top-25 teams, two games that couldn’t have been more different in style. In Iowa City, No. 10 Penn State outlasted No. 17 Iowa, 17-12, in a classic Big Ten slog; in Baton Rouge, No. 5 Louisiana State raced past No. 7 Florida, 42-28. Any viewer would be forgiven for tuning to the latter: LSU and Florida totaled 968 yards, compared with 650 for Penn State and Iowa. The SEC showdown featured only six punts; the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes combined for 12.

The Big Ten has long been known for its plodding pace — one article as far back as 1993 labeled the conference’s games “boring” — but this season has accentuated those tendencies. The 23 matchups between Big Ten teams this season have averaged 48 total points, the lowest of any league and more than 6 points per game lower than the next Power Five conference, the SEC. In fact, it would be the lowest single-season combined scoring average for any league since the SEC’s 47.3 in 2015.

Over the past five seasons, the Big Ten has also owned a plurality of those low-scoring struggles — games in which both teams combined for fewer than 30 points. This year, the league already leads the country with three such games: Michigan over Iowa, 10-3, on Oct. 5; Nebraska over Northwestern, 13-10, the same day; and that Penn State-Iowa game. Big Ten teams played seven, eight and seven such games in the past three full seasons.

These games tend to turn into laughers when the likes of Rutgers or Illinois are involved. Every conference has clunkers, like the SEC in 2008 with Auburn’s 3-2 win against Mississippi State or the ACC in 2014 with Wake Forest’s 6-3, double-overtime win against Virginia Tech, in which the teams played to a scoreless tie after 60 minutes. But the numbers show that no league has more of them than the Big Ten, and very few turn into oral histories like Iowa’s 6-4 win over Penn State in 2004.

In college football circles, the Big Ten generates extra mockery for a lack of aesthetic appeal during its slow-paced noon tilts — especially when it starts to snow. At the outset of fall Saturday afternoons, the finish of ESPN’s “College GameDay” often seems to give way to a low-scoring Big Ten punt parade at noon. Indeed, behind every stereotype, there are stats to back it up. Since the start of the 2015 season, the Big Ten has had far more league games scheduled for noon (119) than any other conference (the Big 12 is next with 72).1 And those noon games have averaged 49.4 total points, even lower than the Big Ten’s overall average of 51.9 points since 2015, which is still the lowest of any league in the past four and a half seasons.

After watching a handful of these games, you might guess that Big Ten teams operate at the slowest tempo. You’d be right. On average, the league’s offenses this season are snapping the ball once every 26.15 seconds of game time — the slowest tempo of any Power Five conference. FiveThirtyEight’s analysis from earlier this season found that teams in 2019 punt from inside the opponent’s 40-yard line less frequently than in years past — but the Big Ten is tied with Conference USA for the most such punts (16).

Despite the personnel and coaching changes that come with every season, college football’s offensive evolution hasn’t been as prominent in the Big Ten. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is the longest-tenured coach in college football, and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio have both spent more than a decade in their jobs. All three schools have long-standing, old-school offensive philosophies, and, combined, they have finished in the country’s top 40 in points per game three times in the previous 10 seasons.2 The Big Ten has brought in respected offensive minds in recent years, such as Ryan Day at Ohio State, Jeff Brohm at Purdue and Scott Frost at Nebraska. But the Buckeyes have been the only ones to light up the scoreboard in 2019 — Nebraska and Purdue are 80th and 88th in yards per play, respectively.

As poor as the league’s offenses have been this season, the defenses have been ruthless. Four of the nation’s top five teams in both points and yards allowed per game are from the Big Ten: Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State and Iowa. Wisconsin is the only team this century to allow fewer than 30 total points through its first six games.

That defense can be difficult to value. The high-flying juggernauts of Alabama and LSU are the top two scoring teams in the country and the top two teams in this week’s Associated Press poll. But three of the next five in the poll are Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. The conference has been shut out of the College Football Playoff since Ohio State lost to Clemson, 31-0, in 2016, and perhaps it is because Ohio State was such a no-show against the eventual national champions.

But with three teams maintaining strength in the polls — though the first playoff rankings don’t come out until Nov. 5 — the conference champion is positioned to finish in the top four, even if the contenders hand each other a loss during the regular season. If that team at least scores in its playoff game, it would be the league’s first point in the playoff since the 2014 season. Fortunately for the Big Ten, neither of the national semifinals starts at noon.

Looking ahead: Week 8

Game of the Week: Oregon (14 percent playoff odds) at Washington (2 percent), 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday

How Oregon vs. Washington swings the playoff picture

Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for teams with a change of at least 0.5 points of playoff probability, based on the outcome of the Oct. 19 Oregon-Washington game

Change in odds if Oregon…
Team Current Playoff % Wins Loses Weighted Difference*
Oregon 14.4% +8.3 -11.4 +/-9.6
Washington 2.4 -2.4 +3.2 2.7
Oklahoma 48.5 -1.0 +1.4 1.2
Ohio State 47.4 -0.9 +1.2 1.0
Georgia 14.3 -0.8 +1.1 1.0
Clemson 77.8 -0.8 +1.1 0.9
Notre Dame 14.0 -0.5 +0.7 0.6
Alabama 56.7 -0.4 +0.6 0.5
Auburn 7.5 +0.4 -0.5 0.5
Total† 21.1

* Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.

† Total swing includes every team in the country — not just those listed here.

There are three ranked-versus-ranked games (in the AP poll) to keep an eye on this week — Oregon-Washington, Utah-Arizona State and Penn State-Michigan — but the one that could shake up the College Football Playoff odds most is happening in Seattle. Despite an early-season loss to Auburn, Oregon currently has a 14 percent chance of making the playoff, which is eighth-highest of any team in FBS. A lot of that is tied up in the Ducks’ chance of winning the Pac-12; at 53 percent, they’re the fourth-most-likely conference champ right now, trailing only Clemson (80 percent to win the ACC), Appalachian State (66 percent in the Sun Belt) and Oklahoma (59 percent in the Big 12). Oregon will face the biggest obstacle to its conference title plans this weekend, in the form of a trip to Washington. In addition to having their own outside shot at the playoff (2 percent), the Huskies have a 42 percent chance of knocking off the Ducks at home, easily the biggest upset threat any legit contender will face this week. An Oregon win would boost the Ducks’ playoff chances up to 23 percent; a Washington win would not only torpedo Oregon’s playoff bid but also create some breathing room for other top teams such as Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia and even Clemson. Not even Penn State-Michigan can say it offers up the same ripple effects across the college football landscape.

The most important games of Week 8

Week 8 college football games, measured by how much the outcome projects to swing the playoff odds of every team in the country

Game Other Team Most Affected (Rooting interest)* Total Swing
1 Oregon-Washington Oklahoma (Washington) 21.1%
2 Penn State-Michigan Georgia (Michigan) 15.5
3 LSU-Mississippi State Alabama (Miss. St.) 14.5
4 Clemson-Louisville Notre Dame (Louisville) 12.0
5 Florida-South Carolina Oklahoma (S. Carolina) 11.3
6 Oklahoma State-Baylor Oregon (Oklahoma St.) 11.1
7 Utah-Arizona State LSU (Arizona St.) 10.8
8 Ohio State-Northwestern Penn State (Northwestern) 8.1
9 Wake Forest-Florida State Clemson (FSU) 7.5
10 Iowa State-Texas Tech Wisconsin (Texas Tech) 6.9

*This is the team outside of the game in question whose playoff odds project to change the most, depending on the outcome. Listed in parentheses is the team whose victory would increase the affected team’s odds.

Source: ESPN

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Some of this is obviously due to geography.

  2. Michigan State in 2009, 2011 and 2014.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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