Best of times, worst of times: Why the Big Ten is a historical anomaly this season

If you’re wondering the last time the Big Ten standings looked like they do right now at the top, the answer is 1904.

Horses, buggies, four 6-0 football teams. Get the news out on the telegraph wire, Mabel.

Back then, before the forward pass had been popularized, the quartet of 6-0 teams was Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Chicago, the last of which would bail on the Big Ten and big-time football 35 years later. Today, the roster of 6-0 teams is Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

It’s great for the league to have three teams in the Top 10 (the Buckeyes, Badgers and Nittany Lions). It’s easier to push undefeated teams for College Football Playoff consideration than teams that take turns beating each other. It’s also nice to have a rising program (the Gophers) off to its best start since 2003, and one win away from its best start since 1960.

But what about the other 10 members of the richest league in college football? How are they doing?

Nine of them are simmering caldrons of anger, and one is levitating between pleased and apathetic. Even with four unbeatens at this advanced stage of the season, crabbiness is outpacing happiness by a long way.

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh before the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium. (USA Today)
Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh before the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium. (USA Today)

How unbalanced has the Big Ten become this season? Take a look at the point spreads for this week’s games involving unbeaten teams:

Ohio State is a 28-point road favorite at Northwestern on Friday night.

Wisconsin is a 31-point road favorite at Illinois.

Minnesota is a 28.5-point road favorite at Rutgers.

Even in the game of the week, Michigan at Penn State, the Nittany Lions are nine-point favorites.

Las Vegas doesn’t see a lot of competitiveness in those contests. Nor when Iowa hosts Purdue as a 17.5-point favorite. The only spread that is less than a touchdown is Indiana favored by 5.5 at Maryland.

The Buckeyes have won every Big Ten game by at least 24 points, with an average winning margin of 35.3 points. The Nittany Lions’ average winning margin in league games is 30.7, Badgers’ is 22.7 and the Gophers’ is 19.

Maybe the top of the league is simply that good. But it seems every bit as likely that the middle and bottom is simply that bad.

A quick look at the various stages of discontent beneath the Big Four:

• Bewilderment over the hero alum’s lack of progress. At Michigan, they were expecting much more from Jim Harbaugh by now. At Nebraska, the same can be said about Scott Frost, albeit with a smaller body of work. Both were hired amid great fanfare and at high salaries after success elsewhere, beckoned home to restore a traditional power to prominence. Specifically, both Michigan and Nebraska were trying to dial back the clock to 1997, when they shared a national championship — the last one either team won.

Harbaugh has won 74 percent of his games — but zero percent of his games against Ohio State, and barely better than that against other high-level opponents. Frost is 8-11 since arriving in Lincoln last year, likely extending the expected timeline of his rebuild by at least a full season — if not indefinitely.

Scores of their games against the Big Four: Wisconsin 35, Michigan 14; Ohio State 48, Nebraska 7; Minnesota 34, Nebraska 7. (The last of those scores is especially sobering when you consider that the Cornhuskers blasted the Gophers by 25 last season.)

• Fatigue with the status quo. Three schools are led by the winningest coaches in program history, all of whom are mired in an offensive malaise that is dragging down their teams. Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Mark Dantonio at Michigan State and Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern are a combined 3-7 in league play, while presiding over the Nos. 94, 98 and 128 scoring offenses in the nation, respectively.

In the big picture, all three head coaches have earned the benefit of the doubt — but the doubts are gaining strength here in 2019. They are proud, loyal and stubborn, aligning themselves with longtime assistants and basically daring anyone to call them on it.

Fitzgerald has had the same offensive coordinator, Mick McCall, for 12 years now. Last year, with a four-year starting quarterback, the Wildcats were 124th nationally in yards per play. This year, they’re 130th and dead last, and their lone victory is over UNLV. They have not ranked higher than 84th in yards per play since 2011. The Fitz formula has worked well for a long time — but why not try to energize the offense and aim even higher? Why not try to reach the level where Notre Dame currently operates, and where Stanford did for several seasons earlier this decade?

Dantonio infamously refused to fire staff members after last year’s 7-6 season, in which the Spartans fielded the No. 117 offense in the nation. He tinkered instead of overhauled, and the results reflect that: a 4-3 record, with successive embarrassing blowouts against Ohio State and Wisconsin. If Dantonio attempts a similar Nobody Tells Me What To Do stance after this season, he may lose a fan base that once idolized him.

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Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio stands on the field during the second half of a game against the Western Michigan Broncos. (USAT)
Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio stands on the field during the second half of a game against the Western Michigan Broncos. (USAT)

When Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis retired in 2016, Ferentz kept the job in the family. Quite literally. He promoted his son Brian, who had played for and coached under his dad. Brian Ferentz wasn’t exactly a nepotism hire, having been part of Bill Belichick’s staff at New England for four seasons before coming back to Iowa City in 2012. But when the offense flails as badly as Iowa’s did the past two games against Michigan and Penn State, producing a total of 15 points, a coordinator with a different last name might be feeling some heat. If Iowa continues to struggle on that side of the ball, would anything change? Probably not.

• Dead coach walking. That would seem to be Lovie Smith at Illinois, an outside-the-box hire in 2016 who hasn’t improved the product. Per the Champaign News-Gazette, Smith has the fewest wins (11) and most losses (31) of any still-employed FBS coach who came aboard during the 2015-16 hiring cycle.

Athletic director Josh Whitman mouthed some non-committal support for Smith during a radio appearance Monday.

“We’ve got half the season left to play, and we’ve still got an opportunity to write a pretty significant chapter for Illinois football here, and we need everybody to be a part of it,” Whitman said. “My plan is to stand behind them and give them everything I’ve got to get them going, and I hope all of our fans will do the same thing.”

Plans can change if the wins don’t come.

• The injury mulligan. Purdue was 1-4 before ambushing Maryland on Saturday, with a plague of injuries playing a major role in that. But even before the roster fell apart, the Boilermakers started the season by blowing a game at Nevada, a stunning loss that quickly undercut the excitement of keeping coach Jeff Brohm from bolting for Louisville last winter.

If this season doesn’t improve, it can be chalked up as a do-over — especially with several recruiting victories increasing optimism in the direction of the program. But eventually Purdue is going to expect a breakthrough season for the $5 million it is paying Brohm annually.

• The false euphoria. Maryland coach Mike Locksley began his tenure 2-0, with a preposterous scoring margin of 142-20. Since then he is 1-3, with the only victory over the worst Power Five team in America (which we will get to). Getting blasted by injury-depleted Purdue was the worst sign yet, and it’s possible the Terrapins won’t be favored in another game this season.

• The basketball school. Indiana is 4-2, with a schedule that holds out a flicker of hope for its first eight-win season since 1993. Will anyone notice once the Hoosiers open hoops season on Nov. 5?

• The hopeless case. This is Rutgers, the previously mentioned worst Power Five team in the land. The Scarlet Knights have already fired their coach, the useless Chris Ash, but the season shows every sign that it will only get worse. They’re already being outscored by 24.2 points per game, they’ve been shut out in three of four league games, and they haven’t even played Minnesota, Ohio State or Penn State yet.

So go ahead and enjoy the once-a-century rarity of having four 6-0 teams, Big Ten. But for every fan base that is giddy over the way the season has started, two more fan bases are appalled.

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