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OSU vs. PSU, the Rematch: A Case Against Divisions

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When Penn State and Wisconsin take the field in Indianapolis this Saturday, it will mark the end of the most interesting and top-heavy Big Ten football season in at least a decade. With four teams in the top 7 of the CFP rankings, the Big Ten has become a grinder where survival should likely be rewarded.

However, both of these teams will come into the game with two losses, guaranteeing a two-loss conference champion. Meanwhile, another two-loss Big Ten team (Michigan) defeated both of these squads in the regular season, and yet another (Ohio State) has a better record at 11-1! Both of those latter teams sit at home this weekend.

Sorting this mess out is indeed a difficult task.

Unfortunately, that sorting was largely predetermined by geography. While Wisconsin could afford to lose to both of the East Division powers it faced thanks to being able to sweep through the West Division, the other three competitors had to duke it out via tiebreakers after a 1-1 split for all three teams. The deciding factor for Penn State? Michigan’s November loss to Iowa, a team which Wisconsin and a few others took care of this season. Michigan vs. Iowa decided the East Division representative in Indianapolis.

Does that sound fair? Does it make sense to leave out Ohio State at 8-1 after beating both of the 7-2 teams Wisconsin and Michigan, just because geography puts them in the same division with the one team the Buckeyes lost to?

No, it does not.

Put simply, Ohio State and Penn State have earned the right to play for a conference title by being 8-1 and better than everyone else in the Big Ten this season. After that weird and somewhat fluky finish to their game in October, who wouldn’t want to see if a much-improved Penn State team could do the job again against the Buckeyes? The loser would take on a second loss and make it unquestioned who should be in the College Football Playoff.

It’s not just because this is Ohio State. If Michigan held that lead last weekend or won in overtime, then it would be better to see if Penn State at 8-1 could avenge that decisive September loss to the Wolverines (who would also be 8-1) to prove it belongs in the playoff. Yet had Michigan won, it would be UM against UW, and Penn State would be left out in the cold.

Instead, we will be treated to a battle between two teams who may not actually be competing for a playoff spot at all. And it’s all thanks to having divisions and splitting them based on geography.

Some years it works out, like in 2015 when Iowa was 8-0 and the two 7-1 teams (MSU and OSU) settled it on the field two week before the championship game with a Spartans win. Other years like 2016 are not as fortuitous.

The Big Ten is not alone in this conundrum. The College Football Playoff committee cherishes conference championships, but these are often decided between the best team in a league and the third, fourth, or fifth best team rather than the second best team thanks to uneven division splits.

Take a look at this upcoming weekend alone:

  • ACC Championship is Clemson (7-1) against Virginia Tech (6-2), while Louisville and Heisman frontrunner Lamar Jackson (7-1) stays at home thanks to being in the same division as the Tigers. The best game of the ACC season cannot be repeated as a result.
  • SEC Championship is Alabama (8-0) against Florida (6-2), and while the West Division has no other teams better than 5-3, it’s beyond doubt that the SEC East is terrible across the board and has boosted the Gators to this position while LSU or Auburn might actually be better. If the Florida-LSU game had gone the other way, LSU would still not have a chance to replay that 10-0 showdown despite having a better record than the Gators.

The two teams which played for the national championship in 2015 should receive the best tests possible to earn the conference titles and playoff berths, yet that will not happen this weekend. So the Big Ten is not alone, and the problem all comes back to divisions.

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And while I like to see the committee tested with tough questions like 2016 presents, some of them would be avoided entirely if divisions were scrapped and the proper Big Ten Championship were played between PSU and OSU this weekend. How much easier would the committee’s job be if one of OSU or PSU eliminated itself this weekend?

The Big 12 has it (recently) figured out thanks to being defective enough to not be able to hold onto 12 good teams. The NCAA is allowing the Big 12 a conference championship without divisions! This arrangement guarantees there will be two data points between the best teams in the Big 12 conference to decide the title.

That setup without divisions also works better for these ever-growing mega conferences. Old school Big Ten fans have watched the games between the original 10 teams dwindle down as the league expands and divides half the league into a separate division. Nine conference games helps that problem, but it would be more fair to scrap divisions altogether and play everyone (outside protected rivals) on a full rotating basis.

Not only would teams not go five or six year stretches without playing, which is inconceivable when being in the same conference, but the conference race would end with the best two teams playing one another based on being compared with everyone else in the conference. If the conference championship games are to be valid final tests of playoff competitors, this alignment with no divisions would assure that the best matchup actually happens in each conference between top competitors for playoff spots.

The road to conference championships should be fair and equal for everyone. For now, with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State in one division, that is simply not the case. It is no fluke that Wisconsin will be making its fourth championship game appearance in six years. The Badgers are far and away the best program in the Big Ten West, and it’s unclear if that will change.

Which is great if you cheer for the Badgers and maybe if you are a West Division hopeful having a rare great season (Iowa, 2015), but not at all for the “blue bloods” all sitting together in the East Division.

PSU and Wisconsin will complete a round robin between these top four Big Ten teams, but here’s where the standings sit in that round robin:

  • Ohio State is 2-1
  • Michigan is 2-1
  • Penn State is 1-1
  • Wisconsin is 0-2

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No offense to Wisconsin and the 2016 Big Ten Championship, but the Badgers had their chance already against the other top teams and lost. Even with a UW win, the round robin for the Big Ten season would end with OSU and Michigan better off than the teams playing in Lucas Oil Stadium. A Wisconsin loss simply sets us back to the original conclusion that the three Big Ten East teams are the best in the conference, and evenly matched.

It’s time for divisions to be scrapped. We can’t save the 2016 Big Ten Championship, but that event and college football at large would be much better off in the future if divisions and arbitrary groupings based on geography or the like are removed from the equation. Earn it on the field, not in the gerrymandering of a conference alignment room.

Only then will there be an unquestioned “one true champion” of each conference, which would further legitimize the current CFP rules strongly favoring such conference champions over all others.

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What do the analytics say about the Badgers 2nd half schedule?

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Yes, the loss to Michigan has everyone reeling and plenty of people questioning if the Wisconsin Badgers will ever truly become a national contender. 

It’s been one step forward and two giant steps backwards every time the path has been there for the Badgers to date. But, the bitter loss to Michigan is in the rearview mirror and it also was the end of the first half of the Badgers schedule. 

So, we thought it would be a good idea to see how some of the computers believe the second half of the schedule looks for the Cardinal and White. 

Will the Badgers run the table and get to 10 wins again? Is there disappointment ahead? 

Answers vary depending on the models used, but let’s explore how analytics see things going for Paul Chryst’s crew. 

Unsurprisingly, the analytics tell us that the Badgers are going to have one big game and a whole lot of control towards a potential 10-win season still in the mix. 

According to ESPN’s FPI index, Wisconsin will be favored in all but one game the remainder of the season. That one game of course is the trip to Happy Valley to take on Penn State. The FPI index gives the Badgers a 20 percent chance to win that game. 

However, they do give the Badgers better odds against most of the rest of the schedule. It starts with a 95 percent chance at winning the Homecoming matchup with Illinois this weekend. 

Wisconsin is also favored to win by 80 percent or more in two other games — Rutgers (97.6) and Minnesota (82.9). The Rutgers result is expected given how little resistance the Scarlet Knights have given to other teams at the bottom of the Big Ten pecking order so far this season. 

As for the other games, perhaps the toughest to figure out on the schedule will surprise you. That’s because the FPI believes Purdue will be the biggest challenge outside of the Penn State game. Wisconsin has just a 58.2 chance of winning that game. 

That leaves Northwestern in two weeks, and the FPI believes the Badgers have a 62.9 percent chance to win that game in Evanston. With the Wildcats finally getting on a win at Ryan Field last weekend, it will be interesting to see how this contest tracks after this upcoming weekend. 

So, if all things hold out ESPN’s FPI see’s the Badgers at 9-3 to end the regular season and still winning the Big Ten West division championship. However, their projections have UW closer to 8-4 and that would likely mean a third loss inside the conference and if that is the case it could be an interesting race in the West division. 

ESPN’s rating system is just one of many, so what do the others have to say? 

College Football Analytics believes a lot of the same things as ESPN does, but they give the Badgers a good chance of finishing 9-3 overall. To be exact, they put UW’s probability of winning 9 games at 64.4 percent. 

Perhaps the most interesting projection comes in the Penn State game, where they give the Badgers much better odds of pulling that game off. Currently, UW is given a win probability of 42.4 precent in that game and a score of 40.2 to 32.9. 

Like the FPI, this model has the Badgers winning every other game on its schedule and doing so handily over Illinois, Rutgers and Minnesota. It also believes UW’s biggest toss-up game will be against Purdue, where the Badgers are just a 51 percent favorite to win that game. 

But, it’s always good to get a third set of data to work with. That comes from the S&P+ system and not shockingly, they too have the Badgers finishing 9-3 on the season. 

But, like the CFB Analytics numbers and unlike the FPI, they believe this game is going to be much closer than expected. The S&P+ system believes it will be less than a touchdown difference in the game. 

This model also sees the game at Purdue as the biggest toss up on the UW schedule, with the Badgers given a 57 percent chance of winning and only an expected winning margin of 3.2 points. 

So, as you can see there is a lot of agreement amongst the analytics side of the college football world. 

It’s hard to disagree with their thoughts given the relative softness of the Badgers overall schedule in the second half of the season. 

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Pair of Big Ten players named to PFF mid-season All-American team

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It hasn’t been a banner year for the Big Ten, with it seeming more and more like the days of the big two and little 10 (12 today). So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that All-American honors are few and far between. 

But, it was near barren for the Big Ten when Pro Football Focus gave out its mid-season All-American honors. Just two players — both on offense — made the cut from the conference. 

Ohio State wide receiver K.J. Hill and Wisconsin right guard Beau Benzschawel were both named to the offensive All-American team. 

Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor was named honorable mention. So was OSU defensive tackle Dre’mont Jones on the other side of the ball. 

What makes Pro Football Focus’ lists so different are the fact that they are based on analyzing actual play from every player in college football throughout the season. 

It means, actual play on the field dictates getting on this list and not reputation or PR. 

Benzschawel is the second-highest rated guard in the country according to PFF, as they say this about his performance at the midway mark: 

Benzschawel is close behind [Terrone] Prescod, grading at 81.1 as a run-blocker, good for sixth among guards while allowing only three pressures on 151 snaps in pass protection.

Much like Benzschawel, Hill is also the second highest rated player at his position. Hill trails only Colorado’s superstar receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. and has a grade of 90.9 on the season. 

According to PFF, “Hill has been incredibly efficient as well, catching 85.1% of his targets while averaging 8.2 yards after the catch per reception.” 

It will be interesting to see how thing shake out in the second half of the season and if players like Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary or many other of the Badgers offensive lineman grade out better. 

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Good, Bad, Ugly: The tale of Buckeyes, Badgers and Illini in Week 3

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There is no two ways about it — Week 3 was the Big Ten’s collective worst nightmare. 

Just take a look at the final scores from the weekend:

So, on a Saturday in which contenders were dropping like flies, how do we make sense of what took place? 

Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Week 3 around the Big Ten. 

The Good

On a weekend that saw so much carnage from Big Ten teams, there is no doubt that Ohio State’s big win over TCU is the good of the weekend. It wasn’t just that the pickings were slim either, the Buckeyes put on a show in the win over the Horned Frogs at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. 

With the eyes of most of the college football world on them, OSU came up big. They punched hard first, going up 10-0 and then took a big punch from TCU for a pair of touchdowns, the last of which was a school-record 93-yard run by Darius Anderson for the 14-10 lead early in the second quarter. 

Let’s not forget there were two defensive touchdowns (albeit one shouldn’t have counted after further review that never happened on the field), including a “fat guy” TD by Dre’mont Jones. 

Lost in some of the craziness was the fact that Dwayne Haskins showed out in a big way. He was 24 of 38 for a crazy 344 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Haskins also had a rushing touchdown to cap off all the offensive scoring for his team. 

Sure, the defense gave up 511 yards, but it seemed more a byproduct of TCU’s offensive style than anything worrisome about the Buckeyes defense. After all, they forced three total turnovers, had three sacks and seven tackles for loss on the day. 

It was a shot across the bow of the rest of the elite in college football and arguable the most dangerous the Buckeyes have looked on both sides of the ball in awhile. 

The Bad

There’s no where to go here other than to head to Madison, Wis. where the Badgers came in to their contest against BYU with a 41-game home non-conference win streak. 

By the time the mid-afternoon matchup was over, the Badgers streak was also over and it wasn’t a fluke. The visiting Cougars took a page out of the Wisconsin playbook and simply out-muscled the Badgers on both sides of the ball. 

UW’s normally potent run game averaged just 4.7 yards per carry. Its defense allowed 191 yards to BYU on the ground. That pretty much sums up the shock that happened inside Camp Randall. 

For the first time in over 15 years, a non-conference opponent came in to Camp Randall, outplayed and finally beat the Badgers. We’ll see if this is a wake up call or the start of a snowball effect that can’t be stopped. 

Having rival Iowa on the road and at night should certainly get the Badgers attention this coming week. 

The Ugly

Sure, we could’ve gone with Northwestern getting blown out by a MAC opponent at home. There was also Rutgers’ piss-poor day at Kansas and Temple working over Maryland. But, those were all blowouts and there was just one loss that hurt more than any other…Illinois.

For just over 57 minutes, this week felt different for Illini fans…until South Florida’s Darnell Salomon hauled in a 50-yard touchdown from Blake Barnett with 2:24 to play.

That was just a downright brutal blow to a program that could’ve used the win in the worst way. Illinois got an early touchdown from running back Mike Epstein and then four field goals (three of which were over 40 yards) for a 19-7 lead late in the third quarter. 

Then the fourth quarter happened and you could just feel the game slipping away. Just over three minutes after the last of Illinois last field goal, it was Salomon who broke through with a 14-yard touchdown catch to make it a 5-point game. Add in a field goal midway through the quarter and a 19-7 lead was whittled down to 19-17. 

But, the Illini really only have themselves to blame. After all, they squandered four drives that were in USF territory and couldn’t get in the end zone. The Illini also couldn’t score a single point in the final quarter, and that’s usually not a good thing. 

The play in the final stanza was particularly brutal, as USF’s defense held the Illini to just 94 total yards and forced them to go 2-of-7 on third downs. That’s how you lose a game you should’ve taken care of. 

If there was a silver lining in the ugly way this loss happened, it was that MJ Rivers’ debut at quarterback was a success. He was 20 of 29 passing for 168 yards. While he didn’t get in to the end zone through the air, Rivers also didn’t turn the ball over while passing either. That’s a positive step lost in the brutal way this loss took place. 

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Badgers win big battle for 2019 LB Spencer Lytle

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The 2019 Wisconsin Badgers football recruiting class already has hit new heights. But, there was one key piece to the puzzle the coaching staff was waiting on — its top of the board linebacker. 

On Saturday, UW got the answer it was looking for as three-star linebacker Spencer Lytle committed to the Badgers over his other finalist, Clemson. 

Lytle was the No. 1 outside linebacker on the Badgers board and the biggest missing piece to the puzzle for this recruiting class. While the three-star rating may not blow you away, make no mistake, Lytle was one of the most sought-after players at his position in the country. 

It is easy to see why when you put on the tape, and equally so when you see his numbers on paper. Lytle had 77 tackles, 3.0 sacks, and nine additional hurries for Servite High School in Anaheim last season. 

He held offers from 40-plus programs, most of which reads like a who’s who of national contenders on an annual basis. In the end, it came down to Wisconsin and Clemson, with few really knowing where Lytle was leaning. 

The Badgers got their biggest target at outside linebacker and alongside in-state product Leo Chenal, appear done with recruiting the overall linebacker position for the 2019 class. 

UW’s class now has 13 verbal commits and Lytle’s pledge pushed the Badgers near the top 25 in the national team rankings. Currently, Wisconsin sits No. 26 in the 247Sports composite rankings. The Badgers jumped seven spots with this announcement on Saturday. 

Lytle was able to keep his recruitment tight-lipped and same with his commitment choice. Few knew what was really going to happen when he announced earlier on Saturday, but it went the Badgers way. 

Wisconsin also continues to make small inroads in recruiting one of the biggest states for talent in the country — California. Lytle’s commitment means back-to-back seasons with a prospect from the state, as Alexander Smith signed in the 2018 class and will likely redshirt this upcoming season. 

Equally important, Lytle is attending one of the top high school programs in the country this year in St. John Bosco. They are the preseason No. 1 team in the country and consistently put out high-level FBS players. 

While Lytle will only be there for one season, he could be a good foot in the door for UW at the school. 

It will be interesting to see how quickly Lytle fits in at Wisconsin, because after this season things will be wide open on one side of the outside linebacker spot as Andrew Van Ginkel will graduate. 

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