By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) There’s a saying in sports recycled more than newspaper, one I’m sure you’re familiar with: You are what your record says you are.
So what exactly does that say about this college football season?
Well, that it’s murkier than it’s ever been, save for No. 1 Alabama, which deserves to be the country’s only near lock to be chosen for the four-team College Football Playoff. The Tide remain the only power-five conference team that’s undefeated. Congratulations also goes out to undefeated Western Michigan and coach P.J. Fleck (get that man a new job), but you just don’t count in this conversation.
Every other conference but the SEC has cannibalized itself, which has had a positive effect on the Big Ten. I’m sure that many of you have heard talk that the Big Ten could get two teams into the CFP — a first in the format’s three-year history.
Whether this year or another, it’s bound to happen. And it should happen for the Big Ten this season, which could then finally say it’s the sport’s best conference — at least for the remainder of this calendar year.
Out of conference, the Big Ten has beaten, per the recent CFP rankings, No. 16 LSU (Wisconsin), No. 10 Colorado (Michigan) and No. 9 Oklahoma (Ohio State). The Big Ten also has four teams ranked in the top 10 of the CFP rankings — No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan, No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 8 Penn State — and should finish that way.
The Big Ten championship game scenarios for those who are unaware:
— If Michigan wins out, it represents the East division.
— If Wisconsin wins out, it represents the West division.
— If Penn State wins out and Ohio State beats the Michigan at home on Nov. 26, the Nittany Lions represent the East.
— If Wisconsin loses and Nebraska wins out, the Huskers represent the West on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.
Take a breath; I’ll simplify it for you: If chalk wins over the final two weeks of the regular season (Ohio State will be favored over Michigan), Wisconsin and Penn State would play for the conference championship.
Nothing is a given, but under that circumstance, a two-loss team would be the conference champion and the one-loss Buckeyes, a team that would remain No. 2 in the CFP rankings and ahead of the Nittany Lions and Badgers, wouldn’t be crowned conference champion.
It presents a conundrum for the selection committee. Under that scenario, Ohio State would be more deserving. It only would have one loss —yes, to Penn State — and wins over Michigan and Oklahoma.
Of course, only selecting Ohio State would send a message to the rest of the sport that the Big Ten championship is meaningless. That’s hardly consistent with how it has selected the last two playoffs. The Big Ten champion has represented the conference each time. And the committee wants conference championship games to mean something.
Using this week’s top 10 as a guide (yes, it will change, but it’s what we have right now), it appears as if the most logical scenario would be for the committee to select two Big Ten teams.
Assuming that the Big Ten (winner of a potential game between Penn State and Wisconsin), ACC (likely Clemson) and SEC (presumably Alabama) champions get in, a one-loss Ohio State team would have the best resume of the remaining teams in the top 10.
No. 5 Louisville has the potential to be another one-loss team that doesn’t play in its conference championship. It might have a better loss (Clemson) than Ohio State (Penn State), but the Buckeyes have better wins and a tougher schedule.
Teams that remain in the top 10, other than the aforementioned Big Ten teams, are Washington, Oklahoma and Colorado. One-loss Washington has one of the easiest schedules among power-five teams, while Oklahoma lost to Ohio State and Colorado lost to Michigan.
There’s no pretending like this college football season is the least big predictable. I said it was murky.
But the clearest picture emerging through the fog appears to be one that paints a dream scenario for the Big Ten.
1. Ohio State (9-1, 6-1) — Playing the best football of anyone in the country.
2. Michigan (9-1, 6-1) — Tune-up against Indiana this week.
3. Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2) — My pick to win the title game in Indianapolis.
4. Penn State (8-2, 6-1) — Have made the East college football’s toughest division.
5. Nebraska (8-2, 5-2) — Still not where the program wants to be.
6. Iowa (6-4, 4-3) — Looked like a CFP contender in the win over Michigan.
7. Minnesota (7-3, 4-3) — In line for a nice bowl game.
8. Maryland (5-5, 2-5) — Victim of playing in a tough division.
9. Northwestern (5-5, 4-3) — Bowl eligibility could come down to final game.
10. Indiana (5-5, 3-4) — Purdue being left on schedule makes bowl eligibility likely.
11. Michigan State (3-7, 1-6) — The biggest disappointment in college football.
12. Illinois (3-7, 2-5) — Let’s see what Lovie Smith is able to do in recruiting.
13. Purdue (3-7, 1-6) — Some really sad-looking crowds at home games.
14. Rutgers (2-8, 0-7) — This program was really good not too long ago.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.