Gruen: Big Ten Races Come Down To Final Saturday

By Seth Gruen–

(CBS) There’s a version of the “space race” going on in college football, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany could be its Neil Armstrong.

Since the College Football Playoff was conceived, there was a question on the minds of conference commissioners around the country: Could my league get two teams in?

Such an accomplishment is a benchmark of conference supremacy. The Big Ten has a chance to land on the moon should Ohio State beat Michigan in the final week of the regular season Saturday.

If the Wolverines win, they would advance to the Big Ten championship. If Michigan wins in Indianapolis, the school is a lock to go to the CFP, but the Big Ten would be far less likely to send a second school (various Big Ten Championship game scenarios to follow this column).

That means everyone outside Ann Arbor — including, whether he admits it or not, Delany — should be rooting hard for the Buckeyes to win this weekend. And also, for Penn State to beat Michigan State, which would make the Nittany Lions the Big Ten East’s representative in Indianapolis. That would mean the Buckeyes would be favorites to make the field of four, becoming the first to do so without winning the conference title.

One small step for Ohio State, one giant leap for the Big Ten.

That kind of has a ring to it, provided you keep in mind that the Buckeyes are carrying the nationally irrelevant Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern and Rutgers, among others, on their back.

It’s the truest of statements because every Big Ten team, down to the bottom feeders, would benefit from the conference sending two to the CFP.

There’s a financial windfall. The conference’s national television profile will be raised even higher. Most importantly, though, it will help boost recruiting.

So even if you’re a fan of a team that stinks, it just might smell a little less if Ohio State wins.

Most every recruit’s top priority is to go to a school that gives him a chance to make it to the NFL. His second-most priority is to go some place where said recruit would the chance to play in a conference that features big games.

One that currently has three in the AP top five (Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin) and four in the top seven of the CFP rankings (Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State) qualifies as such.

So sure, national championship contenders like Ohio State and Michigan would benefit the most. But it would have a residual effect on other Big Ten teams. Recruits might be more likely to choose a school like Maryland over a middling Pac-12 or Big 12 team.

Though there’s really no way of quantifying the benefit of sending two teams to the CFP, we can agree that it has obvious benefits to the conference that first accomplishes it.

So, as the Big Ten tries to journey toward uncharted territory, its fans would be wise to root for its best chance at becoming the first to dot the map.

Big Ten championship game scenarios

East

Michigan: Needs to beat Ohio State to advance to the title game. It’s the simplest of scenarios within the division.

Penn State: Needs to beat Michigan State and for Michigan loss to Ohio State.

Ohio State: Needs to beat Michigan and for Penn State to lose to Michigan State. By the way, the Buckeyes advancing would also be a scenario that lessens the likelihood of the Big Ten getting two teams into the CFP.

West

Wisconsin: Needs to beat Minnesota.

Nebraska: Needs to beat Iowa and for Wisconsin to lose to Minnesota.

Why does a Penn State-Wisconsin Big Ten championship give the conference its best chance of sending two teams to the CFP?

Because the winner of a Penn State-Wisconsin matchup would almost assuredly make the CFP. Alabama is a virtual lock and Clemson is too, should it win the ACC championship. That leaves one spot, which would likely go to a one-loss Ohio State tea with road wins over Oklahoma, Wisconsin and, potentially, Michigan.

Power rankings

1. Ohio State (10-1, 7-1) — Has seemed destined for the national championship through much of the season.

2. Michigan (10-1, 7-1) — Expect its annual showdown with Ohio State to be a de facto national quarterfinal.

3. Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2) — Helluva job by Paul Chryst.

4. Penn State (9-2, 7-1) — Biggest surprise this college football season.

5. Nebraska (9-2, 6-2) — A lot closer to where it expects to be.

6. Minnesota (8-3, 5-3) — Win over Wisconsin gets the team into a nice bowl game.

7. Iowa (8-3, 5-3) — Pretty disappointing.

8. Indiana (5-6, 3-5) — Will become bowl eligible with a win against Purdue.

9. Maryland (5-6, 2-6) — And likewise with a game against Rutgers.

10. Northwestern (5-6, 4-4) — Some strange decisions made last week.

11. Illinois (3-8, 2-6) — A chance to kill Northwestern’s bowl aspirations.

12. Michigan State (3-8, 1-7) — This still shocks me.

13. Purdue (3-8, 1-7) — It’s hard to believe Drew Brees played here.

14. Rutgers (2-9, 0-8) — Rank in the triple digits in all major team statistical categories.

Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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