College football has been real wacky in 2021. Who would’ve thought Clemson would immediately fall apart without Trevor Lawrence? Who would’ve thought Spencer Rattler would look so inconsistent? Who would’ve thought that USC would collapse the way they did? Okay, a lot of people probably predicted that last one.
While there has still been a lot of normalcy across the college football landscape this year, such as Alabama and Georgia dominating everyone they come in contact with, and Cincinnati continuing to be undervalued because they don’t play in a Power 5 conference, there have been a few good changes of pace as well. Most notably, the Big Ten has rebounded from years of relying on Ohio State and occasionally Penn State to compete with the other elite football conferences. In fact, thus far in the 2021 season, a decent argument could be made that the Big Ten has been the most complete conference top to bottom.
Just think about it for a second. Arguably, the worst team in the Big Ten conference this year has been Wisconsin — a team that had enough talent to be ranked 15th in the nation prior to the start of the season. They lost by six to the current number four team to start the season, and they have the worst overall record in that conference. That’s a pretty decent basement-dweller for any conference to have. The Big Ten has four undefeated teams, plus Ohio State (currently ranked No. 7). Even the almighty SEC has just three, and their best team (overall record-wise) outside of Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky is either Auburn (No. 18) or Arkansas (No. 13), who just got goose egged by Georgia last week.
The Big Ten has clearly overtaken the ACC as the second-best conference in college football. Let’s face it, all that conference had going for them was Trevor Lawrence and Lamar Jackson a few years prior. Now that they’re both gone and there is no generational talent there to fill the gap, the conference has more or less faded into the back of the college football world with Wake Forest, who is yet to defeat another ranked team this season, at the forefront. The Big Ten didn’t just pass them, they leapfrogged over them and kicked them in the face on their way down.
However, I want to go a step further and say that the Big Ten has been the best conference in college football this year.
I know the SEC has the best teams, but the Big Ten is a threat from top to bottom. Even Northwestern put up a decent fight against Michigan State and Duke. What’s even crazier is that while teams like Ohio State have seemingly had down, or at the very least inconsistent, starts to the season, even they have had great wins. The Buckeyes are currently thrashing the 4-1 Maryland Terrapins, and yeah, I know the Terps got crushed by Iowa last week, but hey, that’s another Big Ten team, so the point still stands.
In Week 6, all attention turns to the matchup between Penn St. and Iowa, the nation’s No. 4 & 3 ranked teams respectively. Personally, I believe Iowa has had a much more impressive showing thus far than Penn St. and the Hawkeyes should walk away with a victory. What’s really important for this game though is demonstrating that both teams can compete with high-level competition. Penn St. did not have a good 2020 season, and it makes sense why they came into 2021 ranked 19th, their lowest preseason ranking since 2016. However, just because they beat Auburn doesn’t mean they are seriously in consideration for a playoff spot. Auburn has looked inconsistent at best, and because that is the Nittany Lions’ best win of 2021, everyone is still waiting for them to fall back to Earth. They don’t need to beat the Hawkeyes, just prove they can compete.
As for Iowa, the Hawkeyes aren’t used to the amount of expectations they’re facing now. Since 1990, Iowa has only ever been ranked as high as No. 3 twice (2002 & 2015). However, in those seasons, the Hawkeyes did not come into the season with high hopes. They were unranked and managed to claw their way up. In 2021, we all knew the Hawkeyes would be good but we weren’t sure how high they could fly. They’ve dominated every opponent they’ve played this year, including Iowa State, who came into the season ranked fifth. I know it was only a ten-point game, but that box score does not indicate how solid Iowa looked in that contest.
All the Big Ten can hope for is a solid game. Best-case scenario, the game is close and both teams put on an offensive showcase displaying their abilities to push the ball downfield against elite competition. Worst-case scenario, both teams look meek in a low-scoring affair and prove that no team in the Big Ten could compete with Alabama or Georgia. I’ll root for any team going up against the SEC. The cards are stacked against the Big Ten, but there’s never been a better time to steal the title of top conference in college football.