[Ed. - Bumped for making rational, matter-of-fact comparsions between the Big Ten's co-champions.]
Nine weeks of conference play were not enough to settle the case among Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Three bowls await them: the Rose, the Sugar (presumably), and the Capital One. But who should be enjoying Pasadena, and who should be relegated to afterthought status in Orlando?
It's no secret where my allegiances lie, but I am trying to impartially present the arguments for and against all three.
Two arguments I am specifically excluding from the below:
- Economic considerations. I know this is how the bowls make a lot of their decisions, but 1) in an ideal world it shouldn't matter, and 2) the differences between the three schools in this regard aren't as large as conventional wisdom might suggest: while MSU may not be the big name or have the recent success of the other two, they actually drew the highest ratings of anyone in the Big Ten on non-BTN telecasts (in other words, the ones nationally available), and anyone who thinks Spartan fans wouldn't descend on Pasadena or New Orleans in droves for their first top-tier bowl game in 20 years is kidding themselves.
- Polls and the Billingsley ratings. We're just after the facts here, not opinions of coaches who can't watch games other than their own and their opponents', sportswriters on a tight deadline, or a computer system ("algorithm" is too flattering a description) that starts with the previous year's rankings as input. Yes, MSU happens to be the lowest ranked teams in these systems, but that's not the reason for their exclusion: hearsay (the polls) is not admissible, and my reasons for excluding Billingsley are well-known and well-founded.
Margin of victory, strength of schedule, head-to-head, computers that only consider this year's games ... those are all fair game. Cases are presented in alphabetical order.
Average margin of victory: +11.25
Skipped games in conference: Indiana, Ohio State
Non-conference games: Western Michigan (6-6), Florida Atlantic (4-7), Notre Dame (7-5), Northern Colorado (1-AA)
Head-to-head results: W 34-24 v. Wisconsin, DNP Ohio State
Non-Billingsley BCS computers: 6, 7, 9, 14, 15 (10.2 average)
Bradley-Terry ranks: #8 record-only, #19 margin-aware
Why they should be smelling the roses: Head-to-head. While not every game was played, there is a complete and consistent ordering of the three teams just based on games among them: MSU > Wisconsin > Ohio State.
Why they should be tasting the gumbo: Okay, maybe you're partial to the Badgers and the diverse elements of their weaponry such as fear, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the power running game, and nice red uniforms (surprise is somewhat lacking, but hey, four out of five ain't bad), despite the head-to-head win. The Spartans still have a case over the Buckeyes: a lead in four of the six record-only computers, a win far better than any the Buckeyes can match, and better strength of schedule in conference (played all five of the mid-tier bowl eligible teams, four on the road; the Buckeyes faced only two on the road and didn't play one of them at all).
Or maybe you think Ohio State belongs in front. In that case, the argument over Wisconsin is as easy as 34-24. And though MSU has had its share of close calls this year, they've had none as close as Wisconsin's pair of one-point wins featuring blocked extra points.
Why they should be wearing the Mickey Mouse hats: By far the worst loss of the trio, both in terms of opponent and magnitude. Too many near escapes (against Persa-led Northwestern is semi-excusable, and the Literal Heart Attack Game isn't horrid either, but Purdue?) and not enough blowouts. Among opponents that all three faced in conference, MSU had the worst result against three (Michigan, plus the aforementioned Iowa and Purdue) and only beat Wisconsin's result against Minnesota (but not Ohio State's).
Average margin of victory: +26.08
Skipped games in conference: Northwestern, Michigan State
Non-conference games: Marshall (5-7), Miami (7-5), Ohio (8-4), Eastern Michigan (2-10)
Head-to-head results: L 18-31 @ Wisconsin, DNP Michigan State
Non-Billingsley BCS computers: 5, 8, 10, 14, 15 (10.4 average)
Bradley-Terry ranks: #10 record-only, #6 margin-aware
Why they should be smelling the roses: Best aggregate margin of victory (even despite Wisconsin's recent string of brutal assaults). Only team not to schedule a 1-AA (though EMU may as well be, so this isn't much of an edge). Fewest close calls (only a single one-score game, and eight wins by 24+). Far, far ahead in the margin-aware Bradley-Terry system.
Why they should be tasting the gumbo: If you prefer the Badgers for the Rose Bowl, the arguments for Ohio State over the Spartans are about the same as above. According to the margin-aware system, the Buckeyes would be a 7.5-point favorite if that extra head-to-head game was played.
If, on the other hand, you take Michigan State for the Rose Bowl, Ohio State has a pretty tough case to argue against Wisconsin. The best argument is probably Wisconsin's hideous non-conference schedule, featuring not a single bowl-eligible team (even if Arizona State beats Arizona, they will not be eligible due to having two wins over 1-AA teams), and that pair of near escapes.
Why they should be wearing the Mickey Mouse hats: That head-to-head ordering mentioned above puts the Buckeyes firmly in last, as do the computers that don't look at score (though it's close). Weakest schedule in conference of the three teams involved. Just a single win over a team with more than 7 wins - and that's 8-4 Ohio. (Michigan State and Wisconsin also have only one win each over a team with a record that good - but those wins are over 11-1 Big Ten teams, not 8-4 MACrifices.) Remember, if Ohio State and Michigan State were to play and each skipped another team, Ohio State could not win the Rose Bowl berth regardless of outcome (unless MSU-Iowa were the game removed from the books): a loss would obviously eliminate them, but a win would leave them tied only with Wisconsin, who beat them.
Average margin of victory: +22.83
Skipped games in conference: Penn State, Illinois
Non-conference games: UNLV (2-10), San Jose State (1-11), Arizona State (5-6), Austin Peay (1-AA)
Head-to-head results: W 31-18 v. Ohio State, L 24-34 @ Michigan State
Non-Billingsley BCS computers: 4, 7, 9, 11, 12 (8.6 average)
Bradley-Terry ranks: #7 record-only, #13 margin-aware
Why they should be smelling the roses: Top ranking in the margin-blind computers. Only one of the top two to play both of the others (and therefore the toughest schedule in conference of the three). And have you seen the obscene numbers they've put up lately? If they weren't trying to run out the clock with the third string in there for the final quarters against Indiana and Northwestern there's a good chance they'd have the top MOV as well.
Why they should be tasting the gumbo: Head-to-head ordering puts them behind Michigan State but ahead of the Buckeyes. That seems straightforward enough if you favor the Spartans for the Rose Bowl; if you prefer the Buckeyes, the argument for Wisconsin will have to focus on those obscene blowouts and the lead in the computers (and hope that that's enough to overcome a head-to-head loss).
Why they should be wearing the Mickey Mouse hats: Let's start with that abomination of a non-conference schedule: five wins over 1-A schools among those four opponents, only one of which even retains the possibility of becoming bowl eligible (if Washington wins the Apple Cup). Both Ohio State and Michigan State have two non-conference wins each over teams with as many 1-A wins as Wisconsin's entire non-conference schedule combined. And those epic smackdowns mask a couple of nail-biting escapes (one point wins over Arizona State and Iowa) and two semi-close wins over the MWC and WAC cellar-dwellers.
That should sum up the cases for and against each 11-1 team. I'll reserve my opinion for now (it may or may not be added in the comments later). Based on the facts on the field this year, what say you?