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The Big Ten This Year Versus The Big Ten Last Year

In this era of holistic conference comparisons, few leagues get raked over the coals like our beloved Big Ten.  This year in particular, we've seen an shift in national parity as defenses dominate and offenses evaporate.  A lot has been said about the respective top-to-bottom strengths and weaknesses of even the most powerful mainstays.  Have you heard?

1. The SEC is so top heavy it's like a 120 story skyscraper with vacancies on the first ninety floors.  Still, it's hard to deny that Florida, Alabama, and LSU continue to enjoy spectacular views from the top of the world.

2. The Big 12 South -- once a lawless, gun totin' terror -- is suddenly less wild west, and more law and order as sheriff Texas holds down the fort.  The Big 12 North is a ghost town by comparsion.

3. The Pac 10 monarchy recently underwent a violent overthrow.  The old King (USC) is dead.  The new Emperor resides in Eugene.

4. The ACC continues its cannibalistic ways, as Georgia Tech swallowed Virginia Tech who feasted on Miami right as it stepped out of the Bobby Bowden buffet line.  There's a ton of hungry teams (North Carolina), and all can plan to watch the BCS National Championship game from the comfort of their own living rooms, with store-bought peel n' eat shrimp rings and cocktail sauce.

5. Last, but not least, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have replaced the elder barons (WVU, Rutgers, Louisville) of the Big East.

Then there's us.  It's hard to ignore the moans and groans of the national press.  In the almost two years since Ohio State made its last slaughterhouse appearence in a national championship game, the envious mockery has reached boiling point, spewing anti-Midwestern sentiments, and spilling doubt into online forums, Saturday Night Football broadcasts, and Associated Press pollings.  True, we did go 1-6 in bowl games last year.  Sure, Michigan is softer than a three-week old carved pumpkin.  And yes, we haven't won in Pasadena since 2000.

Still, I believe the Big Ten is headed in the right direction.

Look at a comparsion of this year's league to last year's league.  We'll use a subjective model, assigning each team in the conference a ranking from 1-10, with 10 being representative of the best team in all of the BCS Conferences in 2008 (i.e. Florida), and 1 being representative of the worst team in all of the BCS Conferences in 2008 (i.e. Washington).  In other words, no Big Ten team in the 2008 or 2009 season (or portion thereof) will receive either a 1 or a 10.  The scale analogs are simply there as reference points.

Here's how I rate the Big Ten as it existed at the end of the 2008 season:

Team W-L Point Rating
1. Penn State 7-1 8
2. Ohio State 7-1 8
3. Michigan State 6-2 6
4. Iowa 5-3 6
5. Northwestern 5-3 5
6. Minnesota 3-5 3
7. Wisconsin 3-5 3
8. Illinois 3-5 2
9. Purdue 2-6 2
10. Michigan 2-6 2
11. Indiana 1-7 2


Averaged, that comes to a conference-wide rating of 4.273.  That mark would put the Big Ten in the middle of/slightly below the BCS Conference pack.  This makes sense, considering it's hard to argue that the conference fared better at the end of 2008 than the SEC, Big 12, and Pac 10.  Yet, at the same time, colorable arguments can be made that the league finished slightly ahead of, or even with the ACC, and Big East as they existed at the time.

Let's transition to the present using the standings as they exist 75% of the way through the 2009 regular season:

Team W-L Point Rating
1. Iowa 5-0 8
2. Penn State 4-1 7
3. Ohio State 4-1 7
4. Wisconsin 3-2 6
5. Minnesota 3-3 5
6. Michigan State 3-5 4
7. Northwestern 3-3 4
8. Purdue 2-3 4
9. Michigan 1-4 4
10. Indiana 1-4 4
11. Illinois 1-5 2


Averaged, that's a straight rating of 5.000, an 8.5% increase from last year's group. 

Now, I know what you're thinking: subjective ratings lack empirical legitimacy.  True.  Try as I might to be impartial, these metrics inevitably reflect unintentional double standards. 

To try to get the statistical margin of error down to an acceptable level let's create and average low, median, and high data clusters.  Using the above two models as "middle" points, I'll now intentially adjust each set of ratings, giving fence teams the benefit of the doubt in one set, and rounding down in the other.

Here's 2008, adjusted:

Team W-L Low/Middle/High
1. Penn State 7-1 7/8/8
2. Ohio State 7-1 7/8/8
3. Michigan State 6-2 5/6/7
4. Iowa 5-3 6/6/7
5. Northwestern 5-3 5/5/6
6. Minnesota 3-5 3/3/4
7. Wisconsin 3-5 3/3/4
8. Illinois 3-5 2/2/3
9. Purdue 2-6 2/2/2
10. Michigan 2-6 2/2/3
11. Indiana 1-7 2/2/2


This averages out to: 4 (low), 4.273 (middle), and 4.909 (high) point ratings.  Counting each cluster as 1/3, this gives us a final adjusted 2008 team average of 4.394.

Now, let's do 2009:

Team W-L Low/Middle/High
1. Iowa 5-0 7/8/9
2. Penn State 4-1 7/7/8
3. Ohio State 4-1 6/7/8
4. Wisconsin 3-2 6/6/7
5. Minnesota 3-3 4/5/5
6. Michigan State 3-5 3/4/5
7. Northwestern 3-3 3/4/4
8. Purdue 2-3 4/4/5
9. Michigan 1-4 3/4/5
10. Indiana 1-4 4/4/5
11. Illinois 1-5 2/2/3


This average gives us: 4.45 (low), 5 (middle), and 5.818 (high) point ratings.  Counting each cluster as 1/3, this gives us a final adjusted 2009 team average of 5.089, an 8.6% increase over the adjusted 2008 models.

No, it's not hard science, but we can learn a few things from this exercise:

  • The Top 1/3 of the conference in 2009 (Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State, Wisconsin) seems to be similar to last year's Top 1/3 (Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa).  This shouldn't come as much of a surprise.  Each cluster averaged a team rating of exactly 7.  Both groups featured/feature a potential national championship contender (2008 = Penn State, 2009 = Iowa), and a runner up who earned/has a chance to earn an at large bid to the BCS (2008 = Ohio State 2009 = Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State).
  • The strength of this year's Big Ten, relative to last year, is easily the middle of the conference (Nos. 5-8) which has an average team score of 5.25 compared to 3.25 in 2008.
  • It's also clear that the floor has been raised in 2009.  The bottom dwellers (Nos. 9-11) average 3.33 this year, compared to a paltry 2 in 2008.

So while our ceiling might not be as high as other high-profile leagues, the Big Ten is building where it counts: from the bottom up.  This is promising for the future.

Expect a far more thorough and objective review at the end of the season.