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Do Michigan and Penn State Still Deserve to be Called “Powerhouses”?

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via Lon Horwedell/ Icon Sportswire/ AP

The Michigan Wolverines are the winningest football program in existence. The Penn State Nittany Lion football program is in the top ten. But how much does that mean right now?

Last week, I wrote an article in which I noted that the B1G divisions, in their modern incarnation and for the past two years, have been basically balanced.

The esteemed OTE message board posters offered a number of reasonable and contrary arguments concerning how the divisions are decidedly unbalanced.

The largest and most prevalent of those arguments stemmed around one simple point: the four best and strongest programs in the conference are all in the B1G East.

Before disputing this claim, I will once again note the claims that I will not dispute:

  1. Ohio State is the strongest program in the conference, it has been the strongest program in the conference for over 15 years, and it’s not close.
  2. Michigan State has been the other top runner in the conference for as long as the current divisions have been in existence (i.e. two years).
  3. The future is a tricky thing to predict, so I’m not predicting it. I’m only dealing in what I know of the past and the present.
  4. Future or not, whichever conference has OSU is inherently the stronger conference.

I have acknowledged OSU’s dominance. I’ve also acknowledged MSU’s present high level of play, but given its lack of history as an elite program, it is impossible to predict its continuance. In 2005, Iowa was in MSU’s shoes and that didn’t turn out as planned.

But the contrary argument mentioned three “traditional powerhouses” (to quote from a poster) that reside in the East along with currently successful MSU. The other two powerhouses, along with OSU, are obviously Michigan and Penn State (no, they didn’t mean Rutgers, the sleeping giant). But are either of them really the Harry Potter to OSU’s Voldemort (or vice versa depending upon your point of view)? Are they both, like Nebraska, desperately holding on to a past that is slipping away? Are either of them really the second best program(s) in the conference? Are either of them elite powerhouses that are in the same class as OSU?

Before getting down to who the foil to OSU (relatively speaking) is, I will note that I used the last 20 years as my sample size for all of the following information.

Why 20 years? Isn’t that a random sample size?

Well, 20 years is about the age of the majority of players currently on every B1G football roster (as well as most students in every B1G institution).

Penn State’s national championships in 1982 and 1986 are impressive and valid, but the current players, students and even many fans, have no memory of those events. Fielding Yost was a fine coach, but again, the current players, students and even fans don’t have a strong attachment to him if they have any attachment to him at all.

20 years is a substantial data pool, a valid number for modern relevance, and I would argue much more than 20 years gets into the Army/Navy/Harvard/Yale-as-elite area.

Also, S&P+ recently released its rankings going back to forever, and while I find S&P+ valuable for ranking individual units relative to other units as well as strength of schedule, it’s kind of silly when ranking overall teams, as it tends to act like the actual results of the games (wins and losses) don’t matter. Therefore, for my purposes, I was only interested in outcomes of games and not any advanced abstract statistical metric.

That said, the first measurement is the most obvious. Which B1G teams had the most wins and losses over the last 20 years?

Ohio State was No. 1 in both the conference and the country with a 0.80328 winning percentage.

Wisconsin was second, and 11th nationally, at 0.70385. Incidentally, Nebraska, who is not a part of this exercise in futility due to their joining the B1G in 2011, was third (No. 13 nationally) at 0.70000.

Michigan clocked in as fourth (No. 16 nationally) at 0.67600. Penn State was fifth (No. 23) at 0.64659.

Michigan State was sixth (No. 30) and Iowa was seventh (No. 36).

How about conference record?

Ohio State, of course, is first winning .796 percent of its B1G games.

Michigan is second at .662. Wisconsin comes in third at .638. Penn State is fourth at .581.

The difference between UM and UW comes down to two fewer wins and five more losses. UW has three more conference games than Michigan or Penn State because it’s competed in three championship games dating back to the advent of the B1G Championship Game in 2011. Meanwhile, Penn State and Michigan haven’t gotten to Indy yet.

Other programs that have made it to Indy via two different divisional alignments: Michigan State (three times); Ohio State (twice); Nebraska; Iowa.

Another area of measurement is the overall record against OSU. If OSU is the unquestioned standard bearer of the conference, and if the second-best program is as close to an evenly matched nemesis as the conference can provide, then a program’s record against OSU is relevant.

With that said, Wisconsin has an unimpressive 5-10 (.333) record against the Buckeyes stretching back to 1996.

But if that is unimpressive, how about Michigan at 6-14 (.300)? And half of those six wins came in the 90s. The Wolverines are 1-11 in their last 12 meetings against Ohio State, not that UM fans need any reminder of that.

And Penn State? Also 6-14 (.300), though immediate history is not quite as tragic as Michigan’s.

By the way, MSU is 5-10 against the Buckeyes, leaving the Spartans and the Badgers as the B1G programs most likely to beat OSU, if recent history is any indication.

How about conference titles?

Wisconsin has five with two of them shared. Michigan also has five with three of them shared. And Penn State has two, both of them shared.

MSU has three with one of them shared while Iowa has two, both shared.

Admittedly, since 1996, Michigan has the only non-OSU national title in the B1G (1997), and it is possible we may never stop hearing about it, but it is there, even if UM All-American tight end Jake Butt was two years old when it occurred.

I also considered players taken in the NFL Draft, beginning with the 1997 draft. Wisconsin has had 74 players taken including 14 in the first round. Michigan also had 74 players taken but only 11 in the first round. Penn State clocks in with 67 draftees, 11 in the first round.

Nebraska, by the way, has had 84 players taken during that time, seven in the first round.

Another area of measurement is record-vs-ranked-teams, but there are no easy-to-use databases for that, and I could only hand count back to 2008 (thanks to cfbstats.com).

Going back to 2008, Michigan is 6-26 (.1875) vs ranked opponents. Penn State is 6-21 (.2222). Wisconsin is 7-22 (.2414).

MSU is 13-20 (.3939), Nebraska is 6-22 (.2143), and Iowa is 10-17 (.3704).

At this point, Michigan fans might chime in about how these have been some of the darkest years for Michigan football, and the usually stable coaching position has shifted four times going back to 1996. I would counter that Wisconsin has also had four coaches during that time, and it’s impossible to tell a brief valley from a permanent plunge until there is some historical context.

Penn State fans might then remark about the sanctions to which I reply that it is despicable to act like Penn State didn’t do something to receive those sanctions, and either way, those sanctions are what many currently rising football prospects associate with Penn State which might not sit well for the future? Also, if Joe Pa hung around too long, whose fault was that? He should have been jailed in the mid-late 90s.

In short, I’m not picking back up on the divisions argument. I'm also not arguing that Michigan or Penn State are not on the verge of turning around their fortunes and reclaiming their spots in the college football pantheon.

Rather, I am saying that right now, it’s difficult for Michigan or Penn State fans to justify their programs as any more of a powerhouse than Nebraska or especially Wisconsin.

After all, 20 years is not a drop in the bucket. 20 years is a long time. It took far fewer than 20 years for the service academies to transition from national powerhouses into a hard-to-prepare-for, undersized triple option teams that sometimes go to a bowl.

20 years ago I didn’t have internet access. 20 years ago, Hillary Clinton was First Lady. 20 years ago, Oregon went 6-5 and had never had a double-digit-win season. 20 years ago, Rutgers was in the Big East and the Big East was good (or at least Miami and Virginia Tech were good).

In fact, much of the problem the B1G currently has with national perception stems from OSU being the only elite program in a conference full of ambitious second-tier programs, or descending, formerly elite programs.

And if one took an unbiased look at the information of the last 20 years, it is fair to say that Wisconsin, and not Michigan or Penn State, is not only on an upswing, but has been much more worthy of the term “powerhouse” for what is going on two decades now.

And two decades is a substantial period of time from which to draw some definite conclusions.

You can’t say which B1G division will be stronger in 10 years.

But you can say that reputation or not, neither Michigan nor Penn State has done anything recently to deserve the term “powerhouse.”

All statistics from stassen.com unless otherwise noted.