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Big Ten title hopes take hit with out-of-conference losses

September 21, 2018
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FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, file photo, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio watches his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz. Traditional Big Ten powers Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State have lost out-of-conference games. Slow starts, however, doesn’t mean the conference is out of the national title hunt. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Less than a month into the college football season, the results haven’t been particularly good for the Big Ten.

Traditional powers Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State have lost nonconference games. There are five unbeaten teams left in the league and No. 4 Ohio State plays at No. 10 Penn State on Sept. 29.

Penn State needed overtime to beat Appalachian State in the season opener. Ohio State ? There’s been nothing to complain about on the field, going 3-0 with a victory against TCU during coach Urban Meyer’s suspension.

Still, this past weekend was awful. Big Ten teams went 6-7 in nonconference games, including 1-2 vs. Power Five conferences. It was the worst week in nonconference play for the Big Ten since it went 3-6 overall, 0-5 vs. Power Five on Sept. 13, 2014.

“When you look at the bottom part of the league it was a very difficult week,” ESPN college football analyst and former Texas coach Mack Brown told The Associated Press. “When you look at where the league is in in its position to still have someone in the College Football Playoff, I’d say they are right on schedule.”

In 2014, Ohio State seemed doomed with a loss at home to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6. Michigan State lost at Oregon and Wisconsin dropped its season opener to a nationally ranked LSU.

Experts buried the Big Ten in the playoff chase.

Then the Buckeyes got better and won the rest of their games, beating Alabama and Oregon in the playoffs to win the national title.

Two years later, Clemson won the national title after edging Auburn and Troy in early games and surviving a November loss to Pittsburgh.

This year, Ohio State and Penn State are the Big Ten’s flag bearers. Iowa could be the dark horse with a defense led by one of the best lines in college football.

“I think there are teams that can compete for the national championship and maybe even win it,” Big Ten Network analyst Dave Revsine said. “I also think there are teams that have not achieved along the lines of what people were expecting at this point.”

Count Michigan State and Wisconsin in that group. Few expected the Spartans to lose at Arizona State two weeks ago. The Wisconsin loss at home this past weekend to BYU was an even bigger surprise.

Michigan also lost its opener at Notre Dame.

The Big Ten started the season with five teams ranked in the top 14 of the AP Top 25 and three have lost. Things could get tricky for the Big Ten when its best teams start playing each other.

In 2014, Penn State and Michigan were both having down years and once Ohio State got revved up it tore through the conference.

Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin still could do damage in the Big Ten. The east powers, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State, play each other, and Wisconsin has road games against Michigan and Penn State.

With those nonconference losses, the Big Ten went from a conference that could have multiple playoff contenders late in the season to one that could have its best teams cannibalize each other. No team with two losses has made the College Football Playoff in its four-year history.

The second-tier of the Big Ten has had some struggles early, but that might not matter much to the playoff race.

“I don’t think this has anything to do with the college football playoffs,” Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said of the slow start. “It has to do with the depth of the Big Ten and the depth of Big Ten East. If Ohio State wins out, they are going to the college football playoffs regardless of what type of team they are. An undefeated Big Ten team is going to the playoffs.”

Brown warned not to make too much out of what happens early.

“We won’t know who the best teams are until the sixth or seventh week of the season,” Brown said. That’s when you see teams with depth, leadership and confidence.”

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AP Sports Writer Eric Olson in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.

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