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Who’s happy with the Big Ten? An analysis

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The number of schools that are actually happy is greater than zero but smaller than 14

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren speaks during the Big Ten Championship Trophy ceremony following Ohio State’s win over Northwestern on Dec. 19.
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The number of schools in the 14-team Big Ten (10) that are currently happy with the conference is almost certainly smaller than 14.

And there’s a good chance it’s smaller than 10.

Now, of course, all 14 Big Ten schools surely love their annual revenue distributions, which USA TODAY reported totaled roughly $55 million per school for the 12 schools with full revenue shares during the 2019 fiscal year (Maryland and Rutgers didn’t receive a full share as standard operating procedure for new schools that join the conference). And by no means are we suggesting that anyone from the conference is trying to jump ship, nor should they.

We’re talking about happiness in the context of the other stuff – all the annoying, frustrating, at times backward stuff that came with trying to pull off a 2020 college football season. You could have a job that pays you well and provides you with the professional title you want, but if your cubicle mates talk too much, if no one refills the shared coffee pot in the office and if the office party budget took a huge hit since last year, you might not be totally happy with the job, because of what’s on the periphery.

That’s the context for the happiness we’re referring to.

With that out of the way, we ask: Who’s happy with the Big Ten?

So angry that not even happy hour at the Fogo de Chao in Rosemont can calm their emotions

Nebraska: There’s really not much new to add here. The Big Ten postponed fall sports, leading to a handful of Nebraska players suing the conference. Nebraska AD Bill Moos wanted the division winners to be decided only by division games (wonder why?), he asked for a complete overhaul of the conference schedules (wonder why??) and he made some sort of vague, misguided plea for “fairness” (wonder why???).

Then the Huskers opened the season with a 52-17 road loss at Ohio State (ahhh, that’s why).

Nebraska tried to schedule a non-conference opponent after it lost the chance to play Wisconsin due to COVID-19 issues in Madison, but the conference shut that down quickly.

And even as the Badgers dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak, some corners of the Huskers’ fan base accused Wisconsin of ducking Nebraska. But at least you might get a free combo meal!

Probably not super happy

Northwestern: The Wildcats could’ve had Athletic Director Jim Phillips named the Big Ten Commissioner, and if you don’t believe me, just read any story about Phillips being chosen in November to succeed John Swofford as the ACC Commissioner.

From ESPN: “Phillips had strong support from Big Ten athletic directors to become that league’s commissioner after Jim Delany’s retirement in January. But the Big Ten presidents and chancellors instead went with Minnesota Vikings executive Kevin Warren, who has had a rocky first year leading the conference because of the coronavirus pandemic.”

From the Chicago Tribune: “Phillips was seen as a favorite for the Big Ten commissioner job last year before it went to Kevin Warren.”

From CBS Sports: “This after he was believed to be a candidate for Big Ten commissioner, though his current conference instead decided to hire Kevin Warren.”

So now, Northwestern will not only lose its AD, but it will lose him to a different Power 5 conference’s commissioner chair, when Phillips was believed to have been the frontrunner for the same post in the Big Ten. I can confirm this, by the way. At the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago in 2019, a really big-time agent in attendance talked in whispers about how Phillips was believed to be Jim Delany’s successor.

Pat Fitzgerald’s name has been mentioned as one that the NFL could be interested in this coaching cycle, which could very well be a negotiating tactic after the Wildcats won the Big Ten West and after the department will have to find a new AD. But if there’s validity to the interest and if Northwestern loses its football coach soon after it loses AD, the people on the shores of Lake Michigan won’t be too happy.

Plus, while IU and its fan base were certainly at the forefront of the Big Ten’s decision to change its minimum-game requirement for the Big Ten Championship Game, it only would’ve been human if Northwestern stakeholders secretly wished for the rule to remain.

Would you rather play Indiana or Ohio State with a conference championship on the line?

Northwestern could’ve been a one-loss conference champion, just like Indiana.

Indiana: Look, we don’t need to bullshit a 2,000-word thinkpiece about the Big Ten’s fluid championship game requirements and the conference’s 11th-hour decision to officially change them. As the conference proved, there was nothing stopping it from changing the rules. The 2020 college football season was a shameless money grab in the face of the pandemic, so if you’re going to make that money play — and if you want to give the only team in your conference that’s currently capable of winning a national championship the chance to do so — then I don’t know that the Big Ten’s decision was “wrong,” per se.

But you can also argue that the Big Ten hurt itself by changing its rules. I’d argue Ohio State didn’t need a Big Ten Championship to make the College Football Playoff. If it had played No. 16 Iowa rather than No. 14 Northwestern during the Big Ten’s Champions Week, then the Buckeyes still would’ve made the playoff. Texas A&M’s last regular-season game was against a Tennessee team that lost six in a row during the season.

So, the Big Ten arguably unnecessarily pushed all of its chips in the middle of the table for Ohio State, leaving the conference with just one team in a New Year’s Six bowl, whereas an IU-Northwestern matchup in the Big Ten Championship would’ve propelled the winner to the NY6. It also would’ve allowed the conference to embrace one of two genuinely good and fairly unlikely storylines from the conference – Northwestern’s turnaround from being truly dismal in 2019 to the conference champion in 2020, or Indiana winning its first conference title since 1967.

If you weren’t convinced of how Indiana felt about the Big Ten’s decision-making, just look at the right shoulder of the Hoosiers’s uniforms for the Outback Bowl, where the team elected to not display the conference’s patch.

Yeah, they’re probably at least a little annoyed

Ohio State: For as much as Ohio State has repeatedly had the rules of the conference and the sport bend to its will, the Buckeyes probably aren’t pleased with being forced to take the scenic route to the College Football Playoff National Championship. Sure, a national title, or even a championship game appearance, could probably go a long way toward leaving the events from August through December 2020 in the past, but the Big Ten postponed its season when Ohio State had a championship-caliber team and a Heisman-caliber quarterback, the Buckeyes were briefly in a position where their Big Ten Championship Game berth wasn’t guaranteed and they had to listen to Dabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher and every other coach south of the Ohio River talk about how Ohio State wasn’t worthy of the playoff because of the number of games it had played.

Big Ten protocols stipulated that players who had tested positive had to be withheld from competition for 21 days, which was a stricter policy than other conferences, but then the conference ultimately just changed that rule, too.

AL.com reported that there were conversations between the Big Ten, College Football Playoff and SEC about postponing the national championship, while Ohio State reportedly remained steadfast on playing as scheduled, although it’s unclear how serious the reported COVID-19 concerns are or were to the game being played as scheduled. If there were ever behind-the scenes conversations between the Sugar Bowl and the national championship game where the Big Ten was more in favor of potentially postponing the title game than the Buckeyes were, then that could’ve added fuel to the fire in ways the public may never understand or appreciate.

Ohio State may ultimately get almost everything it wanted from this season – a national championship, a Big Ten championship, really everything except for a steamrolling of Michigan and a Heisman Trophy for Justin Fields – but for a program that’s more of a peer of Alabama and Clemson than Illinois, Maryland and Nebraska, those in Columbus may not be thrilled with the Big Ten’s handling of the season, even if the conference ultimately bent to the Buckeyes every time a significant hurdle stood in Ohio State’s way.

Wisconsin: One of the biggest bullet points for why the Big Ten changing its championship game requirements actually did, in fact, come across as a move only made for the benefit of Ohio State is because Wisconsin — Ohio State’s frequent Big Ten West foil and a team that was ranked No. 12 in the preseason AP poll — didn’t have the championship game eligibility requirements changed when it faced its own COVID-19 issues early in the Big Ten’s season.

If Wisconsin administrators and fans aren’t asking why the rules weren’t changed in early November, then they probably should.

In the Badgers’s season opener, which was the first Big Ten game of the season, Wisconsin routed Illinois, 45-7. Sure, Illinois wasn’t very good and ultimately fired its coach, but the Illini beat the Badgers in 2019, and even more importantly for Wisconsin, its blue-chip starting quarterback Graham Mertz was incredible in his first career start. He was 20-for-21 passing for 248 yards and five touchdowns. His only incompletion was a drop.

Then the Badgers had their next two games canceled due to COVID-19, meaning they hadn’t played two of their first three games and they would need to play, and likely win, the rest of their games to guarantee a spot in the Big Ten Championship.

At that point in the season, we didn’t know that Wisconsin would finish the season 4-3. The Badgers were a preseason top-15 team that appeared to have a really promising passing attack with a caliber of quarterback that rarely enrolls at Wisconsin.

The fact that the Big Ten didn’t change its eligibility requirements for its championship game after Wisconsin had two of its first three games punted is both surprising and telling, with the benefit of hindsight. Maryland, too, wouldn’t meet the six-game minimum during the regular season but there was never talk of changing the rules for the Terps. But it’s the fact that the conference didn’t implement a rule change for Wisconsin — the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten West in the preseason and the first team in the conference to have serious COVID-19 issues once the conference started competition — that is so perplexing.

Wisconsin is among the programs that have been ranked the most often in the College Football Playoff rankings without having made the playoff. The Badgers aren’t a national title contender but they have as reasonable and as consistent of a path to annual 10-win seasons as almost anyone in the country, outside of the elites like Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, etc.

But the Big Ten didn’t treat Wisconsin’s scheduling issues like it treated Ohio State’s scheduling issues, and at the time, there was no reason to believe that the Badgers weren’t the best team in the Big Ten West.