LITTLE ROCK — Spotting the SEC and the Pac-12 both numbers and notoriety in the pursuit of a berth in the College Football Playoff, the Big Ten is in danger of falling further behind during the first two weeks of the season.
At least one of the league’s big three — Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State — must start 2-0 against the likes of Oregon, LSU, and Virginia Tech.
The conference’s reputation rests on the shoulders of three quarterbacks — a proven winner, a former safety and a newcomer to college football. Namely, Connor Cook at Michigan State, Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin and J.T. Barrett at Ohio State.
The onus is on them because they are taking snaps for the only three teams in the 14-member conference that appear capable of the 12-1 record that a Big Ten team will need to make the CFP. An 11-2 champion from a league no better than third in the pecking order is unlikely to be ranked in the top four.
Cook’s resume is head and shoulders above that of the other two, but his Spartans also have the most difficult assignment — traveling to Eugene to play the favorite in the Pac-12. The Spartans thrive on defense, but the Ducks will score and it will be up to Cook to match plays with Marcus Mariota in what amounts to an elimination bout in the Heisman Trophy competition.
McEvoy started his career at South Carolina, transferred to Arizona Western College, then matriculated to Wisconsin where he started three games at safety last year. McEvoy moving ahead of Joel Stave, who has started 19 games for the Badgers, is a tough read. It could be that McEvoy is a whiz, but the more likely explanation is that Stave is woefully inconsistent. Whoever takes the snaps must deal with a defense that returns seven starters and is a constant force under coordinator John Chavis.
Described as efficient and accurate by Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, Barrett is the man in Columbus because Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Until Miller was injured, the Buckeyes and Florida State were the best bets to make the CFP.
Virginia Tech appears less talented than Oregon and LSU, but that makes the game all the more of a must-win for the Buckeyes. If Ohio State loses to less than the best in the ACC and then jumps up and beats the Spartans during the regular season or the Badgers in the championship, the strength of the Big Ten will be questioned.
Compared to the Big Ten, the SEC and the Pac-12 are better off from a numbers standpoint. Possible champions in the SEC include Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia, and LSU; Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, and USC are accorded similar status in the Pac-12.
In the ACC, only Florida State and Clemson appear capable of 12-1 or better. In the Big 12, Oklahoma and Baylor are the cream. Clemson playing at Georgia on Saturday is the only of those four with an early-season non-conference challenge on par with those facing the Big Ten’s triumvirate.
Even though I try hard to avoid endorsing favorites in any competition, legitimate longshots to make the playoff are hard to find.
With Texas in transition, 12-0 is doable for the winner of Oklahoma-Baylor. Florida State was so dominant last year that it is difficult to imagine ACC teams catching up to the Seminoles in one year. My third team in is the SEC champion — most likely Alabama — providing the winner in Atlanta has only one loss.
The Pac-12 is the most difficult to handicap. UCLA has become the darling of the media so you can toss the Bruins. USC is not there yet. If, indeed, Oregon has bulked up and can go toe to toe with Stanford, pencil in the Ducks.
That said, Wisconsin and Michigan State can dramatically alter the national picture by winning in Houston and Eugene.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.