The Big Ten went belly-up on Saturday.
The beneficiary, however, likely won’t be the best from some other conference, but instead one of the league’s brethren.
As bad as the Big Ten looked with three of its teams - two of them ranked - getting beaten by three of the Pac-12’s supposedly second-tier teams, Michigan State looks like it might be a threat to play for the national championship.
Not because Michigan State is one of the two best teams in college football, but because the Spartans suddenly appears to have a decent chance to run the table.
Wisconsin was the first to fall last Saturday.
The Badgers, who played in each of the last two Rose Bowls and entered last weekend ranked 13th, traveled to unranked Oregon State and lost 10-7, looking so inept offensively that two days later first-year offensive line coach Mike Markuson was fired.
Next to go down was Nebraska.
The 16th-ranked Cornhuskers played at No. 22 UCLA, and the Bruins got their best win in recent memory, beating Nebraska 36-32.
Finally, Illinois fell.
The Fighting Illini weren’t ranked, and won’t sniff the top 25, nevertheless their decisive 45-14 loss at Arizona State won’t do the Big Ten’s national reputation any favors.
The losses by Wisconsin and Nebraska were signals. They were evidence that each was overrated.
The Badgers, who were among college football’s best the last two years, have taken a step back this fall and won’t be a factor when the BCS Standings become the sport’s focus, and the Cornhuskers clearly still haven’t recovered their seemingly rightful place among college football’s finest.
“I’m not in this profession to lose football games,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said on Saturday. “Any loss absolutely disturbs me to no end.”
Similarly, after his team fell, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “I’m embarrassed by how we played today. We didn’t play well in any phase of the game. We were inconsistent, our fundamentals were lousy, and that leads to bad things happening.”
But Wisconsin and Nebraska aren’t alone.
Penn State has been devastated by the Sandusky scandal. The Nittany Lions stand 0-2, with losses to Ohio University - that’s the Bobcats, not the Buckeyes - and Virginia - that’s the Cavaliers, not the Hokies. Michigan seems to have slipped after losing much of its defensive front to graduation, and after getting blown out by Alabama looked vulnerable in a win over Air Force. And Ohio State, while winning both its games, looked sloppy beating Central Florida by 15 in a game that was tied midway through the second quarter.
Then there’s Michigan State.
The Spartans, strange as it may seem, could take advantage of the down times in Ann Arbor, Columbus and Madison and - forget Pasadena - ride that advantage all the way to Miami and the BCS Championship Game.
Again, it’s not that Michigan State is one of the two best teams, but instead poised to take advantage of circumstances that exist now but won’t in two years when a four-team playoff will be used to determine the national title.
The SEC is loaded. Alabama looks like a clear No. 1, but the Tide could get tripped up in any of four games on their schedule - road dates at Arkansas, Missouri Tennessee and LSU. Similarly, LSU has a murderous schedule, as do Georgia and South Carolina.
They may - may, not will, but may - knock each other off.
If that happens, two unbeaten teams from lesser conferences could wind up playing for the national title while the SEC’s teams, which have won the last six championships, watch helplessly.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Florida State to run roughshod over the middling ACC. Nor is it unfathomable for USC or Oregon to do the same in the Pac-12. Or the winner of the Nov. 17 matchup between West Virginia and Oklahoma to sweep through the Big 12.
Or, with evidence beginning to mount that the Big Ten’s traditional powers are down slightly this season, for Michigan State to run its slate.
The Spartans were good last year. Very good.
They came within three points of beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship - after beating the Badgers on a Hail Mary during the regular season - instead settling for the Outback Bowl where they met SEC East winner Georgia and topped the Bulldogs 33-30 in three overtimes.
Only five starters on offense return from that team, but critically four of them are on the offensive line, which showed with junior running back Le’Veon Bell averaging 140 yards per game the first two weeks of the season. Eight, meanwhile, are back from a defense that ranked 10th in fewest points allowed last year and sixth in yardage allowed, including superb defensive end William Gholston.
Michigan State already has a solid non-conference win over Boise State. Road dates at Michigan and Wisconsin loom, which won’t be easy as those teams work in their new starters and improve, but they’re winnable for the Spartans.
The Big Ten had a really bad day last Saturday. But it might have been really good for Michigan State.
What We Learned
Sometimes, it’s a lot of fun to see karma kick a program in the ass.
A week after Oklahoma State scored 84 points in a shutout win over Savannah State, the Cowboys traveled to Tucson and got their butts kicked 59-38 by Arizona. Meanwhile, Arkansas, ranked eighth in the AP poll, hosted the University of Louisiana-Monroe in a game it figured could wind up a bit like Oklahoma State’s against Savannah State, but instead the Warhawks came back from 21 points down to beat the Razorbacks 34-31 in overtime.
“Any loss is devastating,” interim Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “We still have the league in front of us. They’re all devastating, but we still have the league in front of us and that’s a positive.”
There’s no doubt that scheduling patsies is part of college football. It’s part of the game’s past, and will be part of its future, but that doesn’t mean it’s honorable.
The motivation is simple. The more easy non-conference opponents on a team’s schedule, the better its chance of first becoming bowl eligible, and then climbing the rankings and getting to play in a more prestigious bowl.
But just because there’s logical motivation doesn’t make it right. It’s not wrong, unless the opponent is someone so hapless - like Savannah State - that it doesn’t even have a shot at stopping a fourth-string offense running the ball straight up the middle, but it still feels a bit unseemly.
So when someone supposedly mighty gets knocked off by a little guy, like Michigan did in 2007 by Appalachian State, it feels like that someone supposedly mighty, in this case Arkansas, got what was coming to them.
Same goes for Oklahoma State, which didn’t get its comeuppance against the little guy, but got it the very next week when it played a real team.
Perhaps karma will be kind to Florida State. The ’Noles played Savannah State last Saturday - an emergency replacement for West Virginia, which had to drop out of a scheduled game because of its move to the Big 12 - but only scored 55 points ... thanks to a running clock in the third quarter and dangerous weather that ended the game in the third quarter.
Game of the Week
Arkansas may have gotten its comeuppance last weekend, suffering a loss that led to the second-biggest fall in poll history when the Razorbacks dropped from eighth to unranked, but this Saturday they have a chance to put their stamp on this season in a different way.
The Hogs host Alabama, and though the Tide beat Michigan at a neutral site the first Saturday of the season, playing at Arkansas represents a whole different level of test for the defending national champions.
It will be the first real road game for Alabama, and it will be played out in front of 76,000 full-throated fans desperate to see their Razorbacks make up for what went down against Louisiana-Monroe.
“I remember playing in 2010, being nervous and not really knowing what to expect and the crowd playing a huge factor in my performance,” said Alabama defensive back Robert Lester. “Going into games like that you need to make sure that the young guys are ready and know what to expect. You need to make sure that they don’t fold under the pressure and that they actually go out there and perform the way that they can.”
The question, of course, is whether Arkansas really has a chance.
The return of 17 starters, including quarterback Tyler Wilson from a team that reached No. 3 in the rankings and was 10-2 a year ago seems to suggest it does. Last week aside, the Razorbacks had an offense last year that ranked 15th nationally in scoring with 36.8 points per game. The defense wasn’t great, but it was good, ranking 33rd by allowing an average 22.2 points.
Still, it will take something strange for Arkansas to beat ’Bama, especially with Wilson questionable for Saturday after suffering a head injury last week.
The Tide simply have too much, despite Saban’s public lecture last week to the contrary. And for them to lose, they’d have to suffer some sort of letdown after their beatdown of the Wolverines and subsequent manhandling of Western Kentucky.
“We still feel like we’re a top 10 team in the nation,” said Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg. “They’re ranked No. 1 right now. They’re undefeated and we have one blemish on our record. We’re 0-0 in SEC and we know that this is a big game, like it always is every year that I’ve been here. It has implications on what happens in the SEC.”
My Top 10
1. Alabama (2-0): Too good to keep from the top spot.
2. LSU (2-0): Whipping Washington was impressive.
3. USC (2-0): Shaky win over Syracuse.
4. Oregon (2-0): Injuries on defense are a mounting concern.
5. Georgia (2-0): A strong win at Missouri.
6. Florida State (2-0): Next week vs. Clemson we’ll learn more.
7. West Virginia (1-0): Easy first four for the Mountaineers.
8. Michigan State (2-0): Notre Dame won’t be a pushover.
9. South Carolina (2-0): Nice bounce-back after a shaky opener.
10. Oklahoma (2-0): Kansas State next week could be the Sooners’ demise.
Eric Avidon can be reached at 508-626-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ericavidon.