What Can Be Done About The Big Three, Little Eleven?

Nov 10, 2023

I was originally headed in a different direction with this one. It had a different title and everything. But when I went to reference a chart that I had linked last week - Nate Manzo's composite rankings, I noticed how pronounced the Big Three/Little Eleven had become. And I have some thoughts about that.

Here's the full chart from @cfbNate. A bunch of advanced statistics rankings combined into one composite ranking. Just compare the Big Ten with the rest of the conferences:

The SEC doesn't really have any tiers. Georgia is the best team, followed by Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and so on, but there's fairly even spacing throughout. Only Vanderbilt occupies their own tier.

The ACC is clearly four tiers. Florida State occupies their own tier (and they're the only team capable of going to the playoff), then there's a tier of Louisville, Clemson, UNC, Miami, and Duke, and then there are two more tiers below that (with UVA really being the only team on the bottom tier).

The Big Ten? Three great teams and then, really, only one other tier. Michigan is 1, Ohio State 3, Penn State 5... and then the next team on the rankings is Wisconsin at #37. The other 11 teams are all bunched right there. Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan State, and Purdue are the bottom four but they're not that far away from Wisconsin.

Just look at the colors. There's not a single "blue" Big Ten team. Three are green, but by the time you get to Wisconsin and Maryland, it's already starting to turn purple. The SEC, the PAC 12, and the ACC all have a solid set of teams in blue. The Big 12 has a similar steep drop after their "big three" but they still have five teams ranked ahead of Wisconsin and Maryland. The Big Ten is, perhaps now more than ever, a Big Three/Little Eleven conference.

That was the case back when it was ten teams, of course. Big Two/Little Eight goes back to the 1970's and maybe before. Adding Penn State changed that dynamic a bit (and adding Nebraska was supposed to do the same), but this has always been a top-heavy conference.

It's just never been this bad since the conference expanded to 14 teams. You could always count on a Wisconsin or an Iowa or a Michigan State to fill that 15-35 tier. And right now, it's just a bunch of 7-5 football teams. Yes, some of them will go 8-4 or maybe even 9-3, but... they're 7-5 football teams.

Will the four new teams next season change this at all? I'd say so. But that's probably bad news for the rest of the conference. If those four teams were added to the current Big Ten composite rankings, here's what the conference would look like:

1. Michigan
2. Oregon
3. Ohio State
4. Penn State
5. Washington
6. USC
8. Wisconsin
9. Maryland
10. Iowa
11. Rutgers
12. Minnesota
13. Nebraska
14. Illinois
15. Purdue
16. Michigan State
17. Northwestern
18. Indiana

As I said in the article a few days ago, given that we've played the ninth-toughest schedule so far nationally (or whatever it is right now), I'm hoping to see a late-season boost to our numbers after playing Indiana and Northwestern. So I'm holding out hope that we climb to maybe 11th here after the season (out of the eighteen 2024 Big Ten teams). But still, if the four new teams really are ahead of everyone not named Michigan, Ohio State, or Penn State, then there's going to be a few interesting seasons ahead.

And being the forever hopeful Illinois fan, I think I like this? If we just look at this season (Big Three/Little Eleven), never before has 4th place been more available to us. Northwestern had a consistent 15 years but now they're a mess. Wisconsin never moved from their perch until a few years ago and now there are question marks everywhere. Iowa took four years too long to fire Ferentz The Younger. Michigan State, who once made the playoff, is currently a tire fire.

Who steps forward to challenge the Pac 12 teams for that next tier? Is it Maryland? Doesn't feel like it, right? Rutgers? I don't think so. Minnesota? Feels like they've slipped. Nebraska? Purdue?


Look, I don't expect us to suddenly leap up into Tier Two behind the big guns (yes I do). I'm just saying that it's a very interesting dynamic as we head into the Big 18. If this was ten years ago, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, and even Northwestern were on solid footing. Now, it's impossible to name the current fourth-best program in the Big Ten.

Maybe that's best addressed to Oregon, Washington, USC, and UCLA. Hey guys, welcome to the conference. Besides the big three, we have NO IDEA which programs are in good shape right now. There's a really big opportunity for you to make a statement early (if you have your house in order). It's possible Wisconsin figures it out after a rough year under their new coach, and maybe this is the coach that brings Nebraska all the way back, but really, you're climbing onto a ladder with only three rungs claimed.

Also, watch out for Illinois. After 33 years wandering in the desert....


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