While we are nearly at the end of the 2021 college football regular season, there is still so much to be excited for as a Big Ten football fan. With the most hallowed rivalry games across the conference generally set aside for the end of the season, and both divisional titles up for grabs, there is sure to be drama galore across the Midwest in these last two weeks. Despite all the pain, frustration, agony, and grumbling, even the likes of Minnesota still have the world to play for...
Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State all control their own destinies in the Big Ten East. Win out and you win the division, a ticket to Indianapolis, and a chance at the College Football Playoff. The West gets a little more nuanced but Wisconsin, Iowa, Purdue, and technically Minnesota are all still alive but some of scenarios require a lot of specifics. Wisconsin (Nebraska, at Minnesota) controls its own destiny: win two and they’re in. If Iowa (Illinois, at Nebraska) wins out, they need Wisconsin to lose one of their final two games and they move on. Purdue needs to win their remaining games (Northwestern, Indiana), and have Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota all lose one of their remaining games. Minnesota’s path is probably the most convoluted and unlikely. The Golden Gophers can still win the Big Ten West and go to Indianapolis if the following occur: Minnesota goes 2-0, Iowa loses one of its remaining games, and Purdue goes 2-0.
So a lot is at stake the week before rivalry week. So wait just a moment before you cast your gaze to the Old Oaken Bucket, Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the Land of Lincoln Trophy, and the magnificent Heroes Trophy (psssssssssssh, who am I kidding, no one gives a flying fart about those last two pieces of junk) and let us power rank the teams ahead of a highly consequential All-Rivals Eve in the Big Ten. Due the fact that I was reeeeeeeeeeeeally struggling this week to come up with tier categories, I looked around my office cube, saw a map of the National Parks, and decided that it was time.
(Do with these rankings what you will. SP+ rank and FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index) rank is provided next to each team, respectively. Click these links for more information on SP+ and FEI. The previous week’s position in these pointless power rankings follows those two superior metrics.)
The Yellowstone National Park Tier
#1 - Ohio State Buckeyes (2nd, 3rd, last week #1)
#2 - Michigan Wolverines (5th, 4th, last week #4)
Yellowstone is the most famous national park in the country, and perhaps the world. It was also the first. While Ohio State and Michigan weren’t necessarily the first teams in the Big Ten and their rivalry was necessarily the first to be established, they are the gold standard from a historical and 2021 perspective (for now). Michigan isn’t nearly as good as Ohio State but forgive me for wanting to build a little drama ahead of the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Ann Arbor. If Ohio State can dispatch the Spartans at home this Saturday and Michigan takes care of business against Maryland on the road, it sets up for one of the biggest editions of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry in recent memory. Big Ten East title on the line. Significant College Football Playoff implications. The streak, 8 games straight and counting for the Buckeyes. I can’t imagine Jim Harbaugh’s persona the week leading up to that game if both teams hold serve. I wouldn’t want to be at the Harbaugh house for Thanksgiving dinner.
The Yosemite National Park Tier
#3 - Wisconsin Badgers (4th, 6th, last week #2)
#4 - Michigan State Spartans (18th, 20th, last week #3)
#5 - Iowa Hawkeyes (23rd, 30th, last week #7)
#6 - Penn State Nittany Lions (15th, 15th, last week #6)
To signify the fact that the teams that comprise this group are all respectable and decent, but essentially out of all College Football Playoff talk and with blemishes both big and small on their respective resumes, I assigned them Yosemite, a national park both spectacular and famous, but not nearly as famous as Yellowstone. These are all good teams, but for one reason or another, they lost their way during the season. While Wisconsin has recently dominated inferior teams, their offense is still highly questionable. Michigan State still has a path to the Big Ten Championship game, but confidence in them is waning ahead of their matchup with Ohio State and the last game of the season against Penn State. Speaking of Penn State, the Nittany Lions, due to schedule difficulty and injuries, have fallen back from their originally illustrious perch. Iowa, as they are wont to do, continues to plod along and keep their Big Ten West hopes on life support. A group of teams capable of much, both good and bad.
The Great Basin National Park Tier
#7 - Minnesota Golden Gophers (29th, 36th, last week #8)
#8 - Purdue Boilermakers (51st, 24th, last week #5)
Great Basin National Park has the distinction of having a 6,235 foot difference between its lowest (Mountain View Nature Trail) and highest (Wheeler Peak) point. The two teams here have had their shares of highs and lows. Perhaps I’m projecting a bit being a Gopher fan because Minnesota’s lows have certainly been lower than Purdue’s, whose only losses are to good teams (and Minnesota), but these two teams find themselves in very similar positions: win out and they give themselves a chance at the Big Ten West title.
The Everglades National Park Tier
#9 - Illinois Fighting Illini (84th, 66th, last week #9)
#10 - Rutgers Scarlet Knights (74th, 73rd, last week #13)
#11 - Nebraska Cornhuskers (25th, 25th, last week #11)
#12 - Maryland Terrapins (56th, 88th, last week #10)
The morass and murky composition of this tier reminded me of a wetland and there is no National Park that better encapsulates the natural wetland than the Everglades of southern Florida. These teams feel like they are “stuck” in a sense, whether because they keep losing close games (Nebraska) or can’t beat teams that are any good (Maryland), there hasn’t been much tier movement for any of these teams throughout the season. None of them have a winning conference record but they also can’t be considered absolutely horrendous either whether because they have a few quality wins (Illinois) or because they still have the chance to reach bowl eligibility (Rutgers).
The Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve Tier
#13 - Northwestern Wildcats (88th, 95th, last week #12)
#14 - Indiana Hoosiers (82nd, 94th, last week #14)
I would never seek to besmirch the name of any national park so my metaphor here is simple. The Gates of the Arctic is acknowledged by many as the hardest National Park to get to in the NPS system due to its remote nature and lack of roads, a visitor center, or trails of any kind. The Big Ten wins haves been equally remote and elusive for Northwestern and Indiana, with just a lone win between them for the Wildcats against Rutgers. May this not be the biggest jinx in the world to our beloved Gophers as they head to Bloomington this Saturday.