In late June of 2022, when UCLA and USC announced they would join the Big Ten, I determined that the end of the Pac-12, Oregon joining the new conference, and the need to expand my film library and player database were inevitable. In early July of last year I began acquiring and charting the tape of every Big Ten football game played against FBS opponents in 2021 and 2022 I hadn’t already reviewed, and by last month had completed the project.
With this past weekend’s announcement that Oregon and UW will in fact become members of the Big Ten for the 2024 football season along with the LA schools, I prepared a simple statistical regression of the dataset from charting those games, using the same system with which I’ve been writing about Oregon’s Pac-12 and notable non-conference opponents for more than a decade. This article summarizes each Big Ten team using that statistical system, as an overview of the Ducks’ new conference.
While I grade a wide variety of factors when charting games, for this survey I’ll give the simple overview for the three basic categories of fundamental per-play strength:
- efficiency measured by success rate given the down & distance (advancing the ball far enough to stay ahead of the chains on offense, stopping the opponent from doing so on defense)
- adjusted yards per play gained or allowed (capping all gains at 40 yards to control field position effects)
- explosiveness measured by frequency of passing plays of 15+ yards and rushing plays of 10+ yards
All plays are split into pass or run (screens are included in the pass stats for this article) based on the design of the playcall, so for example QB scramble runs are considered pass plays for efficiency purposes but not pass attempts for pass explosiveness purposes. Garbage time and games against FCS teams are excluded.
In my experience, efficiency grades span a 20-percentage point window, with 50% being the average for a Power-5 team, 60% being championship caliber, and 40% being the cellar. Explosiveness is about a 10-point window, with 15% as the median, 20% being championship level, and 10% being poor. Yards-per-play averages about 7.0 for passes and 4.5 for rushes, though that bell curve’s scope fluctuates quite a bit between conferences and seasons. I’ve color-coded the relative strengths of the current 14 Big Ten teams to each other in the charts that appear below.
EDIT: Due to popular demand, I’ve added the Pac-12 teams that will be joining the Big Ten in 2024 and where they would fall in this order had they been members over the last two years. However, since two of those teams — USC and Washington — had coaching changes and 4-8 seasons in 2021, their records and statistical profiles are somewhat disjointed and misleading, which is partly why I didn’t consider including them originally, so caveat lector.
The conference winner and playoff semi-finalist the last two seasons, Michigan’s statistical profile is the most well-rounded in the conference. There are no real weaknesses here, and even that spot of orange at 14% explosive passing allowed on defense is still above average nationally, it’s really just an artifact of playing on a national stage more than the rest of this league and being exposed to bigger armed QBs.
The curious thing about Michigan is that for the standard bearer of the conference, the Wolverines’ passing efficiency is barely above water (Ohio St is the only other B1G team with an above average pass success rate nationally). Michigan still does fine in generating explosive plays but they’re hit-or-miss on a per-play basis, and rely on their run game to keep them on schedule. Defensively, these are fantastic numbers against the pass and like most of the conference they’re great against explosive rushing, and the merely above average rush efficiency defense is I think just the football culture of the league – opponents have to try something something against you.
Ohio State 22-4
The Buckeyes’ stat profile fits a team that should be winning the league, and the fact that they’ve lost twice in a row to their rivals to the north has got them steamed for more reasons than one. Their offense is truly elite with no falloffs at all. The only thing close to a weakness is slightly below average, both nationally speaking and by the standards of this conference, defense against explosive passing.
This is where the Ducks would fit into the B1G today, both in win-loss and in the cumulative statistical profile. Oregon’s offense exceeds every other team except Ohio State by a wide margin in all categories, and even the Buckeyes in rush efficiency. The Ducks’ defense over the last two years, however, would just be a bit above average by B1G standards, below the top teams in efficiency (and some of the teams below are even more exceptional at defensive efficiency) although comparable or even better in preventing explosive plays.
Penn State 18-8
PSU’s stats were dragged down by a clunker of a 7-6 season in 2021; they rebounded with a more typical 11-2 performance last year. Still, even when I separate their stats individually the two years’ profiles look similar – a defense-led team that’s fairly mediocre on offense both in the pass and the run, but which almost routinely shakes games up with huge explosive passing plays out of nowhere.
The Golden Gophers have a good case for being the fourth or even the third best team in the league over the last two years – they have the same record as Penn State, and an overall statistical profile that’s stronger (or more free of weaknesses anyway, though their explosive vs efficiency offensive passing split is eye-catching) than any other team besides Michigan and Ohio State. A good deal of that stems from playing in what’s by far the weaker division in the West, and of the six possible games they could have played against the “big three” from the East, they’ve only gotten two (and it’s three of eight if you add MSU as the “big four”).
Minnesota also has a bad habit of losing the deciding game of the divisional race in heartbreaking fashion, to Iowa and Purdue most recently, and so hasn’t made it to Indianapolis despite having a statistical profile to probably give the East champion a better challenge.
The Hawkeyes’ notorious juxtaposition of lethal defense and putrid offense is borne out statistically, and there’s very little to elaborate on here – it’s just as bad as you’d imagine, and governmental investigations into the OC’s contract are warranted.
I found my mind wandering a bit while observing the Passchendaele of Iowa’s B1G West games and wondered if a triple-option team like Navy might look at those rush defense numbers – slightly underwater in efficiency but allowing painfully little in actual yards or explosiveness – and call their bluff; that is, actually run at Iowa for three and a half yards every play all game long.
UCLA’s offense would have compared favorably to every B1G team except Ohio State over the last two years, most by a considerable margin. However, with the exception of stopping explosive runs, their defense would have fit right in with the bottom quartile of the B1G, and with their very poor methodical run defense I suspect their future conference mates would probably be successful executing a ball control strategy and just play keep-away all afternoon against the Bruins.
I don’t really understand how Purdue has been a moderately successful football team. There are few bright spots to their stats with most of their categories tending below average, and the couple of green areas being things that don’t generally get teams surprise wins (if you’re only going to be good at one thing, make it explosive passing, not stopping explosive rushing or above average rush efficiency).
In watching film I simply conclude that this is a better coached team in an otherwise less talented division, and they leverage their advantages better than most.
Michigan State 16-9
MSU’s record is the reverse of PSU’s over the last two years – great 2021, then fell off to an awful 2022. They had built their team around a phenomenal running back and when he left last year the offense just collapsed. The passing offense, like several others in the Big Ten (Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Penn State), is underwater in efficiency but relies on above-average rate of long explosive throws to generate scoring drives.
Where MSU’s statistical profile shows real signs of weakness is in their pass defense, which was poor even in their strong 2021 season. Part of that is playing some good offenses in the stronger division but even taking that into account they still surrender more long passing plays to any given opponent than that opponent typically generates.
The Badgers fired longtime head coach Paul Chryst five weeks into the 2022 season; they were 11-7 with him and 5-3 without over this period.
Wisconsin’s defense has statistically been the strongest in the league, championship-caliber efficiency against both the run and the pass – truly elite numbers across the board with the only possible hope being to bet on explosive passes.
The issue has been the offense keeps putting the defense back onto the field with the inability to sustain drives, so the opponent gets a lot of chances to roll those dice. The rush efficiency is pretty good but, true to reputation, it’s all short-yardage stuff without any explosiveness, and so inevitably they’ll find themselves in some 3rd & long situations … and the passing offense can’t close the deal at all. It’s a terrible passing efficiency in all situations and it crumbles even further when the defense knows a pass is coming. The only bright spot is surprise play-action passing in the classic 2nd & short.
USC’s awful 4-8 season with a fired coach drags down their record, but interestingly enough their statistical performance in 2021 was relatively similar to 2022 just a point or two weaker across the board. The Trojans’ pass efficiency number may surprise some readers, it’s explained in greater depth in my 2023 Summer preview. Overall an extraordinarily explosive offense, which almost entirely makes up for a poor defensive showing that’s now lasted the better part of two decades.
UW also has a 4-8 season included in this biennium, but unlike USC their stats are almost completely different from year to year. The only similarities are in rush efficiency, both offense and defense - in 2021 they infamously advertised their prowess in pounding the ball, and in 2022 their pass-first offense reserves rushing for short-yardage pickpus; on defense they’ve never had the personnel to stop the run since the Sarkisian linebackers left. In 2021 they still had some elite cornerbacks who kept their pass defense high caliber; when they left for the NFL and were replaced with walk-ons in 2022 that completely collapsed, and so their combined stats show a very mixed bag. The Huskies’ 2022 pass offense, like the Trojans, is lethal in explosiveness, though they have a high degree of incompletions due to the QB’s comfort with throwing the ball away to avoid sacks, which pulls down their efficiency number despite an otherwise excellent pass offense.
The Terrapins have a surprisingly Wisconsin-like offense, not schematically but in statistical results. They have a decent rush efficiency number and use it to set up some good surprise explosive passing, but they can’t hit big runs at all and they can’t throw with consistency to get them out of routine medium- and long-yardage situations, and so their drive efficiency takes a big hit.
Defensively, Maryland looks pretty middle-of-the-pack, but what stood out watching film is that they have some fairly talented pass rushers and defensive backs, and perform better than expected in pass defense efficiency.
This is about as dead average of a team as I could find for this league – typically decent defense though largely from playing weak offenses in their division, not much explosiveness, and very poor offensive passing efficiency translating to a lot of 3-outs.
The strangest thing about watching this team was how insistent most opponents were about running the ball at them, considering that Rutgers’ rush defense is the only thing they do well. It was like opponents chalked the Scarlet Knights up as an automatic win and took the week off of film study. I admit to some satisfaction when they won a couple of games from what I think was their opponent botching the gameplan.
It was a widely circulated that this team had an astounding number of one-score losses, and watching the Cornhuskers play I understand why. Their stats shouldn’t have produced a record this poor, but a galling series of special teams disasters, bad luck, and coaching mistakes resulted in dumb loss after dumb loss of winnable games. That said, Nebraska was hardly a soundly constructed team in the first place, with significant weaknesses throughout their rushing offense and defense and the typical passing offensive efficiency issue in the Big Ten. That constantly put them in situations where they were completely reliant on explosive passing plays to bail them out, and with luck this fickle that’s not a good plan.
I don’t want to talk about Northwestern.