Well, Big Ten, after months of uncertainty, rumors, and steakhouse-adjacent First Amendment exercise, you are about to jump into the very sketchy pool that is college football in 2020. You already know about some of the possible Covid-19 landmines ahead; you’re already starting to see some of the challenges heading into your Week 1.
But you may not be prepared for the football weirdness. Sure, you’ve read every preview, considered every roster change, dissected the new assistant coaching hires. None of that’s actually going to help you predict what happens next. Some of your teams will still have normal seasons, winning the games they’re supposed to, losing the ones they’re not, frustrating fans with the same bad habits and flaws the coaching staff has had for years. Based on the SEC’s first month, however, there are three archetypes that will be filled by a Big Ten team:
1. THE UNEXPECTED DISASTER
LSU tied the all-time record for picks in a single NFL Draft when 14 Tigers were selected in late April, and they also lost their defensive coordinator and offensive wunderkind when both left for other jobs. A national title repeat seemed unlikely (LSU only got one first-place vote in the AP and Coaches Polls combined) but it seemed reasonable to expect only a small step back.
Three games later, LSU’s 1-2 with a record-setting loss to a Mississippi State team that immediately plummeted into its own breakdown and a defeat by Mizzou that ended with LSU turning 1st and goal from the one-yard line into zero points on four plays. It’s not just that LSU’s losing to teams you’d expect them to beat. It’s how it’s happening.
This is the worst defensive performance I've ever seen out of an LSU team, looks like your 2.3 million dollar defensive coordinator is going to potentially lose you 2 of his first 3 games— T-Bob Hebert (@TBob53) October 10, 2020
There’s still time left for Coach O to salvage things, but right now, LSU’s stumble is as bad as it is unexpected.
You will have your own LSU, Big Ten, a reliable stalwart you assume will help bolster the conference’s reputation who instead turns out to be woefully, alarmingly behind schedule. Do not waste time trying to identify this team now so you can adjust your expectations, as there aren’t reliable warning signs. Just know it’s coming, and that you will have to be prepared for a deluge of What The Heck Is Wrong With Wisconsin/Penn State/Michigan/Ohio State/Etc.? columns.
2. THE DELIGHTFUL SURPRISE
There is another side to that coin, fortunately. Arkansas didn’t win a conference game in 2019, got Florida and Georgia added to their slate when the schedules were redone, and was the only SEC program to hire someone who’d never been an NCAA head coach before. “They’re rebuilding” was a reasonable expectation in the same way that phrase could apply to a grocery store you just saw burn down.
Arkansas pushed Georgia for a half to start the season – not a win, but feisty, at least. Then they beat Mississippi State, lost to Auburn on some bullshit, and got their second win by outlasting Ole Miss. That’s right: your 2020 state of Mississippi champion plays in Fayetteville (and sometimes Little Rock).
After four games, Arkansas’s tied for fourth in the nation in turnover margin (though Syracuse is first, statistics are a lie), has only allowed nine touchdowns on 18 opposing red zone possessions, and has the SEC’s best pass defense judging by yards per attempt. The Hogs either got much better very quickly or a little better and a good bit more lucky; frankly, I’m not sure it matters so long as they keep up their hot streak.
You, Big Ten, will also boast an Arkansas. Again, I can’t tell you which team it will be or why, because anyone who says they thought Arkansas would be this team for the SEC is a liar or a time-traveler. Whether it’s Rutgers winning five games or Illinois battling for the West title or Maryland destroying Penn State, something Arkansanian looms in your future. In a good way!
3. SCHRODINGER’S TEAM
Kentucky’s first loss involved giving Auburn three turnovers and losing the ball on downs twice. Their second required a blown two-touchdown lead in the second half against Ole Miss, followed by a missed extra point in overtime that wound up being the deciding margin.
Then the Wildcats beat Mississippi State 24-2 and handed Tennessee their worst loss in the series since the Eisenhower administration.
Did Kentucky play significantly better in the blowout wins than the close losses? Have they turned a corner and figured something out that they can build on the rest of the year? Are the Wildcats a good team? I have no clue, and I do not expect to gain any decisive information this Saturday or any Saturday after that! Kentucky will be as good and successful any week as the fates decide.
So too, Big Ten, will you house a Kentucky, a team that completely evades explanation and expectation, somehow living in the impossible territory where every win feels like an upset and every loss feels like a disappointment. You’d like to know, surely, who that team will be, but there is simply no way to pred-ah, wait.
That one’s Indiana.