For years the SEC has dominated the college football landscape, ruling the AP poll and sending one or two teams to the National Championship almost every year. In the past few years, however, the power has appeared to be shifting.
Leading up to the 2017 season, the Big Ten was improving rapidly due to new coaching hires and an expanding recruiting landscape. Sports Illustrated even listed them as the No.1 conference in college football coming into that season. This was specifically due to the emergence of the Big Ten East as one of the strongest divisions in the country, and to the regression of the SEC in 2016. For the first time since 2005, the conference had a losing record against other power five schools.
During the 2017 season, the Big Ten lived up to the preseason hype, going 14-6 against other power five conferences, the only conference with a winning record in out of conference play against power five teams. The Big Ten ended that year with three teams in the top 10, five in the top 25, and earned a nationwide consensus that the conference was quickly improving. Since the end of the 2017 season, however, the power has returned to the south.
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Entering the 2018 season, the Big Ten had five teams in the AP top 25, including three in the top 10 and Wisconsin as No. 4. Alternatively, the SEC also sported five teams in the top 25, three in the top 10, but had two in the top five with Alabama as the No.1 team in the nation. Entering the season, it’s fair to say that the two conferences were as close to even as it could get, as they had the same number of top 25 and top 10 teams, and each had their share of bad teams sitting at the bottom of the conference.
The two big wild cards coming into the year whose success, or lack thereof, would go far towards putting separation between the conferences were Nebraska, with new head coach Scott Frost coming off an undefeated season at UCF, and Wisconsin, who began the year with a legitimate shot at the College Football Playoff. If Nebraska and Wisconsin were to impress in 2018, it was likely that the Big Ten would overcome the SEC as the nation’s top conference, but four weeks into the season, the opposite has happened.
Nebraska started the season playing as bad as a team can play. Their 33-28 loss to PAC 12 team Colorado, 24-19 loss to Sun Belt team Troy and 56-10 loss to fellow Big Ten School Michigan not only shows that they aren’t improving under first year head coach Scott Frost, but it also shows they have regressed significantly — a bad result for the success of the Big Ten.
The other wild card, Wisconsin, has been arguably more disappointing. Wisconsin is known to schedule easy out of conference games to begin the year and dominate the weak Big Ten West during the season, often leading them to the Big Ten Championship. Coming into week three of the season at 2-0, all was going as planned with BYU getting ready to visit Madison. BYU won the week three game 24-21, putting a gash in the Badgers’ playoff hopes and setting the Big Ten back significantly. While Wisconsin won the next week in Iowa, their playoff chances remained slim, a trend opposite to that of many SEC schools.
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Since beginning the year with five top 25 teams, three top 10, and two top five teams, the SEC has dominated across the board. Four weeks removed from the preseason poll, the conference now has six teams in the top 25, four in the top 10, and three in the top five, including both No. 1 and No. 2. These numbers all best those of the Big Ten, showing that the SEC remains the nation’s best conference, though the Big Ten still follows closely behind.