Big Ten Kickoff: Elo Rankings, Best Matchups + Strength and Difficulty of Schedule

With the Big Ten kicking off this Friday night with Illinois at Wisconsin, and then a full slate of games on Saturday, we thought we’d look at each team’s position heading into Week 1 (Week 8 for everyone else). Below are the rankings from 1-14 based on preseason Elo rating.

As you can tell, Ohio State really are in a league of their own this season. Now, Penn State may be able to change that early on when they face-off in Week 2, but it’ll be a tall order with the Lions looking at just a 27% win probability. Not terrible, but they definitely will have to play their best football early on, especially without the usual home-field-advantage effects of the White Out.

You can really see the tiers of the Big Ten make themselves clear by looking at the above table. There is Ohio State, and then everyone else.

Top Games of the Big Ten Season

If you’re looking for games to mark on your calendar, you’re in luck. The best game in terms of strength-against-strength comes early on in Week 2 (Week 9 – wow, that’s gonna be annoying to keep up all season). Outside the OSU-PSU game, most of the big matchups take place later in the season.

Strength of Schedule

So who plays the toughest opponents each week on average? Since there are no nonconference games, it’s going to be hard to have a winning record for a lot of these lower-tier teams. Nebraska will be up against it, with an average Elo deficit of 258 points. That equates to an average win probability of 18.5% if they played the same opponent each week with that disadvantage.

Ohio State have the easiest schedule (partly because they can’t play themselves), while Penn State manages a middle-of-the-road strength of schedule, which would make their ability to win-out all the more impressive if it were to happen.

Difficulty of Schedule

When you look at difficulty of schedule, it paints a slightly different picture. Despite facing tougher opponents on average than 6 other teams, Penn State still manages the 2nd least difficult schedule based on their ability to outmatch even the toughest of opponents.

Rutgers and Maryland, unsurprisingly, will be the most likely to struggle against their opponents, despite Rutgers having only the 6th-toughest opponents on average. Their Elo rating is just so low that they will struggle regardless. On average, they would have a 7% win probability if they played their average opponent each week.

For some context on just how bad Rutgers is rated going into 2020, the average Elo for Power-5 schools is 1500. For all other D-I teams, it’s 1200. So they would be considered a below-average Group-of-5 school right now. Even against the 2nd-worst team in the Big Ten, Maryland, they would only have a 33% win probability right now.

Ok, enough harping on Rutgers. The point is, this season is going to be brutal for some, disappointing for others, and an absolute breeze for one: Ohio State. With the shortened season and a lot of turnover, opt-outs, injuries, and eventually three-week COVID-ineligibles, it is going to be a major challenge for any team to get up to speed with Ohio State in time to keep up with their level of talent. And when their biggest challenger plays them Week 2 in an empty stadium and loses that home-field-advantage, it looks all the more likely that OSU is able to run the table.

We’ll see, but either way, it’ll be great to have one-play-at-a-time, blue-collar, hard-nosed, disciplined Big Ten football back on Saturday. Let’s be thankful for that.


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