11/10. Michigan State
One of the many curious cases of the Big Ten this year has been the resume put forth by inaugural (sigh) Legends Division champion Michigan State, who sealed the division title with a 55-3 victory over Indiana and a concurrent Nebraska loss to Michigan on Saturday. The Spartans' best case to be made is the schedule; they went 4-2 in the following games: at Notre Dame, at Ohio State, vs. Michigan, vs. Wisconsin, at Nebraska, and at Iowa. The other five games were cupcakes.
That's a heck of a run in six legitimately difficult games, all against bowl teams, and a run that plenty of teams around MSU in the rankings might not have accomplished, so it would stand to reason that the slate of opponents would be the strongest part of MSU's resume and that the relatively uncompetitive nature of the Spartans' two losses would push their national standing down, right? The voters see the wide margins of defeat and the computers don't, so the voters would have a worse opinion of Sparty, right?
Well, no. As shown above, the AP and coaches have Michigan State at 10th and 11th, and the Harris Poll voters also have MSU at 11th. The BCS computers? Even with the top and low polls thrown out, the average BCS ranking of the Spartans is 18.75. That is not a typo. And that's without the computers even looking at the scores! I genuinely can't figure out why MSU is getting crushed by the computer polls, but I do know that it's probably going to be enough to keep the Spartans out of an at-large BCS bid if they lose the Big Ten championship, and that seems like a pretty rude fate for a 10-win Big Ten team with what looked like (and probably still is) the hardest overall schedule of any contender in the conference.
The wall-to-wall favorite of the Big Ten continues to get crushed for its comically weak non-conference slate, and beating a Penn State team that everyone has not-so-secretly been thinking is overrated (but has continued to overrate all year anyway, because yay for wins) probably isn't going to push Wisconsin's stock that much higher. As a result, the Badgers are going to be borderline Top 10 even if they secure a Rose Bowl bid. That seems low, doesn't it? A team that was generally thought of as one of the five or six most talented in the nation coming into the year -- a legitimate BCS Championship contender, even -- gets derailed by two Hail Marys and it still can't get past 15th in the AP? In a year like this? Insanity. The Badgers are a Top 10 team and ought to be regarded as such by the polls.
It's become obvious that this is a five-team conference, considering all five (let's call them the Big Five) fall in a 12-13 team span of the major polls, while no other school has even garnered a vote for the last two weeks (and unless Iowa pulls off a fairly sizable upset at Nebraska, no school will until maybe after the bowls). The Big Ten anticipated that to an extent, saddling the higher-profile teams with tougher inter-divisional games to create more favorable matchups for TV and general national attention. It's not an accident that Wisconsin drew Michigan State and Nebraska as its two non-fixed inter-divisional rivals this year, after all. So while that's fine and good for the conference, it means that in a league as consistently deep as the Big Ten, the opportunity for the big teams to just beat up on each other and take each other out of the Top 10 is basically to be expected.
With Michigan, though, none of that is really the case here; the Wolverines' non-rivalry inter-divisional games were Illinois and Purdue this year, and what really hampered them this year was that they weren't highly ranked coming into the season. If the pollsters had decided Michigan was very good coming into this year, they'd be closer to MSU than anyone else in the conference, but instead they're here -- even with the highest BCS computer ranking of anyone else in the Big Ten. Now, mind you, it's all right that the voters didn't have much confidence in Michigan. because I didn't either. But it's a yearly fact that as long as we're ranking 25 teams, the teams that start out in the Top 10 or Top 15 are going to reap the benefits of that high initial ranking throughout the year.
20/19. Penn State
It takes a certain kind of, well, something to come away from the Penn State debacle and feel sympathy for poll voters. And obviously, voters aren't coming up in the coverage of the investigation, nor should they be. But that all said, the pollsters do have to figure out what to do with Penn State and how to rank them, and there really isn't much of a formula to follow for "ranked team loses head coach during the season" and how much (if at all) to downgrade the Nittany Lions for not having Joe Paterno on the sidelines (or in the booth, as it were) anymore. 20th is a fair ranking, if we're being honest about how Penn State has looked all season long, and if the Nebraska game had come in early October and given the Nittany Lions a conference loss early on, we never would have had the conundrum of what to do with an 8-1 team that isn't very good.
Having seen Nebraska dispatch both Michigan State and Penn State -- still the only conference losses either of those teams has suffered at this point -- it seems insane to think of the Huskers at No. 22. And yet, not only has the rest of the Big Five beaten up on Nebraska, but the Huskers took one utterly inexcusable home loss to Northwestern on top of it, and that's just a little bit too much for voters who never had much to do with the Big Ten other than Wisconsin this year. So, here are the Huskers, ranked 22nd, just like nobody thought they'd be 11 games in.
Also receiving votes: none