Big Ten football misery index: Why Michigan football's worst loss ever is a little better

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The question arose when looking at the schedule for the official "Week 1" of the college football season: Does it really count as Big Ten football misery if teams from other conferences are involved?

After all, for the first time since 2019, Big Ten teams were facing nonconference foes in the regular season. And yes, we know there were bowl games featuring Big Ten squads to wrap up the 2020 season. We were politely asked by Ohio State not to write about whatever that was in its finale that shall remain nameless, and, well, when it comes to the Big Ten, the Buckeyes get what they want – especially if it annoys Indiana.

But anyway, those were bowl games, and there’s no misery in losing a bowl game —short of, just spitballin' here, losing the CFP title game by giving up 28 points in the second quarter and getting blanked in the fourth — just a general sense of disappointment usually dissipated by merely thinking of doing something after the game.

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The pain from losing conference games definitely lasts. Shoot, Michigan was still reliving the pain of November’s triple-overtime game against Rutgers well into the summer, and the Wolverines WON that one. But nonconference games are rarely that emotional, barring a stunning upset loss to a Group of Five team, or, gasp, a Football Championship Subdivision squad (but we’ll get to that in a bit).

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on the field before the game against Western Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Ann Arbor.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on the field before the game against Western Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Ann Arbor.

Which raised the question: Was it even worth delving into 14 teams’ relative misery until that misery was spread only among themselves? Put succinctly, could we take a few weeks off — until Week 4? Week 5? November? — and wait for this nonconference confusion to mostly work itself out of the schedule?

And then Illinois lost to UTSA — Texas-San Antonio, we believe their birth certificate reads — by a touchdown. Never led, actually, on their home field while allowing nearly 500 yards of offense. (To be fair, the Roadrunners, while having a football program only a decade old, went 7-5 last season and made a bowl, while the Illini, with a program dating back at least to 1892, went 2-6 in 2020.)

And so the question was answered. Because not only were Illini fans blindsided over losing to a Conference-USA member, but the Nebraska fans who had to suffer through a miserable loss to the Illini last week were now, by the college football transitive property (we called it Rutgers-itis last season), losers to UTSA as well. And one loss producing two semi-miserable fanbases in one blow? That, dear reader, is what the Big Ten Misery Index is here for.

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Now, will we get any more twice-the-misery-inducing losses this season? While we peruse the schedule — hey there, Charlotte at Illinois on Oct. 2! — let’s run through the misery index, from least miserable to most:

14. Penn State: W, 16-10, over Wisconsin

Record: 1-0. Last week: T2.

The Nittany Lions had five punts in the first half and one first down, but went into the locker room tied 0-0 and satisfied with its Nebraska costume for Halloween.

13. Michigan State: W, 38-21, over Northwestern

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald talk before the game on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Evanston, Illinois.
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald talk before the game on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Evanston, Illinois.

Record: 1-0. Last week: T2.

Since the start of the 2019 season, the Spartans are 3-0 while averaging 32.7 points a game against Northwestern, and 7-11 while averaging 19.9 points against everyone else.

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12. Michigan: W, 47-14, over WMU

Record: 1-0. Last week: T2.

Not only did the Wolverines exorcise some of their demons from last season in front of a nearly full Big House, their previous mark of shame — as one of four top-25 teams ever to lose to an FCS school — grew a little lighter as next week’s foe, No. 21 Washington, lost to FCS foe Montana, 13-7. (At least when No. 5 U-M lost to Appalachian State, the Mountaineers were the defending FCS champs and would win the title again that season … and the next.)

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11. Iowa: W, 34-6, over Indiana

Record: 1-0. Last week: T2.

Don’t laugh, Hawkeyes; you may have thumped Indiana on Saturday, but it wasn’t that long ago that you also lost to an FCS school while ranked in the top 25, too: Sept. 17, 2016, when North Dakota State beat a No. 13 Iowa team, 23-21, in Iowa City. (And that NDSU team didn’t even win the FCS title that season.)

10. Rutgers: W, 61-14, over Temple

Rutgers comes onto the field to start the game as Temple played Rutgers in the season opener at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, NJ on September 4, 2021.
Rutgers comes onto the field to start the game as Temple played Rutgers in the season opener at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, NJ on September 4, 2021.

Record: 1-0. Last week: T2.

Normally, the Scarlet Knights’ biggest win over an FBS school since 2008 would put it a little closer to the non-miserable end of the rankings, even with coach Greg Schiano running into a camera operator before the game. But considering Saturday’s report that Rutgers athletics is $265 million in the hole … well, let’s just say, were this an episode of the Sopranos, Kevin Warren would be planning to firebomb Rutgers and collect the insurance payout.

9. Maryland: W, 30-24, over West Virginia

Record: 1-0. Last week: T2.

Among the many things the Terps left behind to join the Big Ten in 2014 was their nonconference rivalry with West Virginia; the two schools played every year but two (2008, 2009) from 1980-2015, with the Mountaineers taking 21 of the 35 games over that span, including nine of the past 10 before Saturday. Unfortunately, the schools don’t have a rematch scheduled, with Maryland without an open nonconference spot until 2025.

8. Purdue: W, 30-21, over Oregon State

Record: 1-0. Last week: T2.

Quarterback Jack Plummer split the glory with his roommate, tight end Payne Durham, passing to him seven times for 120 yards, including the Boilermakers’ final two touchdowns. Meanwhile, my college roommate and I argued about the TV bill every month.

7. Wisconsin: L, 16-10, to Penn State

The Wisconsin Badgers line up for a play during the first quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.
The Wisconsin Badgers line up for a play during the first quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Record: 0-1. Last week: T2.

The Badgers ran 95 plays (to the Nittany Lions’ 51) and took three drives inside Penn State’s 10-yard line without a score, causing quarterback Graham Mertz to say the one thing you never hear from a Wisconsinite: "There definitely were a lot of things that fell on my plate that I've got to clean up."

6. Nebraska: W, 52-7, over Fordham

Record: 1-1. Last week: 1.

One of college football’s former powerhouses scheduling an even more former powerhouse worked out so well for the ’Huskers (for only $500,000) they’re considering adding the University of Chicago, Carnegie Tech and perhaps Duke (if the Blue Devils can lose to Group of Five teams a few more times) in future years. (In on-field action, shoutout to Fordham linebacker Ryan Greenhagen, who had 30 tackles in the game.)

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5. Minnesota: L, 45-31, to Ohio State.

Record: 0-1. Last week: T2.

The Gophers had a four-point lead at the half and a 52.1% win probability (according to ESPN.com) as late as 7:51 into the third quarter. Two minutes later, the Buckeyes had a 75.6% win probability. Considering Minnesota hasn’t beaten OSU in Minneapolis since 1981 — they built the Metrodome, played nearly four decades in it and tore it down since — it’s a start?

4. Ohio State: W, 45-31, over Minnesota

Sep 2, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Gophers head coach P.J Fleck reacts during the second quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Huntington Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 2, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Gophers head coach P.J Fleck reacts during the second quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Huntington Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 1-0. Last week: T2.

Nov. 17, 2018. That’s the last time the Buckeyes trailed at halftime in a regular-season Big Ten game before Thursday’s opener against the Gophers. That’s a span of 1,020 days, covering 15 games (though OSU fell behind Northwestern in last year’s Big Ten title game before rallying.) The Buckeyes won that 2018 game against Maryland, 52-51, after trailing 24-17 at the half, and they won on Thursday after trailing 14-10.

3. Northwestern: L, 38-21, to Michigan State

Record: 0-1. Last week: T2.

Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox argues that an object that covers half the distance toward its goal with every step will face an infinite number of steps, thus never reaching its goal, and brother, if you’ve got a better description of the Wildcats’ offense against MSU, we’d like to hear it.

2. Illinois: L, 37-30, to UTSA

Record: 1-1. Last week: 14.

Hey, if Wile E. Coyote couldn’t beat one Roadrunner, why should we expect Bret A. Bielema to beat a team of ‘em? (Meep, meep.)

1. Indiana: L, 34-6, to Iowa

Iowa running back Tyler Goodson (15) rushes as Iowa offensive lineman Cody Ince (73) blocks during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Indiana, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.
Iowa running back Tyler Goodson (15) rushes as Iowa offensive lineman Cody Ince (73) blocks during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Indiana, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Record: 0-1. Last week: T2.

OK, the misspelled jersey thing was embarrassing, but YOU try spelling “Indiana” right after worrying about names such as “Fryfogle,” “Nofoagatoto’a,” “Sanguinetti” and “Penix.”

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Big Ten misery index: Michigan football's worst loss gets better