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I'm Glad the Big Ten is Terrible

Or: Why I don't feel the need to root for evil.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten football was pathetic last weekend.

  • Michigan lost 31-0 at Notre Dame.
  • Ohio State lost to unranked Virginia Tech at home.
  • Michigan State lost at No. 3 Oregon, and their highly-touted defense gave up 46 points, including the last 28 to end the game.
  • Northwestern lost at home to Northern Illinois.
  • Purdue got blown out at home by Western Central Michigan (38-17).
  • Iowa needed two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat Ball State at home, 17-13.
  • Illinois needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Western Kentucky (42-34)
  • Nebraska needed a miraculous last-second, catch-and-run touchdown by Ameer Abdullah to beat McNeese State.
  • The rest of the Big Ten teams in action (Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State, Minnesota, Wisconsin) had pedestrian or unimpressive victories over generally inferior competition. Only Maryland's win at South Florida moved the needle at all.

And I couldn't care less.

There are only three conceivably legitimate reasons to root for the Badgers' Big Ten enemies, but I'll discuss the two most common ones first.

1. Conference "bragging rights."

2. A perception (or reality) that the Big Ten is terrible hurts the Badgers' chances of making the four-team playoff, which is an invitation-only affair.

Neither of these can justify rooting for Ohio State or Michigan, etc., to win. Ever.

Bragging rights

Bragging about a conference is stupid. I have no allegiance whatsoever to "The Big Ten Conference" and neither should you.

I have no allegiance whatsoever to "The Big Ten Conference" and neither should you

Here's an easy test you can use to figure out whether an entity is worthy of bragging about: does it have a mascot? If so, you can root for and brag about its exploits. Take, for example, the great University of Wisconsin. It has a mascot: Bucky Badger. U rah rah, Wisconsin.

Now, let's examine the Big Ten. No mascot. No rah rah. If you root for "The Big Ten Conference," you are rooting for Jim Delany. Meditate upon this fact, and repent.

Playoff pragmatism

So we've established that a conference (qua conference) cannot in good conscience be rooted for. That's the easy one. The more powerful argument in favor of rooting for evil is that the non-conference successes of the Badgers' conference colleagues somehow redound to UW's benefit by increasing their odds of being chosen for the College Football Playoff. The argument is simple: the selection committee members will be influenced by perceptions of conference strength (whether they admit it or not), and even if they aren't, they will certainly consider strength of schedule, so it's better for the Badgers' conference opponents to be considered strong teams.

I will concede that there is some presumptive pragmatic benefit to the Badgers from other Big Ten teams doing well in the non-conference season. But it is vanishingly small, unlikely and utterly crushed by countervailing pragmatic harms caused by other Big Ten teams doing well.

First, the benefit is small. Far and away the most important consideration for making the playoff is wins and losses. If any Big Ten team that started the season ranked goes undefeated, that team will certainly be selected to make the playoff. The issue could arise only if the Badgers (or, e.g., Michigan State) now win the rest of their games, and are competing against other one-loss teams for a slot. The perception (and reality) that the Big Ten is weak will hurt the Badgers in that scenario, although that factor will still be massively outweighed by Badgers' actual performance. If, for example, Wisconsin steamrolls through the rest of the season and crushes Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, UW will probably get into the playoff even if no other Big Ten team wins another non-conference game. If Wisconsin ekes out wins over Purdue and Illinois, on the other hand, even 12-1 probably won't get it done. Nor should it!

Second, the supposed benefit is unlikely. The Badgers' chances of winning out are very small. My back-of-the-envelope calculation puts their chances of winning the rest of their regular-season games at about 10 percent (and that is assuming they're favored in every game, and giving them every benefit of the doubt). At best, they'd have a 50 percent chance of winning the Big Ten Championship Game, so let's put their chances of going 12-1 at 1-in-20 at best. In other words: slim-to-none.

So we have a very small potential benefit that is very unlikely to materialize. Still, if there were no countervailing interests, that slight theoretical benefit might justify rooting for Michigan. Of course, such a small pragmatic plus is easily overwhelmed by moral concerns -- rooting for evil can cause irreparable psychic damage -- but it's also crushed even on purely pragmatic grounds.

You know who benefits the most from a Michigan win? Michigan. The same goes for all of the Badgers' conference enemies. I mean, it's not even close. Every Michigan win is 10,000 times more pragmatically valuable to Michigan than it is to Wisconsin. And let's consider the cost-benefit of a loss. Michigan's embarrassing loss to Notre Dame is 10,000 times more harmful to that program than whatever conceivable benefit could have flowed to the Badgers from an upset win.

Wisconsin is actually competing against Ohio State and Michigan State and Michigan for recruits and conference supremacy. In an ideal world, the Big Ten is 13 (or 15 or 23) squads like Purdue and then the mighty University of Wisconsin Badgers, getting first-crack at all the big-time talent in the 27-state conference footprint. Every non-conference loss by Michigan brings us one tiny step closer to that glorious utopia. Every tiny step should be celebrated.

In summary, the thing about a pragmatic argument is that you have to weigh the pros and cons, and you have to discount them by the likelihood that they come to pass. If you take just a second to think about it, you'll see that there's no pragmatic reason to root for evil. Thankfully, the universe just isn't put together that way.

Search your feelings

I mentioned above that there's a third reason to root for the Badgers' enemies, and if applicable to you, I will not hold it against you: deep down inside, you kind of actually like them a little bit, at least more than who they are playing that day.

And that's okay. Sports fandom doesn't have to be rational. In fact, it can't be. Ultimately you just go with your gut -- you root for who you want to at a given moment; you root for whatever makes you happy. If you feel some allegiance toward the Badgers' enemies, at least when they're playing teams from outside the #footprint, that's fine. Go ahead! Just don't pretend there's any reason why I or any other Badger fan should have to join you in your apostasy.

And just don't let me see you doing it.