COLUMBUS — It’s the question of the week, maybe the question of the whole college football season.
Is this the worst the Big Ten has ever been?
Apart from No. 6 Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten), the only other Big Ten team in The Associated Press Top 25 is Nebraska at No. 21.
Because Ohio State’s NCAA penalties make it ineligible for the Bowl Championship Series rankings, the best the Big Ten can do there is Nebraska’s 20th place.
There have been some embarrassing losses, like Iowa and Penn State losing to MAC opponents. And even Ohio State has struggled in games where it was heavily favored against California, UAB, Indiana and Purdue.
But is this the worst it has ever been for the Big Ten?
There seems to be a certain attraction for many people to imagine they live in the best of times and there seems to be an equally strong attraction for others in believing in apocalyptic doom and gloom and that they live in the worst of times.
Sports fans have these same tendencies.
While the Big Ten might appear to be as bad as it has ever been, the good old days weren’t always so great, either.
In the days of the Big Two and the Little Eight, when Ohio State and Michigan dominated the Big Ten football landscape in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were some really bad football teams in the conference, probably worse than any of today’s teams.
From 1962-1980, Iowa ran off 19 straight seasons without topping the .500 mark. Northwestern had a 34-game losing streak from 1979-82 and was outscored 505-82 in the 1981 season. Between 1963 and 1981, there was only one season when Wisconsin won more than five games.
So it’s tough to say with certainty that the Big Ten has never been worse. But Ohio State has played some far from outstanding teams this season and the one it is facing today, Illinois, appears to be another one that belongs on that list.
Illinois fired coach Ron Zook and replaced him with ex-Toledo coach Tim Beckman after losing its last six games a year ago to finish 6-6.
But things have not improved and the Illini will come to Ohio Stadium on a five-game losing streak with a 2-6 record with no wins in the Big Ten.
On paper, it looks like an easy game for Ohio State heading into a bye week, followed by the final two games of the season against Wisconsin and Michigan.
But then you remember the Buckeyes beating Purdue in overtime, hanging on for a three-point win at Indiana and less-than-stellar performances against California and Alabama-Birmingham. They were favored by 17 points or more in all of those games.
“I've addressed that,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said earlier this week. “I've been around teams like that. In the Nebraska atmosphere, the Penn State atmosphere, we've played our best games.
"I'm glad this is a 3:30 game and an ESPN game so I'm kind of counting on our guys to go out and grow up and perform.”
Historically, Illinois has tormented Ohio State, even in Ohio Stadium. The Illini won at OSU in 1990, 1992, 1994, 1999 and 2007.
But Dana Howard and Simeon Rice aren’t walking through that door today. Neither are Juice Williams and Mikel Leshoure.
This year’s Illini are last in the Big Ten in scoring and in points allowed. Unless Ohio State completely fails to show up or Illinois makes a drastic, unexpected improvement, Ohio State should go to 10-0.
The prediction: Ohio State 31, Illinois 14.