14 Big Ten universities, ranked by annoyingness
Slotting every team in the conference on a scale from "not bothering anybody" to "repeatedly bothering everybody despite not having the standing to do so."
Thanks for reading our newsletter. Below, Spencer takes aim at every single institution in the Big Ten. Shortly before this newsletter went out, our new podcast Split Zone Duo dropped a Big Ten season preview show, which also covers a good bit of Mountain West, SEC, and other business. All of it is free, and you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts: Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, RSS, and the like. You can subscribe to this newsletter, if you haven’t already, by going here.
Indiana spent this last year the way a Big Ten team should. They lost their bowl game in exactly the fashion I expect Indiana to do things: horribly, at the last second, and in a way that transmits the Hoosiers’ false hope to another team. This makes Indiana football sound like The Ring. The curse in that movie can be passed on for good, making Indiana football nothing like The Ring at all. Once you watch them, you’re stuck with it forever.
They’re going to lose four close games to better teams by a single score and wear candy-striped pants at least once. Their coach looks like your HVAC guy. Flawless team, no complaints.
For the 130th time in 130 years of its history, Illinois football has done nothing to incur the wrath of anyone, including me.
Minnesota’s high ranking comes in part from carryover credit from the 2019-20 bowl season. Beating Auburn in a bowl game is an important responsibility always, but doing so after Gus Malzahn has otherwise secured something like job stability borders on a sacred duty. Minnesota kicking a clear “Keep Gus” back to a “Fire Gus” lean isn’t personal. It is a matter of balancing the universe.
Another part of that – and not a given in the Big Ten – is Minnesota laying low without doing anything too embarrassing this offseason. Having typed this, we will now all learn about PJ Fleck running a multimillion dollar bitcoin operation off the university’s servers. Any minute now. It’s coming.
Could be higher based strictly on rehiring Greg Schiano. This annoys me not because I believe Greg Schiano is a bad person, or because he failed at other jobs, or even because his Ohio State defense once got so confused they gave up 55 points to the Iowa Hawkeyes. Be clear on that part: I love that they gave up 55 points to Iowa, and I owe Greg Schiano forever for helping make that a reality.
Yet: I respect Rutgers for admitting that they have no new ideas at all by rehiring the last coach to build them into something like competence. Also, Rutgers fans make no bones about the pool of misery they voluntarily swim in, and generally know they are Rutgers. It’s a lack of ambition I can truly appreciate on a personal level.
Instantly more annoying than Rutgers because Purdue fans – despite all history and reason – have hope, and at least a slight belief they should be better than they are. Relatively scandal- and drama-free this season, a double-edged sword when the least Purdue could be is fascinating after years of surging to seven wins and instantly plummeting back to the depths of the Big Ten standings.
I have one more complaint: Purdue fans are disproportionately proud of an oversized bass drum. This, like indoor plumbing, was a big deal in the 1930s. Everyone has indoor plumbing now, too, but we don’t brag about it, and everyone uses normal quality bass drums now. Purdue produced the first man on the moon. There is no excuse for loyalty to the Depression Era’s idea of a DJ.*
*Did people during the Depression actually have parties where a man just thumped a huge drum with no other accompaniment for hours at a time? No one can prove they didn’t, especially if I tell you it happened in Indiana.
Counterpoint to all this, and the thing that saves them from being mid-grade annoying tier Big Ten: We get to watch Rondale Moore, which is a joy, and the team itself plays fast and loose because they know they have to score a jillion points to win.
To clarify one thing at the start: The Badgers are a conditional kind of annoying, not an essential kind of annoying. An essential annoying comes from the soul, and is always present. (See: Ohio State football.) Being high up on this list means something obnoxious or grating in the DNA of the team and its fans is not a matter of circumstance or the moment. (Hey would you like to talk about Ohio State?) Like sand in a bathing suit, they’ll be an irritant forever. (Go Bucks!)
Wisconsin is delightful in its comfort zone: Ranked somewhere between the 8 and 15 spots, playing bullyball with at least 1,600 pounds of offensive lineman on deck, and going somewhere between 8-4 and 10-2. This is the natural and best habitat for the Badger, an animal that needs the constraint and comfort of an enclosed set of comfortable expectations to thrive.
Wisconsin only becomes annoying when fate ejects them from their den and into the wild and unpredictable realm of heightened expectations. No, Wisconsin, I do not need to expect more of you than plucky but ultimately overmatched foil to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. No, I do not need to more vocally respect Paul Chryst. As a man who also believes cussing in a sweatshirt is part of a perfect work day, I respect Paul Chryst plenty.
Wisconsin only becomes annoying when they don’t believe taking a sledgehammer to the SEC’s fifth best team in a bowl game isn’t reward enough for playing the same football game every week for 25 years running. And to be clear: THAT IS A REWARD AND PRIVILEGE.
Putting Iowa smack in the middle for being the most balanced team in terms of inoffensive and offensive traits the Big Ten. They’re the tractor factory of the conference, a provider of hard-blocking NFL tight ends and offensive guards capable of bending frying pans with their hands. They tend to bail on the conversation when you ask for the last time Kirk Ferentz won a conference championship. (Answer: 2004, and even then it was only a half share.)
I also forgot them altogether when I wrote the first draft of this. That’s probably the best case I can make for them being in the middle, even if they get mad when you call Iowa/Iowa State “El Assico” on the internet.
7. Penn State
I’m going to begin by pointing to this:
[HOWLING BLACK BOX BUZZING WITH FLIES AND OOZING A MYSTERIOUS HELLISH LIQUID CONTAINING THE SMALL BUT STILL REAL SEGMENT OF THE FANBASE KNOWN AS PATERNO TRUTHERS]
With that out of the way, let’s get to the rest. Penn State manages to pester college football in several unique but equally consistent ways.
They demand respect paid to an unpainted helmet, a printing error Penn State had to call intentional, but that the rest of the world can call a century of dramatically uninspired graphic design. They insist on playing football in a warp-zone section of Pennsylvania where everything is somehow – despite what it says on the map – at least a seven-hour drive from anywhere. They consistently hype a long chain of four- and five-star quarterbacks who inevitably get pummeled into underwhelming scrapple. Their mascot’s suit cost $4.95 in 1973. That is the last time anyone bought a new one.
Their fans outside of the HOWLING BLACK BOX inevitably overlap with Eagles and Giants fans. This misbegotten horror of football pantheism means Penn State fans perpetually wobble between goofy college enthusiasm and death threats towards opposing fans, making the most Penn State experience possible being told, “Thank you for visiting State College, and leave before I put this neon green gas station buck knife in your back.”
Many of them believe James Franklin will turn that corner this year. Or the next. Or maybe once he gets the next three recruiting classes.
This is all mitigated by Penn State fans – probably burnt to a fine char by the dual flames of 2000s Penn State football and Philly sports in general – being the Big Ten’s most absurdist fanbase. They also beat Ohio State every five years and are in the aforementioned middle of nowhere, so they’re kind of Big Brand Dada Purdue, if Purdue could pay its bills, recruit, had a long history of actual success in football, and wasn’t fascinated with giant, embarrassingly antiquated percussion instruments.
The Terps get a spot this high on the scale simply by being so confusing. How is your mascot a turtle? Shouldn’t it be a lot cooler since it’s named Testudo, and peer celebrity turtles demonstrate how cool famous turtles truly can be? (See: Teenage Mutant Ninja, Lakitu, Gamera, and Yertle.)
Why did you hire Mike Locksley after he punched an assistant and won two games in a little over two years at New Mexico? Why are you in the Big Ten at all, when everyone knows a charter rule of Big Ten membership involves being a place where ordering seafood is a bad idea? Why, Maryland? Why you, ever, at all, in the Big Ten or anywhere?
5. Michigan State
The Spartans’ discomfort with their own self-avowed status annoys me.
Call them a scrappy underdog in any context and get pelted with empty cans of Busch Light for not respecting the long tradition of football success in East Lansing. (Nine Big Ten titles, including three shared or outright in the last decade!) Point out Michigan State’s successes, and get accused of not respecting Michigan State’s status as the strivingest of strivers in the Big Ten. (Accursed and berated by Michigan! Perennially taking swings at out-of-conference competition they actually don’t need to play!)
The reality a Michigan State fan will hate most is pointing out that historically speaking, they are generally mid as hell and unwilling to admit it. Their best teams still play stultifying games bordering on the unwatchable. They will finish somewhere in the middle of their division and get into some kind of theatrical, futile tussle on the field before kickoff of the Michigan game. DISRESPECT WILL BE FELT. It will have no impact whatsoever on the outcome.
If it is not 40 degrees and raining right now in East Lansing, it will be the instant you start watching a Michigan State game. Their mascot has been on the hardest gym dad steroids known to man for decades and will never, ever stop taking them. They’re named after the dumbest boys in all of ancient Greece. Like the Spartans, they usually don’t make it to the end of the story. They never ran Jehuu Caulcrick enough and I’m still mad about it.
Kirk Cousins. That’s the entire paragraph: Kirk Cousins.
Michigan is actually special, and that is why they can be so utterly unbearable. The school really is as good as they say, even if Tom Brady went there. A man who refuses to eat tomatoes is by any definition of the word dumb as rocks. He may not be whole-dumb. I’ll grant that. But some part of him is absolutely, positively, 100% stupid, and that is the part that won’t eat tomatoes.
The team really does have as long a tradition of success as anyone in the country, the helmets are as iconic as everyone wants them to be (even if they did steal them from Princeton), and dammit, the campus really is as North Woods pretty as everyone wants it to be. Unlike a lot of fans, they are as dedicated as they say they are, and the guy in the chat saying, “Well, as an expert on patent law” in the middle of a message board conversation? He is actually a patent law expert. He is citing his own authoritative book on the matter, whether you asked or not.
They are overachievers by nature, and that is what can make them so very annoying. Winning eight games will not be enough. Winning 10 might, but those two losses will get thrashed to pieces in granular overanalysis videos usually reserved for assassinations.
To wit: Michigan doesn’t struggle like some teams do. They writhe theatrically, and in depth, sometimes for weeks at a time following a loss – and never without throwing bombs in every direction to feel better. Under pressure, Michigan fans revert to a Manichean worldview, dividing the world into good and evil. Michigan does not cheat, and sends squads of noble warrior-poets into battle against fraudulent mercenaries. The SEC is an ocean of grift. The Pac-12 are fellow travelers but suffer from the crime of being deeply unserious. The rivalry with Ohio State is a conflict not between Michigan and a rival, but an actual pitched battle against a hellmouth of Evil itself. This is not an exaggeration.
They’re not wrong about any of this … but since when has anyone liked anyone for being right, or good at things? Being right is fine. Caring about being right all the time is just borderline smarmy.
Did we say “Smarmy?” Is this a transition? A summoning, if you will?
Oh look! Northwestern just randomly appeared.
At least Michigan has the integrity of being a public institution dedicated to making the world better and attempting to field a kickass football team. (Since 2007: “Attempting.”) As a private school, Northwestern’s goals are to hoover up cash, make the world worse for everyone but itself, and possibly make the Citrus Bowl every three years or so while telling everyone in Evanston where they can’t park on Saturdays.
I don’t know what there is to like about Northwestern football. Their coach is a union-busting cop who still looks like a man whose sole goal in life is taking a relaxing dump in the bathroom of an expensive boat. Their mascot is a feral cat, and not the good, charming bumpkin-type wildcat Kentucky and Kansas State favor. Their wildcat snitches on NextDoor when someone leaves their garbage cans out 15 minutes too long on garbage day.
Their offenses make eyes bleed. Their defenses remain just good enough to keep them theoretically in games. Their underdog cred expired years ago, yet they never turned the corner into conference power status. This is a program perennially served at the temperature of food poisoning, and in retrospect seeing them be reasonably successful has made their century of complete incompetence seem less like an accident, and more like a deserved and earned sentence in the football gulag.
Every famous person that you’re not quite sure why they’re famous, as they appear to be talent-adjacent, but not talent themselves? They went to Northwestern, aka the David Schwimmer (B.A. 1988) of schools and the useless dried bay leaf in the Big Ten football stew.
If Northwestern fell into the lake there would be 3,000 tweets from journalists about what a loss it is, and Evanston would celebrate having a new beach. The Big Ten would steal Vanderbilt from the SEC and not even flinch.
2. Ohio State
Meathead Overlords. The Spray-Tan Empire. The university was bankrolled in large part by the man who gave Jeffery Epstein all his money.
The worst thing in that collection of outright slander of the Ohio State University is the documented truth. That’s where we start with Ohio State: The truth is always worse than anything one can make up.
That truth is real, real, real bad. Their fans really are all variations on the cops Ralph Steadman drew for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Their commitment to football is so total and so divorced from the rest of campus life that Justin Fields openly admitted in the media that COVID quarantine wouldn’t be that different than the usual because they didn’t see the rest of campus much. Their greatest coach ended his career by punching a player on the field and believed civilians could be massacred in combat as long as they were older than five or maybe six years old. Their stadium feels like a mausoleum for dead fascist weightlifters. Buck-I-Guy shows up to funerals and signs things like he’s on the team.
The least endearing habit Ohio State has as a fanbase is believing everyone would like to know their take on the situation – all of the situations, actually, at all times. Their most endearing trait is how morbidly funny most of their disasters are. Buck-I-Guy really did show up to a funeral and sign a team photo. Woody Hayes really did pop Charlie Bauman in the jaw on national TV, the Bucks really do lose to Purdue every four years for no reason whatsoever, and they really did lose another coach over some illicit tattoos. If America is Hellworld, then Ohio remains its dull, fiery furnace, a place where petty sadnesses have to be laughed at by anyone with a conscience just to maintain a veneer of sanity, and where the conscienceless celebrate the blessing of being on fire 24/7.
Someone is emailing me right now from a CrossFit in Akron to tell me how wrong I am. This is why Ohio State is a perennial top-five team. The commitment never sleeps, even when all I want to do is close my eyes and not think about how much I didn’t respect Braxton Miller when he was a college player.
But the Ohio State fan never sleeps. I can hear him typing this from outside my bedroom window, because he is definitely the type of rube who never turned off the keystroke noises on his iPhone.
Nebraska wrests the title from Ohio State by using a novel strategy: Being the team with the least credit to vocally demand an immediate return to Big Ten football, while simultaneously demanding an immediate return to Big Ten football louder and more persistently than any other Big Ten team.
At one point, Nebraska fielded some of the best teams to ever play the game. Since joining the Big Ten, however, Nebraska has a 40-36 record in the conference. In the year 2020, they’re hanging somewhere around Northwestern in the pecking order by record, and behind Iowa in terms of prestige. They have not been to a bowl game since the 2016 season. The Cornhuskers have appeared once in a Big Ten Championship Game and lost, and haven’t won a conference championship anywhere in this century.
Ohio State hollering about getting football back in the Big Ten is a conference giant and charter member of the group making demands it might have the weight to make. At least Rutgers and Maryland have the dignity to sit in the back and gather mold quietly while the conference figures out the 2020 season. Nebraska doing it is the new friend in the group trying to start a fight at the bar, getting rolled up on by three dudes he did not know were friends with his target, and then trying to rally the crew by saying “WELL WE’RE NOT GONNA LET THEM DISRESPECT US LIKE THIS, ARE WE????” Nebraska are the random guest at a work dinner ordering the surf ‘n turf on the company dime while ordering more wine for the table without asking a soul.
Nebraska is every brazen stranger who makes their own profile on your Netflix account after stealing your login, and then doesn’t even bother to hide it. Stop stealing Big Ten valor before you’ve earned it. That’s Northwestern’s job.
Bobak Ha'Eri / Wikimedia Commons.