The Big Ten has been having on off year, to put it kindly. The conference has lost all seven games against SRS programs this season. Its strongest remaining BCS title contender is Northwestern. The succession of dreadful performances has begged for criticism. The ubiquitous bleakness lends itself to all sorts of sweeping narrative. Rather than a bellwether, though this may just be an unfortunate season. The problems seem to be school specific.
Elite programs shape perception. The SEC is not the nation’s strongest conference every year – the Big 12 with six 10-win teams was the nation’s best in 2011 – but the conference is perceived as such because of the six-straight national titles. Alabama and LSU are functioning at historic peaks and nearly indomitable. Florida, until recently, was doing the same. South Carolina is also peaking under the HBC. Georgia could be moving that direction as well.
While the SEC has reached an apex, the Big Ten has hit rock-bottom. Ohio State is recovering from Jim Tressel’s messy departure and NCAA sanctions. Michigan is still reassembling pieces taken apart by Rich Rodriguez. Penn State just had the worst scandal in the history of college athletics and, arguably, the worst sanctions. Nebraska has floundered in a Post-Osborne malaise. The Cornhuskers have been outside the BCS so long its a stretch considering them a national power.
The conference’s second-tier historic powers have their own troubles this season. Wisconsin, racked by assistant and starter turnover, is nowhere near the program from a year ago. The Badgers are nowhere near the program most expected entering the season. Iowa, with unconscionable running back attrition among other troubles, is a mess. Michigan State, the class of the conference still, has only the rudiments of an offense.
Certainly, there are conference-wide issues. The Big Ten must invest more money in coaching staffs. Despite a parity revenue, nine of the 14 top highest-paid coaching staffs in 2011 were from the SEC. Iowa and Michigan were the only Big Ten representatives in that group. Ohio State will move in in 2012. Many Big Ten programs are getting outspent by Big East teams. The SEC invests heavily in head and in assistant coaching and that money gets reflected in player input and player output.
The Big Ten must also expand its recruiting base. There is elite talent in the Midwest, but only enough to comfortably stock Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame. The conference has not had a fully-fledged, non Michigan/Ohio State member finish higher than 25th in Rivals’ recruiting rankings since Penn State in 2010. It is not on pace to have one in 2013. Delany and CO. have doubled down on Florida, Texas and California bowl games, but Big Ten teams may need to follow Michigan and Ohio State’s lead into former Penn State turf in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey.
There are reasons to be concerned, but with a confluence of unrelated program issues this may just be a down year. If Wisconsin reloads, Dantonio keeps his MSU program together and Michigan and Ohio State follow their present trajectory, there should be reason for optimism in 2013 and beyond. Having said that, brace for the rest of 2012, Big Ten fans. The jokes will be mean. The ride will be rough and unpleasant. The SEC Bowl beat downs will be extra brutal. The Champions will travel to Pasadena, to be boat-raced by Oregon or USC.
It will be ugly for the Big Ten in 2012, but there may be a bright side. The conference is far more open and interesting than perceived. A Purdue or a Northwestern clawing their way to Indianapolis is not outside the bounds of possibility.
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