At his National Signing Day press conference (h/t AOL), Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said “We at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC—in any way, shape or form.” He was talking about recruiting tactics, but has achieved that goal in another way.
September 8, 2012 was Black Saturday for the Big Ten. They had seven games against BCS conference opponents and went 1-6. The losses were shocking, embarrassing and pathetic. They also accurately reflect where the conference stands in the pecking order.
Taking nothing away from Oregon State, the worst defeat was Wisconsin’s 10-7 loss to the Beavers. This game epitomizes the reason coach Bielema should be fired: He loses almost every meaningful game. The Badgers can do better, but does Barry Alvarez have the guts to make the right decision?
Close behind Bielema is Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. Under his tenure, Nebraska has been good, but their signature wins are minimal. The 36-30 loss to UCLA is just another example of Pelini’s mediocre coaching.
On the surface, the loss doesn’t look too bad. The game was on the road and UCLA is a decent team. Peel back the layers in the onion and the ugliness erupts. The defense gave up 653 yards and the Bruins had a 50 percent third-down conversion rate. The old Blackshirts must be ashamed.
Pelini is supposed to be a defensive mastermind, but the Cornhusker defenses are beginning to regress under him. If the slide continues this season, will Tom Osborne have the backbone to fire him?
One of the few highlights for the Big Ten was Northwestern’s come-from-behind 23-13 win over Vanderbilt. Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald gets more from his players than Bielema and Pelini combined. Nebraska and Wisconsin should consider hiring him if they decide to part ways with their underachieving coaches.
Despite the conference playing a second-rate brand of football for the better part of a decade, there is a path back to glory. It won’t be easy, but taking the following steps will get the Big Ten back on top.
Winning championships and dominating nonconference games takes more than recruiting great players, but collecting the hardware is never achieved without them.
In the last five years, Ohio State and Michigan are the only schools consistently in the Top 10 nationally in recruiting. By comparison, the SEC dominates recruiting every year. Alabama and LSU are always at the top.
The best high school football is played in the South, so getting the top players will require hiring assistant coaches with deep connections to high school football in the region. Athletic directors will have to get out the checkbook, but what they lose in cash they’ll gain in job security.
Build Depth on the Defensive Line
Defense wins championships. In the last 10 years, only twice has the national champion had a defense ranked outside of the Top 10. Ohio State finished 23rd in 2002 and Auburn finished 60th in 2010.
Can the Big Ten become relevant again?
This pattern is not a coincidence, and Urban Meyer’s first recruiting class at Ohio State proves it. Everyone knows he is an offensive genius, so it seems reasonable he would go after his style of players to run his system. Nope.
Meyer did in two months what no other coach in the Big Ten has been able to do. He brought in the best defensive line. Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Tommy Schutt and Se’Von Pittman will be household names before their Buckeye careers are finished. If Meyer wins a national championship at Ohio State in the next few years, these four players will have played a significant part.
Meyer’s second class already has verbal commitments from four highly recruited defensive linemen. Don’t be surprised if he lands another “committed” lineman before signing day.
His peers in the Big Ten must follow suit or they will continue to struggle in big games.
Top to bottom, teams from the SEC have a unique blend of swagger, confidence, discipline, determination and focus. These characteristics are most evident during the important games where they excel in sucking the will out of their opponents. They refuse to lose.
Lately, the top teams in the Big Ten have seemed to abandon their strengths and play conservatively in key games. Instead of exacting their will on an opponent, they play tight and never seem to get into a rhythm.
The Big Ten coaches need to channel the 2010 bowl season and replicate whatever they did to prepare for those games because that was the last proud moment for the conference.
Ohio State demolished Oregon in the Rose Bowl, Penn State stopped LSU in the Capital One Bowl, Iowa convincingly won the Orange Bowl over Georgia Tech and Wisconsin thumped Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl.
They had attitude.
Black Saturday should be a turning point for the Big Ten—the final wake-up call to overhaul the way it plays football. The road back to relevancy will require major changes and tough decisions, but the payoff will be written in the championships.