The Big Ten is bad and it's getting worse. That much is indisputable after a Week 4 that saw the Big Ten drop games to a MAC team, a WAC team and Notre Dame and get taken to the fourth quarter by several other non-BCS (and, um, non-good) teams.
It's also indisputable after even a cursory look at the polls—a poll performance that was the worst in decades after Week 3 and treading water at best this week. And unless Wisconsin undergoes a transformation and reestablishes any sort of dominance like we saw in the last two years, the Big Ten's going to be sending Purdue to the Big Ten Championship Game.
That's a Purdue that got all of five poll votes in the latest AP Poll, by the way.
So how does this happen? How does the worst Big Ten football scene since 1988 (if not 1982) happen to a conference that's swimming in more money than anyone else in the nation?
Let's take a look.
New Head Coaches
Afflicted teams: Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State
Fully one half of the Big Ten is breaking in a head coach who's either in his first or second year at the helm of the program, including second-year man Brady Hoke at Michigan and Ohio State's Urban Meyer. That's bad news in a sport where upheaval is usually a harbinger of at least one year—and probably more—of underachievement. (Brady Hoke's 11-win season being the exception that proves the rule.)
There is historical evidence to back this up—and in a sport as full of contradictory data as college football is, it's surprisingly clear. Joe Paterno went 5-5 in his first year. Jim Tressel went 7-5 in his. Bo Schembechler lost three games in his first year at Michigan; it'd be a decade before that happened again.
Yes, Bret Bielema went 12-1 in his first year at Wisconsin. That was a particularly well-executed transition by departing head coach Barry Alvarez, who became the athletic director. Bielema's succession was planned, whereas all six of the newer Big Ten coaches are at their new places as a result of firings or resignations.
Now let's look at two years. Kirk Ferentz's record after two seasons was 4-19. Hayden Fry was 9-13 after two years. Lloyd Carr lost four games in each of his first two seasons; that would only happen again three times in his next 11 years at Michigan. Woody Hayes was 205-61-10 at Ohio State; in his first two years, he was just 10-6-2. Barry Alvarez started out 1-10 at Wisconsin and didn't have a winning season until his fourth in Madison.
These aren't just random coaches; these are some of the best Big Ten coaches in the last 40 years. And even they almost universally started slowly. So when half the conference is undergoing that transition, it's going to mean bad things.
But turnover's not just a problem at the top.
Teams afflicted: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin
Whenever there's a shakeup at the coordinator level, coaches usually like to play it as a net positive for the team: "new energy," "new blood," "new [whatever]." And in the long-term, that may be correct.
For the first year, though, it means that unit's at a disadvantage as it transitions to a newer system and as the coordinator himself adjusts to his new role, whether he had been in the same role with a different team or as a positional coach in that program. No transition is seamless, ever, and it generally has a negative effect on the school as a whole.
Nebraska replaced Carl Pelini at DC with John Papuchis; the Huskers then promptly gave up 653 yards to UCLA in a 36-30 Week 2 loss. Michigan State offensive coordinator (and Mark Dantonio's right-hand man) Don Treadwell left for Miami University two years ago; in his place is Dan Roushar, and the Michigan State offense has been sputtering ever since, even with Le'Veon Bell in the backfield.
At Iowa, both coordinators left after 13 years of staff continuity at the top; now, the Iowa defense is still relatively strong but the offense is an outright horror show. It would be the biggest joke in the entire conference if it weren't for the circus that's going on with Wisconsin's offense. Oh, wouldn't you know it? Wisconsin has a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada, running an offense totally unlike his 2011 Northern Illinois package.
And that's all at schools with established head coaches, and thus, established cultures that the players already exist in. A new coordinator and a new head coach? We don't envy any player in that position. So our sympathies on that to players at Illinois, Ohio State and Penn State.
In total, only Purdue and Northwestern have avoided both the new head coaches and brand-new coordinators. At those two schools, where continuity has been cultivated properly, Northwestern is 4-0 and on the precipice of being ranked, and Purdue is 3-1 and a strong contender for representing the Leaders Division in December—and one could easily make the case that only preseason bias is keeping Purdue out of the rankings, considering its two big wins and an increasingly impressive three-point loss at Notre Dame.
So why are Purdue and Northwestern not elite—or at the very least impressing voters? The talent, the talent, the talent.
Recruiting at a sub-elite level
Teams afflicted: Everyone in the Big Ten
Recruiting in the Big Ten has always been sort of a dicey situation. There are occasional, brief forays into the upper echelon of the Rivals.com team rankings (generally accepted as the best of the recruiting services) by most of the teams in the conference, but generally, the only three teams you see in the Top 25 year on a consistent basis are Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
Nebraska too, we suppose, though we haven't seen much of Nebraska recruiting in the Big Ten to make a determination yet.
In fact, since 2009, the only Big Ten teams that ever reach the Top 25 of Rivals.com's rankings are the four aforementioned teams...and Michigan State. Once. In 2009. At No. 17.
So of course, it's not surprising that if Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are all struggling (and lordy lordy, is Penn State redefining the struggle for the foreseeable future), the rest of the conference doesn't offer a whole lot in the way in filling the void in terms of elite performance.
When will a Big Ten team play for the National Championship?
Even Ohio State's recruiting deteriorated to an extent over the last few years of the Jim Tressel era. The 2009 class was third in the nation, but 5-star LB Dorian Bell was a bust, 5-star DB Corey Brown can't stay on the field with any regularity and the 4-star players are littered with guys who left early or never established themselves as starters—RB Jaamal Berry, WR Duron Carter, WR James Jackson, DB Dominic Clarke, LB Jordan Whiting and DE Melvin Fellows are all early departees.
Sure, it was a highly-rated class, but in retrospect? Not that great.
After that, Ohio State's recruiting ranking dipped to 25th in 2010 and back to "only" 11th in 2011 before another strong 2012 class. And the 2012 class looks legit. But they're all only true freshmen at this point, and true freshmen don't win championships. Neither do postseason-ineligible teams, while we're at it, so we suppose it's moot, but still: Ohio State's base of talent isn't objectively great. Not now, not yet.
And that's the best recruiting program in the Big Ten on a year-to-year basis. Michigan's getting back there with Brady Hoke, but as a newer head coach, his handpicked talent won't be maturing and ready to win titles until 2014 or so.
As for the rest of the Big Ten? The talent just doesn't go there on any consistent basis, so the big wins and big seasons don't happen on any consistent basis. Wisconsin and Michigan seemed to have found a bit of a formula, but we could have thought the same thing about Iowa after the 2004 season and that sure hasn't turned out great.
Wisconsin and Michigan State might be on a downswing, for all we know. Certainly they're not at a talent level where they're just reloading. That doesn't bode well.
Does this all seem dour? It shouldn't look hopeless. New coaches don't stay new—unless athletic directors are axe-happy anyway. Coordinators don't usually leave this often.
The recruiting? Yes, that's a bigger problem, but Wisconsin has proven you can recruit to the system instead of the stars and get some serious success.
But good heavens, the Big Ten needs to re-learn the values of continuity. The recruiting is also problematic, especially as shifting economic conditions continue to gut the Rust Belt and make it harder to raise a family in the area.
But football programs have no control over that. They can control how long coaches and their assistants stick around, however, and continuity is so much more valuable than hitting the reset button every couple of years and hoping good things happen.
Good things don't happen like that. If they did, the Big Ten wouldn't have 13 losses in non-conference competition (and a possible 14th when Indiana hosts Navy in Week 8), and we wouldn't be having this conversation.
But here it is and here we are. And it's not pretty.