With eye-rolling from some and snickers from others, the media has reported that every Big Ten team playing a bowl this season will do so as an underdog.
But is the Big Ten really that bad?
Compared to the SEC, Big 12, and Pac-12, pretty much, yeah. So what's going on? Why can't the Big Ten seem to drag itself out of the mud? Is the conference doomed to spend eternity in college football purgatory?
But there's enough blame for the current “crisis” to go around. Each program has its shortcomings and so does every coach in the Big Ten.
Kevin Wilson can never be accused of not being wholly dedicated to his football program. If there's any fault, it's perhaps that he's too dedicated.
We are, after all, talking about Indiana Hoosiers football.
Kevin Wilson is still probably best known for a shockingly bad interview with a local sports radio show in Indiana. Pride is one thing, but if you're going to put forth an arrogant attitude with the media, you best be able to back it up on the field.
Wilson's record that season? Just 1-11. And the point goes to the radio guys.
Seriously though, did Wilson mistake the winning tradition of basketball as filtering over to the football program in Bloomington?
Media types aren't the only ones who fail to get jazzed up about IU football. Hoosiers fans can't even be bothered to show up in droves. Despite expanding its football stadium recently, Indiana failed to crack the 42,000 mark in average attendance in 2011. Only Northwestern attracted fewer fans.
Indiana was better in 2012 but still managed just four wins. An upward trajectory, sure. But is there really any other way to go from 1-11? Perhaps Coach Wilson should focus on figuring out a way to convince talented recruits to come to Bloomington than spend his time spewing smarmy comments to radio hosts who were—ironically—originally in your corner.
Nothing like alienating the home crowd, coach.
Jerry Kill has a common problem among the recent MAC-to-Big Ten coaching hires: adjusting to the level of competition.
The MAC is an improving conference these days, and Jerry Kill had a hand in that. He coached BCS-bound Northern Illinois from 2009 to 2010, and his final season in DeKalb Northern Illinois finished with a 10-3 record, were MAC runners-up, and earned a berth in the Humanitarian Bowl. Kill also recruited quarterback phenom Jordan Lynch—a big part of the Huskies' path to the 2013 Orange Bowl.
Now in the Big Ten, Kill is learning an important lesson: there's a gargantuan difference between building a successful MAC program and a successful Big Ten program.
In the MAC, there hasn't been any traditional, perennial powerhouse programs for a long time. The conference is more or less wide open every single season with an opportunity for any program to leap to the top.
Not so in the Big Ten.
Minnesota can't simply step up the recruiting and throw all they have against Michigan and Wisconsin and Ohio State and hope for the best. In fact, even stepping up recruiting is a challenge for the traditionally weaker programs in the conference.
Jerry Kill is a smart guy, and he probably understands all that. But he's yet to figure out a way to out-recruit, out-coach, and outperform the previously mentioned Big Ten powers. And if he doesn't soon, Minnesota may continue to exist as an “also ran” in the Big Ten.
Mark Dantonio has presided over the new golden age of Michigan State football.
Maybe the Spartans aren't on the cusp of winning another national championship quite yet, but MSU is infinitely closer today than at any time under the John L. Smith regime. Michigan State won a share of the Big Ten title in 2010 and won the Legends Division crown in 2011.
So what gives with 2012?
First, MSU's offense—ranked 109th in scoring—was decimated by graduation. A young quarterback making his first start brings a whole host of problems to which there is no quick fix. But that doesn't explain going from a preseason Big Ten favorite to a 6-6, barely bowl eligible team, does it?
The problem Mark Dantonio ran into this season was Mark Dantonio.
In previous seasons, and even early in 2012, Michigan State was able to find some success—and national exposure—with some creative and gutsy trick plays.
Who can forget “Little Giants” back in 2010? The look on Brian Kelly's face after the play is utterly priceless. And with Dantonio suffering a heart attack shortly afterward, that single play might go down as the play of the decade.
If you didn't think it could get any better, we bring 2011 to your attention.To follow it up, Michigan State pulled out another miracle in 2011 against then-No. 6 Wisconsin as the Spartans' Hail Mary was answered.
So how could you bet against Mark Dantonio and his Spartans?
Well, the Spartans may have faked themselves right out of the ability to fake anyone. They might also be out of their allotment of miracles for a while, too. On nearly every fourth down and in every field goal situation these days, commentators love to remind viewers to “watch out for the fake.” And if the guys in the booth are thinking it, you know the opposing coaches are thinking it, too.
Dantonio's penchant for doing the unexpected has made it not so unexpected any more.
There's a reason Danny Hope was fired.
Sure, it came on the heels of a big win over Indiana in the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket, but without that win, the Boilermakers would have missed out on bowl season altogether.
Hope was hired to replace long-time coach Joe Tiller and help lead the Boilers back to Big Ten title contention. Instead, Hope presided over four mediocre seasons and finished with a 22-27 record (19-19 in the Big Ten).
His biggest weakness is exactly what led to his dismissal: lackluster recruiting leading to stagnant performance.
There was no better opportunity to make a run for the Big Ten Championship Game for Purdue than 2012. Both Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible, and Hope himself had lofty goals for the season.
But under Hope, Purdue just never pulled itself out of the shadow of Big Ten powers like Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Someone has to be held responsible for that, and it's usually the head coach.
Brady Hoke is what most people in Ann Arbor would describe as a “Michigan Man.”
Legendary head coach Bo Schembechler preached the virtues of the University of Michigan like no other before or since and famously fired head basketball coach Bill Friedler on the eve of the 1989 NCAA Tournament simply because Friedler had accepted a job for the following season at Arizona State.
“A Michigan Man will coach Michigan,” Schmbechler said, not really trying all that hard to contain his anger and be civil about it, “not an Arizona State man.”
Michigan won the national championship and the magic of being a “Michigan Man” was cemented in the minds of Wolverine fans everywhere.
Brady Hoke is the next incarnation of a “Michigan Man.” A former Lloyd Carr assistant, Hoke knows his program inside and out. After taking over a battered program that had been led by decidedly un-Michigan Man Rich Rodriguez, Hoke was left with a team that didn't look like a Michigan football team, didn't feel like a Michigan football team and most importantly didn't win like a Michigan football team.
It should have taken years to repair the damage, but Hoke was able to guide the Wolverines to the Sugar Bowl in his first season. But now, we're starting to see what happens when UM makes the tough transition back to “Michigan Football.”
Too much reliance on Denard Robinson hurt Michigan this season. Sure, Robinson is one heck of an athlete, but he's just not a very good quarterback. It wasn't until Robinson was hurt and couldn't play that Hoke discovered he had a true quarterback sitting on his sideline all along in Devin Gardner.
Gardner, as a backup and replacement, has attempted fewer than 100 passes this season., but he still has over 1,000 yards passing and 15 combined rushing and passing touchdowns. Maybe if Gardner had been the starter for all 12 games.
Don't worry, Michigan fans. You'll see plenty of Gardner next season.
Tim Beckman isn't the first former MAC head coach to take over a struggling Big Ten program, and he certainly won't be the last. But he has perhaps one of the toughest rebuilding jobs of any current Big Ten coach.
Illinois looked to be on a path for long term success under Ron Zook when his Illini catapulted from a 2-10 record in 2006—Zook's second season—to a 9-4 finish and Rose Bowl Game berth in 2007.
The 2008 and 2009 seasons only produced eight combined wins, and Zook was fired after the following two lackluster seasons.
Now, Tim Beckman takes over a program that really has lost all sense of itself. Illinois football, like Indiana football, has become a program that exists simply because a Big Ten school can't not play football. Beckman has been completely unable to generate any kind of excitement about the Illini, and even his players can't seem to get geared up for games these days.
Illinois was a shockingly horrible 0-8 in conference play this season, and with in-state rival Northwestern surging, recruiting is only going to get that much more difficult.
And it's not like Beckman is a big enough name to draw recruits all by himself.
The Kirk Ferentz era at Iowa has been a classic example of mediocrity interrupted by brief moments of success.
Ferentz has put together a 100-74 record at Iowa over 14 seasons but has only finished with a AP Top 25 ranking five times. Iowa failed to earn a bowl berth in 2012 for just the fourth time under Ferentz, and the Hawkeyes have been on a steady march downhill ever since finishing 11-2 in 2009 (and winning the Orange Bowl over Georgia Tech).
Iowa always seems to be in the midst of a rebuilding year. Ferentz has never developed a sense of sustained success, and the Hawkeyes are perpetually relegated to the role of Big Ten spoiler rather than conference contender.
Perhaps that's why he's mulling over a planned strategy shift. At this point, it can't hurt.
It's hard to criticize Pat Fitzgerald considering all the success he's had in Evanston.
The young head coach is finishing his seventh season at Northwestern, and he's already accomplished something no other Wildcats coach has done: five straight bowl appearances.
About the only thing left for Fitz to do is actually win a bowl game—something Northwestern hasn't done since the 1948 season.
Despite all the success, Fitzgerald still has yet to energize the Northwestern fan base. Last season, Northwestern ranked dead last in the Big Ten in total attendance, and Ryan Field is widely considered one of the sleepiest venues in the nation. At Northwestern, visiting fans frequently outnumber those dressed in purple, and the aging stadium frequently makes lists of “worst stadiums” in college football.
Still, with consistent winning and bowl trips, you'd think Fitzgerald could convince Chicagoans that Northwestern football was worth watching.
Bill O'Brien has been named the 2012 Coach of the Year by the Maxwell Football Club. He also placed second in AP COTY voting behind Notre Dame's Brian Kelly.
So where is the weakness? What can we possibly call him on after such a surprisingly successful start to his tenure at Penn State?
To be honest, not a whole lot.
O'Brien put together one of the most unlikely eight-win seasons in the nation. He took over a program that was in the midst of crisis. Penn State football had its soul ripped out and trampled on by the national media. It's hard for anyone to recover from that.
But Bill O'Brien made sure that the new-look Penn State football team did.
Unfortunately for O'Brien, this was only the beginning. The full impact of NCAA sanctions have not yet been felt in Happy Valley, and the Nittany Lions have just begun their long, dark journey towards 2016—the first season they will be able to compete in a bowl game. Add in the scholarship limits, and the future of the Penn State football is still very much in doubt.
This season, O'Brien could rely on a decent level of returning talent to get through 2012. As the days, months and years go by, that won't be the case. Suddenly, O'Brien is going to be faced with a depleted team while simultaneously trying to convince young hot shots that Penn State is the place for them.
Meanwhile, coaches like Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke will be doing the same, except they'll have the Rose Bowl to use as a lure. Even during the lowest periods of success over the past decades, Penn State could always rely on the mystique of “JoePa” to bring in at least one blue chip recruit each season.
It's doubtful O'Brien will have the same pull.
Nebraska is just beginning to find its footing in the Big Ten.
The Cornhuskers won the Legends Division this season, earning their first real taste of Big Ten success. Unfortunately, people might remember the Big Ten Championship Game more than the rest of Nebraska's 2012 season; the Huskers were on the receiving end of a 70-31 beat down at the hands of five-loss Wisconsin.
When a ranked team allows 70 points to an unranked opponent it has already beaten once during the season, you can't help but look at the coaching.
Okay, it wasn't all Bo Pelini's fault. After all, he can only call the plays. The players have to actually go out and execute. But when did Nebraska become so one-dimensional?
Inconsistencies with the passing game led Nebraska into a run-first team this season. Combine that with an on-again, off-again defense—a la the Big 12—and you start to understand why Nebraska still doesn't quite feel like an emerging Big Ten powerhouse.
When your team underperforms the way Pelini's does in the biggest games, you might be a little frustrated, even angry on the sidelines, too. But the biggest distraction now has to be how people focus on Pelini's antics rather than the reasoning behind his behavior.
A major issue? No. But a nagging one.
Don't worry, Nebraska fans. People had the same complaint against Brian Kelly a year ago. The question was asked, “Are Brian Kelly's Sideline Antics Hurting the Program?”
That was just over a year ago. How did Notre Dame do this season again?
This one is pretty easy.
Bret Bielema was on the heels of raising his third Big Ten trophy and preparing for yet another trip to Pasadena when Jeff Long—athletic director at Arkansas—waved a big, fat check in his face.
Bielema couldn't beat tracks out of Madison fast enough.
Nothing like leaving a perennial conference-title-contending program flush with success and annual BCS invites for a second-tier (or worse) SEC team that is in the midst of an identity crisis.
Bret Bielema's biggest flaw? Lack of loyalty.
It's hard to argue against a coach who led his team to a 12-0 record in his first year at the helm. But Ohio State's 12 wins is probably the least impressive undefeated campaign we've seen in quite a while.
The Big Ten is not what it once was. A big reason teams like Michigan could win a national championship in the pre-BCS era was the thought that the conference was so tough, so powerful and so well balanced that it was next to impossible to win every game.
Think of the SEC of today, only without the non-conference fluff.
Those days are long gone.
Ohio State is a team that squeaked by Cal, slid past Alabama-Birmingham, edged out Michigan State, barely outlasted Indiana and won a nail-biter against Purdue. With that kind of performance, it's no wonder the Buckeyes aren't being honestly considered for a national championship this season (Ohio State is still eligible for the AP title despite being ineligible for a bowl game).
But if you listen to Urban Meyer, you'd never believe Ohio State was the team that almost wasn't. Or maybe was. Or could be.
Apparently, it depends on what day you listen to Urban Meyer.
Remember, this is the guy who left Florida for “health reasons,” only to return like five minutes later. Then, he left a year later to “spend time with his family.” He promptly took a job with ESPN that kept him on the road each and every Saturday.
All of a sudden, he shows up at Ohio State and says Braxton Miller is better than Tim Tebow. Really?
Are we talking about the same Tim Tebow?
And how is that “spending more time with the wife and kids” thing turning out? We can't possibly imagine the work load for the head football coach at Ohio State being any less than that at Florida.
To put it simply, Meyer has a habit of talking out of both sides of his mouth. We never quite know what he intends to do, even if he tells us. If we were his staff or his players that might have us a bit on edge.
At least he's not a straight-up liar.