Don't look now Stanford, the B1G dogpile is coming
Although debates still rage in Big Ten country about why the B1G is better than the SEC (and if you believe E. Gordon Gee, it has something to do with academics), the latter half of the BCS era has undoubtedly proven that the SEC is currently dominant. Until proven otherwise, the rest of the major conferences have some catching up to do. It would be folly to try and argue otherwise.
However, that does not mean the debate between these other major conference is irrelevant or uninteresting. To the contrary, the close nature of the other four major conferences (Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten, and to a lesser extent, the ACC) over the past decade lends itself to an annual discussion of how these conferences are better than one another in the chase to be the next SEC.
One of the most interesting ongoing battles for national prominence occurs annually between the two Rose Bowl conferences, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten. These conferences act as blood brothers and see each other as equals in many aspects, including academically and in athletics.
But we all know that football is where the best bragging rights come from.
Looking ahead to the 2013 season, the ACC is in a period of transition while the Big 12 may continue to struggle without Oklahoma or Texas being nationally elite programs. With that in mind, the debate between the Pac-12 and the Big Ten is as interesting as ever, as it may decide the second-best conference in college football.
Let's take a look at a six pack of factors explaining why the B1G is the big winner in this debate for 2013, compared to our blood brothers from the left coast.
The Buckeyes are ready to gang tackle Cal and the Pac-12 again in 2013
One of the best signs that the season is close is the release of preseason college football preview magazines, and the absolute gold standard in information is the Phil Steele's College Football Preview magazine which came out this past week.
If you haven't had the pleasure of looking through his walls of information, then page through one the next time you go shopping.
One of the pages in Steele's magazine each season is dedicated to his power rankings of the conferences.
In addition to previewing the upcoming season, he always lists about 10 past years of conference power rankings. Using this recent history as a guide, it becomes clear that the Pac-12 cannot maintain enough depth and strength overall to remain above the Big Ten for more than just one outlier season at a time.
Although the SEC has dominated the conference power rankings since 2005, the Big Ten consistently ranks about the Pac-12 farther down the list.
The Big Ten finished ahead of the Pac-12 in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011, while the Pac-12 jumped ahead only in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Thus, even though the Pac-12 looks to be on the rise, this is really just a three- or four-year cycle that repeats itself to allow the Pac-12 to be better for a single season.
Just like before, history will ring true, and the Big 10 will not stay down for more than one season. The Pac-12 does not historically stay better than the B1G for more than one season, and 2013 will not be the exception to this rule.
Nebraska won't be fooled again, Bruins.
Many preseason polls are continuing to emerge from Bleacher Report and other major media outlets, and there's inconsistency after the top 10 or 15 teams, as usual at this time of year.
However, one thing that becomes evident from reviewing a stack of national polls and conference rankings is that the Big Ten has more teams on the national radar than everyone else outside of the SEC.
Using the ESPN blogger post-spring power rankings for the conferences as a general guideline, the top seven teams for the Pac-12 are Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA, Washington, Oregon State and USC. The top seven teams for the Big Ten are Ohio State, Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State.
While it may be true that only Ohio State, Stanford and Oregon are initially considered consensus top-10 teams that will compete for a national championship, the remainder of these lists weighs heavily in favor of the teams from the Midwest.
Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State are all seeing play in many top 25 polls, while only UCLA and Arizona State are regular fixtures behind Stanford and Oregon in the national polls.
Furthermore, if you put together a hypothetical Big Ten-Pac-12 challenge based on these power rankings, the Big Ten would likely find itself favored to defeat the second tier of teams like Arizona State, UCLA and Washington.
This is because that tier of Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin are just much better in the Big Ten, both in the past couple of seasons and coming into 2013.
All told, there's six Big Ten teams that are considered to be nationally relevant/ranked, while only four of the Pac-12 teams are. Considering that both conference will end up with at least one team in the debate for the BCS Championship, the greater depth of competition in the Big Ten at the top will make that conference better overall in 2013.
Beating Illinois, well that actually doesn't count for much.
Returning to those power rankings referenced on the last slide, the remaining teams at the bottom of each conference also tend to favor the Big Ten.
The bottom five in the Big Ten include Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue, Iowa and Illinois, while the Pac-12 features a bottom five of Arizona, Utah, California, Washington State and Colorado. Sifting through this list of teams is terribly "enjoyable" to fans of both conferences, but it must be done.
We can safely say Illinois and Colorado are each massive train wrecks that will take years to clean up. Going beyond those two teams, the Big Ten is left with some serious bowl contenders, while the Pac-12 is left with too many question marks and bad units.
Arizona must replace a quarterback and find a way for a bad returning defense to get better, while Washington State is still climbing out of a deep hole.
California has a brutal non-conference schedule thanks to the Big Ten (Northwestern, Ohio State) and will be breaking in a new coach, while Utah has a defense that will struggle to keep the Utes improving offense in games.
At most, one of these teams may emerge as a bowl team.
Meanwhile in the Big Ten, Indiana is similar to Arizona with a consistently bad defense (but the offense is so much better under Kevin Wilson than what Rich Rodriguez is working with in Tuscon).
Purdue has some pieces like California, but too many questions with a new coaching staff. The real difference comes in Minnesota and Iowa—the two teams that will struggle in the tough Legends Division in 2013. Both of these teams should be improved enough to have a real shot at bowl eligibility, assuming the non-conference play goes well.
That means the bottom half of the Big Ten could end up with two or three bowl teams, while the Pac-12 may only end up with one.
This means the bottom half of the Big Ten will be a better test for the upper-echelon teams than those out west. The bottom of a conference is just as important in comparing conferences as the top, and the Big Ten has a clear advantage here.
Upsets like this one simply will not happen in 2013.
Last year, the Big Ten took it on the chin in head-to-head matchups with the Pac-12. Upsets like UCLA defeating Nebraska and Wisconsin losing at Oregon State showed serious weaknesses early, and the Rose Bowl loss to Stanford late did not help matters.
The slate between these conferences for 2013 is as follows:
- UCLA at Nebraska
- Northwestern at California
- Illinois vs. Washington in Chicago
- Ohio State at California
- Wisconsin at Arizona State
- Rose Bowl Game (presumably): projected Ohio State/Michigan vs. Stanford/Oregon
Unfortunately, only two of these five scheduled games will provide a big indication of the relative strength of the conferences, although the performances of Illinois and California when overmatched will also be relevant on some level.
If California can steal one of the home games against the traveling Wildcats or Buckeyes, then the Pac-12 may end up with a winning record in the series between these conferences.
Don't expect that to happen, though, as Cal will likely lose both of these games, and Illinois will also get crunched in Washington.
Nebraska will be more ready for UCLA after losing to the Bruins in Los Angeles last September, so this game should favor the Big Ten. Although Arizona State has improved, Wisconsin should find plenty of offensive success in the desert to bring back another big road win.
The worst-case scenario for the Big Ten should be 3-2 in these games, and the conference really should be 4-1. Even with some uneven pairings, this would swap the perception from a season ago when the Pac-12 took all the close games and upsets.
Braxton Miller, legitimate Heisman candidate
The Pac-12 has a lot of good quarterbacks returning to top teams. Just take the word of the Pac-12 blogger experts. However, despite all this returning talent, the "Year of the Quarterback" in the Pac-12 is outshined by the ridiculous talent at the most important position in the Big Ten.
It all begins at the top with Braxton Miller, who surprised many in the Big Ten last year by taking the leaps and bounds he did as a passer while staying mostly healthy and frequently running the ball.
With similar improvement in his junior season, he could surpass Johnny Manziel as the biggest star in the country in 2013. Add to Miller the dynamic similar ability of Taylor Martinez at Nebraska and Kain Colter at Northwestern and you have some serious firepower.
The Pac-12 can at least contest that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota could keep pace with Miller if he has as big a jump in his sophomore season as Miller did in 2012.
Mariota threw 32 touchdown passes and completed 69 percent of his passes, as well as a ton of rushing yards in the dynamic Ducks offense. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and UCLA's Brett Hundley each threw 29 touchdown passes and completed about 67 percent of their passes, so the good throwing does not just reside in Eugene, Ore.
The top teams in each of these conferences have great experience and talent coming back at quarterback, so the difference (once again) is the returning talent lower in the standings and farther off the radar than these stars mentioned above.
The Big Ten also has to contend with the talents of Trevor Siemian, Devin Gardner, Philip Nelson, Tre Roberson, Nathan Scheelhaase, and whoever wins the quarterback carousel at Wisconsin (probably Joel Stave). While none of these guys instill the same fear as Miller and Martinez, they are capable and proven quarterbacks.
What does the Pac-12 have to offer in response?
Stanford's Kevin Hogan had a good freshman season, but needs to prove it can sustain itself in year No. 2, Keith Price of Washington needs to bounce back from a disappointing 2012, and Sean Mannion is not even guaranteed to win the Oregon State starting job.
USC, Arizona, and Cal all need to replace starting quarterbacks, which makes for a soft middle portion of the league.
These players in the Pac-12 simply do not make as deep or impressive a list as those in the Big Ten. Thus, the edge in quarterbacks goes to the Big Ten, even in this great year for Pac-12 signal-callers.
Exhibit A: Rich Rodriguez is actually employed in the Pac-12.
To cap off the six pack of reasons why the Big Ten is superior to the Pac-12, one only has to look at the top of the football programs and see the men in charge. The Big Ten has coaches of a much better caliber overall than the Pac-12, especially in key historical or flagship programs.
The first key piece of evidence is national titles, which neither of these conferences has won since early in Pete Carroll and Jim Tressel's tenures.
The Big Ten hired Urban Meyer into the fold, which gives them two more national championships and three more undefeated seasons than anybody else in either conference (only Kyle Whittingham at Utah has an undefeated season to his name).
The Pac-12 would need to have a great set of coaches outranking the Big Ten counterparts to make up for this huge asset at the top of the coaching ranks. The conference does not.
Behind Whittingham, who has proven to find some difficulty in the tougher Pac-12, the top coaches in the league include the likes of Jim Mora, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkesian, David Shaw and Todd Graham.
Oregon's new coach, Mark Helfrich, is unproven, and then there's Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. In sum, there are some talented younger coaches here, but the fiery likes of Kiffin and Rodriguez are shaky anchors, at best.
One only needs to look at how Rodriguez did in a similar position at Michigan to understand the coaching-level difference at the Big Ten.
While there are a couple of weak spots like Tim Beckman, the Big Ten is loaded with program builders like Pat Fitzgerald, Kirk Ferentz and Mark Dantonio, as well as proven winners Bo Pelini, Brady Hoke and Bill O'Brien at the other flagship programs behind Ohio State.
Given some time, the Pac-12 group of coaches may come up to this talent level, but they collectively are not even close right now. If Rodriguez could not survive three years in the Big Ten, how would many of these others fare?
Just like the star players and teams, the Big Ten is simply better at coaching, and that will translate to a better football conference than the Pac-12 in 2013.
Thanks for reading!
Please follow me on Twitter (@DA_Fitzgerald) and let me know in the comments below if you have more reasons why the Big Ten will be better than the Pac-12, or the reasons why you disagree (you sneaky Pac-12 fans).
I'll be sailing the high seas next weekend, but I will be back in two weeks to continue previewing the 2013 season. See you then.