How the Big Ten can Get its Groove Back
Its been a fast and hard fall from grace for the Big Ten in the NCAA football landscape.
Once prominent programs Ohio State and Penn State find themselves incapable of beating top-ranked competition, while the winningist program in the country: The University of Michigan, is struggling just to win.
The Conference has failed to remain relevant in the national spotlight since Ohio State's 2002 National Championship. Other conferences have risen and surpassed the Big Ten in quality of competition. Most would place The Southeastern, Big 12, Pacific Ten, and Atlantic Coastal Conferences all well ahead of the Big Ten.
The time is now for the Big Ten to make a move to modernize itself along with the other major conferences of the NCAA and to make its return to the national stage.
Here's how it can be done.
Add a 12th Team and a Conference Championship
There are so many reasons why this is the perfect time for the Big Ten to find a 12th team to add to its ranks:
1) The Big Ten ends its season far ahead of every other conference in the country, causing long periods of down time before bowl games, especially BCS bowls.
2) A conference title game gives a more legitimate feel to crowning a champion. Penn State (assuming they would take care of business in a championship game) would not have the stain of sharing a Conference title with a team they defeated (Ohio State) that has a worse record.
3) Adding another team gives the Big Ten an opportunity to increase its number of championship caliber programs (not to mention its revenue streams). Programs in the SEC such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana State seem to thrive off of their immensely difficult schedules.
4) A Nationally televised Championship game would create more Big Ten awareness. Most of the country hasn't seen a whole lot of Big Ten football other than the BCS embarrassments of late.
This leaves the Big Ten with one conundrum: Who do they invite?
There is one glaringly obvious answer and then there are a lot more acceptable ones.
Notre Dame is the program that should stand head and shoulders above the others. Residing in the heart of Big Ten Country, the Fighting Irish are the perfect fit for many reasons.
They are already rivals with two Big Ten programs in Michigan and Purdue. These games would gain a new level of intensity if played within a conference schedule.
Notre Dame also has something else important: a national TV contract with NBC Sports. Should the Big Ten be able to negotiate ND into sharing this with the league (not at all a sure thing) then the Big Ten would join the SEC as the second Conference with a Major broadcast TV deal.
Also having the two winningist programs in the NCAA wouldn't be bad thing to have.
Other suitors could include the likes of Rutgers, who would bring with them a large portion of the New Jersey/ New York Media. If they can expand and sell out their smaller stadium they could be a good fit.
West Virginia or Cincinnati would also be quality adds if the Big Ten could find enough incentives to lure them away from the Big East.
Another sleeper could be the Missouri Tigers, who have been noted as being unsatisfied with their spot in the Big 12. Keep your eyes open on this one.
Find a Face for the Conference
Things kind of drug on a little there didn't they? Bear with me, I never said this would be a easy facelift.
Another thing the Big Ten is missing is a definitive face for the conference as a whole. In this modern age of sports, marketability if something that is a must.
This means the Big Ten institutions need to find a way to market themselves to draw the big time recruits. With Ohio State winning the Terrelle Pryor sweepstakes last year, the conference may have a player to put their marketing chips behind.
The Big Ten needs a Tim Tebow, or a Mark Sanchez to get behind. Even Heisman winner Troy Smith seemed to lack the "it" factor as far as marketability goes.
Big time recruits attract more big time recruits, Pete Carrol has proved that mantra.
Ron Zook and the Illini Make More Noise
Since arriving on campus in Ilinois, Ron Zook has only led the Illini to one winning campaign.
That season, 2007, Illinois went 9-4, but ended the season in disappointing fashion, losing in the Rose Bowl to USC.
Optimism remains high as Juice Williams enters his final season in Illinois after having his best campaign statistically , passing for over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. WIliams also rushed for 700 yards and five more scores.
Zook also continues to compete in the national recruiting race, bringing in top 25 recruiting classes or close to in almost every season. Zook knows how to recruit to his advantage, targeting specific skill players like Williams and building around them.
The Big Ten needs more than just Penn State and Ohio State to carry its flag nationally, especially with Michigan being down for the count.
If Illinois can have a resurgent season in 2009, that will only help the Big Ten's appearance as a solid conference from top to bottom.
Michigan Makes a Return to the Championship Race
As much fun as it is to watch Michigan struggle as an Ohio State fan, as a Big Ten fan, it kills me.
The Big Ten NEEDS Michigan to be a relevant football program. The Wolverines have high profile match-ups every season with Notre Dame and Ohio State. Should Michigan continue to be embarrassed in these matups, which is unlikely in my opinion, then the Big Ten is suffering a big loss.
One can't believe that Michigan will be down for long, with the university's addition of Rich Rodriguez to do the exact thing that the Big Ten needs: modernize. RichRod will have his players eventually, the question will be if he can keep bringing players in.
Another thing to remember that having a strong Michigan program won't be a cure-all for the Big Ten. I'm sure all conference fans have fond memories of the No.1-No.2 Ohio State Michigan matchup that sent the Buckeyes to slaughter against Florida.
Utilize the Automatic Bids
Because of the conference's rich heritage of producing great programs, the Big Ten enjoys having a relationship with seven bowl games: The Rose, Capital One, Outback, Alamo, Champs Sports, Insight and Motor City Bowls all usually select Big Ten teams to compete.
All but one of these bowls (the Motor City plays the seventh ranked Big Ten team against the MAC champions) pits the Big Ten against a team from another power conference.
After going 1-6 last season in bowl games, the Big Ten could see some good will dry up as far as attendance goes by their fans to these games. Profit is crucial as it is what drives the modern bowl system.
Let's face it, the NCAA isn't placing two 6-6 teams against each other for the thrill of competition, they're doing so to make an even more ridiculous amount of money.
If the relationships should go sour with these smaller bowls because Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan State or a down Ohio State/ Penn State cannot pull off victories, the Big Ten could lose these games and have to move to other bowls that aren't in as prime of vacation spots.
Right now, only one Big Ten Bowl occurs in a state that's not Florida, California, Texas or Arizona (again the lowly Motor City Bowl). It would be a shame to see decreased fan attendance if a Big Ten team were to go to the International Bowl (Canada) or the MPC bowl (Idaho).
The Big Ten can not burn up all of its good will with this bowl win drought.
Modernize the Playbooks
I love Jim Tressel. There is no better clothing choice on a Saturday afternoon then a good red sweater-vest. But I think everyone from Columbus to Los Angeles can agree, the run on first, run on second, pass on third, punt of fourth plan needs to be laid to rest.
If there has been one thing painfully obvious from watching the Big Ten in big time bowl games these past few years it has been this: the time has come to update the playbooks.
The passing attacks need to be upgraded. Gone are the days in which a team can win with just a dominant defense and good rushing attack as the 2002 Buckeyes did.
Daryll Clark, Terrell Pryor, Juice Williams and Adam Weber of Minnesota provide great opportunities for the Big Ten to be welcomed into the modern age of college football.
If these skill players continue to be underutilized then expect things to be murky at best against the elite competition.
It hasn' t been the SEC, Big 12 or Pac-10 speed that has killed the Big Ten, its been their creativity.
Win the Rosebowl
The ultimate measuring stick of success for the Big Ten can be found in Pasadena, California, far from the heart of the conference.
The Rose Bowl has not been won by a Big Ten team since 2000 when the Wisconsin Badgers knocked off Stanford 17-9.
Before that game the Big Ten had won seven out of the eleven previous Rose Bowls it had sent a team to. This timeline also happens to fall during the only other Big Ten national championship since 1970, Michigan's in 1997.
The Big Ten owned the Rose Bowl game from the 1940's to around the middle of the 70's, winning 13 national championships in the process.
In a way it can be seen that as goes the Rose Bowl, so goes the Big Ten. If the wins can start coming again in Pasadena then the wins might start popping up in BCS title games.
Schedule Big Time Opponents in the Out of Conference Schedule
Ohio State had the right idea when they scheduled Texas in 2006 and 2007 and USC for 2008 and 2009. The Buckeyes wanted to cement their status as a national contender program.
While this has backfired (the Buckeyes have gone 1-2) it is the right idea. The game this season against Southern Cal will be of great importance if Ohio State can pull off a victory.
The Buckeyes have also secured games for 2010-2011 against the Miami Hurricanes and the Cincinnati Bearcats and Cal Bears in 2012.
Penn State has also scheduled Alabama for the 2010-2011 seasons. If the Nittney Lions can win against the Tide it could build big time momentum for PSU and the Big Ten.
Michigan is currently rumored to be in talks with Cal and Georgia to lock up games for the 2011 season and beyond.
With these games on the schedule, the Big Ten is now do or die. Losses in the majority of these games will lead to further embarrassment, but success could lead to rebirth.
Where the Big Ten Stands
The Big Ten knows exactly where it stands. They have been caught flatfooted while the rest of college football evolved around them.
It's not too late for the Big Ten to make a comeback.
There has only been one modern conference to make a fall from football prominence, the Big East, and that took the defections of major programs.
I'm sure the Big Ten would like to avoid being the first conference to just go bad. One can't expect for this situation to remain forever.
Can the Big Ten do it soon? Let me know.
And I'll apologize upfront for the heavy Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Illinois bias. I think you'll agree though, that if the SEC needed to upgrade the reform would be happening at Florida, Alabama, LSU and Tennessee, not Kentucky, Vanderbilt or Mississippi State.