"The Big Ten is Back"...that was the headline last year after a 4-3 conference bowl record and two BCS victories.
A serious examination of the Big Ten's 2009-10 bowl performance, however, should have raised some serious question marks about how well the conference had actually performed.
At the time a year ago, I wrote an article called "The Big 10 is Back? Not so fast...", for which I was widely criticized by Big Ten-homers. You can read it here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/321541-the-big-10-is-back-not-so-fast
In the article I argued that the Big Ten had not really vanquished any of their previous postseason demons. Beating up on the champions of the depleted Pac-10 and the weak ACC was not that impressive. I suggested that before the Big Ten was really “back,” it was going to have to defeat “the Alabamas, Texases and Floridas of the college football world—not the Georgia Techs.”
Well, a year has come and gone and the Big Ten has embarrassed itself again on the national stage. Unlike last year though, the Big Ten was matched up mostly with SEC opponents in their bigger bowls. The results were predictably disastrous. The Big Ten wasn’t back last year and it clearly isn’t this year. Sorry.
On so-called Black Saturday, New Year’s Day 2011, the Big Ten lost all five of its bowl games, three to the SEC and one each to the Big 12 and Mountain West conferences. Worst of all, many of the games were not close. Michigan State, the leagues co-champion, got walloped by the fourth best team in the SEC West Division, Alabama. Michigan got manhandled by Mississippi State and most shocking of all for Big Ten traditionalists, many of whom had spent the year mocking non-Automatic Qualifiers TCU and Boise State—TCU beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Ouch.
All that said though, just like last year I am a bit surprised about the response of many Big Ten fans to this year’s bowl record.
Many people, like Jim Delany, are calling it the worst day in conference history, really? I thought the results of Saturday were predictable.
For example, while many in the national media played up the David vs. Goliath storyline with TCU and Wisconsin, Vegas had TCU as a three point favorite. Similarly, the Vegas lines were against every other Big Ten team on New Year’s Day.
Why the surprise?
Actually, I think the Big Ten should be happy, in a sense, with this year’s bowl performance. Iowa’s victory against Missouri and Illinois’ defeat of Baylor were both upsets. That is something to cheer about, I guess.
The real issue here is that the Big Ten has a quality problem. Everyone, including Vegas, seems to recognize this but the Big Ten and a few knuckleheads on ESPN. The first step on the road to recovery is admitting the problem. The Big Ten needs to do this. After this step, the Big Ten needs to take serious steps to remedy the problem.
While I don’t think Big Ten coaches and administrators (that’s you Jim Delany) have admitted the problem, I do think they have already taken one positive step towards addressing the problem.
Adding Nebraska to the conference will make the Big Ten better and more competitive in the future. This will happen not just because Nebraska will challenge for Big Ten championships, but mostly because the Big Ten will finally have a Championship Game to give its better teams the opportunity to gain much needed “big game” experience.
This observation illustrates a larger point on mine. Big Ten coaches and administrators, especially the ones from teams at the top of the conference, have to realize that they can only get better by challenging their teams more during the regular season and increasing their national profile.
The way to do this is not just by adding Nebraska, but also by making a new commitment to scheduling challenging games early in the season, preferably against elite SEC and Big 12 talent. That means not just Ohio State should do this, but Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, too.
Another necessary trait for the Big Ten to improve on is their overall league talent and strength. Yes, year in and year out Ohio State and maybe one or two other Big Ten teams are "good" teams, but that is not enough.
At the end of conference play this year, Wisconsin had beaten a total of ONE OPPONENT who was ranked at the end of the season. Auburn, on the other hand, had beaten FIVE OPPONENTS who were ranked.
How Best Can the Big Ten Catch Up with the SEC?
As previously stated, the Big Ten can improve on this experience by playing tougher non-conference opponents and by having a conference championship game—but another way would be to have the Purdues, Indianas, Illinoises, Minnesotas, Northwesterns and Michigans actually get better.
Jim Delany needs to do everything in his power to ensure that across the board Big Ten schools are doing everything in their power to be competitive. We always hear about how much money the Big Ten makes for each of its members, but it makes me wonder when I visit Northwestern and Indiana’s antiquated stadiums.
One of the best things, I think, that could happen to make the Big Ten more competitive against the SEC would be for Indiana and Purdue to become relevant and significant football programs.
Think of the SEC West division alone—stacked with Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State. All of those teams are ranked and all, arguably, are legit national title contenders. The point is, I think, that they thrive off of playing each other and improve from the experience.
The Big Ten could only benefit, I think, if it could create a similar situation in the Big Ten. That means improvement top to bottom.
It is not going to be easy. The Big Ten is going to have to admit the problem and seek to get better.
In all of this, I can’t help be reminded of Nebraska in the 1980s.
As close as Nebraska came to National Titles, it was clear that when Nebraska got to the big game it lacked the speed to compete against the Miamis and Florida States of college football. Did Tom Osborne admit the problem? Yes. Did he take aggressive steps to remedy it? Yes. The result was an historic string of National Titles in the 90s for the Cornhuskers.
The Big Ten is in a similar situation to Nebraska in the 1980s now, I think. With aggressive action, the new Big Ten with Nebraska can challenge SEC supremacy. Without any action or steps towards conference-wide improve in the Big Ten, I’m afraid, many more Black Saturdays are to come in future bowl seasons for the conference.