Big Ten Football: Defending The Conference

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Big Ten Football: Defending The Conference

It's just about time for bowl season to begin, which means that it's also time for everybody around the country to start tearing down the Big Ten for being a weak, inferior conference.

It's becoming an annual tradition, but is this criticism of the Big Ten conference justified?

No way.

These criticisms are rooted in myth and misconception. It's become the nature of the college football fan to disparage a conference that doesn't contain the defending national champion.

Some fans have been so delusional that they find fault with the Big XII North, which boasts four teams in the top 13 BCS slots. They don't play defense, say the analysts. They're winning somehow, aren't they? Last I checked, a 'W' was the only thing that mattered.

As much unfair criticism as that division has endured, the Big Ten has put up with more. Fans of Big Ten teams are supposed to believe that we're still attached to our horse-drawn carriages while the stupendously-rich SEC and Big XII are driving Bugatti Veyrons.

It's time to put these lies to rest and give the Big Ten the respect it deserves.

Myth No. 1: Ohio State is terrible

This is the argument that people love to use against the Big Ten. It's also the argument that makes the least amount of sense.

The Buckeyes are one for three in BCS title games this decade, and they've lost their last two, in consecutive years. The SEC has convincingly beaten OSU two times in a row, and many people have taken this to mean that OSU, and by extension the Big Ten, is incapable of winning important games.

How many teams aside from OSU have even made it to two consecutive title games?

Let's see, Florida State played for three straight BCS titles, winning just one of them. Miami and USC have each played for two titles in a row, each coming up short on their second attempt. And Oklahoma also played in two title games in a row, losing them both by a combined score of 76-33.

I don't recall anybody jumping on Oklahoma and the Big XII the way that they have with Ohio State and the Big Ten. Oklahoma's 55-19 loss to USC in 2004 is the biggest beat down in BCS title game history, yet they were never disrespected to the extent that Ohio State has been.

Look, winning a title is hard. Less than two percent of the Division 1-A population even gets to play for one at the end of the season. Probability says that it's extremely unlikely that the same team would even make it to the title game twice in a row, but that's exactly what Ohio State did.

But they beat weaklings to get there, you'll say.

Not true, not by a long shot.

In 2006, Ohio State beat No. 2 Texas, No. 24 Penn State, No. 13 Iowa and No. 2 Michigan en route to the title game. 2007 featured wins over No. 23 Purdue, No. 25 Penn State, No. 21 Wisconsin and No. 21 Michigan. Four ranked teams each season.

In the 2006 season they had even bigger wins than Oklahoma enjoyed this season. The 2008 Sooners have beaten only one top five opponent.

It's also worth mentioning that this year's Fiesta Bowl will be Jim Tressel's fourth straight appearance in a BCS bowl game. Along with Pete Carroll, he's proven himself to be one of the most consistent coaches of the BCS era.

You know who hasn't been to four straight BCS bowls? Texas and Florida come to mind.

Myth No. 2: Michigan State is an awful 9-3 team

As a Spartan fan, this one baffles me. Sure, statistically, the Spartans aren't among the country's elite. But statistics alone don't tell the whole story.

MSU played the same conference schedule this season as they did last year. Last season, the Spartans were 3-5 in conference play. This season, they ended up 6-2 with a shot at the Big Ten title on the line in their final game.

Bad teams don't contend for conference titles that late in the season. Unless you're from the ACC.

Bad teams don't have victories over five bowl-bound opponents on their record, either. FAU, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Iowa and Wisconsin are all playing in the postseason, but all fell victim to the Spartans.

Three games from last year became wins this year: Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern. Many people will point out that Wisconsin was a major disappointment, but Iowa and Northwestern were actually much better than they were last season. Both of those teams missed bowls last season and are playing in pretty darn good ones this season.

So, Michigan State's conference schedule this season was actually tougher than last season, and they found ways to perform at a higher level.

Further comparison between last season and this season is necessary. Last season, every Spartan loss was by a touchdown or less. This season, they lost three times, twice in blowouts, but figured out how to win the close ones. Wisconsin and Iowa were victories that came down to the last minute and would have likely been losses in 2007.

Fans around the country like to point to the OSU and PSU games as reasons that Michigan State is a bad team. While it's true that Michigan State isn't at the elite level of those two programs yet, these people are also ignoring the Spartans' growth under Mark Dantonio.

A program has to learn how to win the close games before they can learn how to win the big games, and the Spartans did just that. Dantonio came in last season and immediately turned around a program that had hit rock bottom under John L. Smith*.

With the team winning sixteen game and appearing in consecutive bowl games for the first time in over a decade, the Spartans will continue to improve.

While their total yardage and scoring defense statistics might not have been that impressive, they were tops in the conference in red zone defense. That's how they were able to win the close games, by forcing teams to settle for three points instead of seven. By bending and not breaking.

MSU also happens to boast the best linebacker in the conference not named James Laurinitis, Mr. Greg Jones. I wonder if the nay sayers would be willing to step into the pocket if they knew Jones was coming on in a blitz.

*A word on John L. Smith. Much of the criticism leveled towards the Spartans, including the dreaded "same old Spartans" phrase seems to be hangover from the failed John L. Smith era.

Smith had no clue how to win football games and hasn't landed a coaching gig in two seasons. He's not prowling the sidelines in East Lansing anymore, so I think we can all stop anticipating late-season collapses. It didn't happen this season, and it won't happen again under Dantonio.

Mental toughness, it's a beautiful thing.

Myth No. 3: Big Ten offenses are terrible

Not terrible, just old school.

Big Ten coaches recognize the importance of controlling the clock, especially late in the game. Why throw 50 times a game when you've got the best running backs in the country at your disposal?

Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer and Beanie Wells combined for 46 rushing touchdowns this season. Ringer led the country in rushing touchdowns, Greene took home the Doak Walker award, and Wells started the season as a Heisman favorite before going down with an unfortunate injury.

There's also Evan Royster, Kory Sheets, and Wisconsin's two-pronged rushing attack to deal with.

No other conference has such a wealth of rushing talent at their disposal.

Big Ten offenses are built to grind it out, not shoot it out. That's why you see scores during conference play in the 20s and 30s instead of the 50s and 60s. Low scores don't mean that the offenses are ineffective.

Against Florida Atlantic, Michigan State ran their way to a 17-0 shutout. Javon Ringer ran for 282 yards, 57 more yards than FAU's entire offense managed. It wasn't pretty, but it was devastatingly effective.

Iowa beat Penn State on a cold, blustery day in Iowa City thanks to the ground game. Shonn Greene helped the Hawkeyes' control the clock with 117 yards on 28 carries.  Again, a pretty ugly game, but Iowa was able to kill Penn State's national title hopes thanks to Greene's efforts.

And how did Penn State keep Ohio State at bay? By out rushing them by nearly 100 yards. When the game is 13-7, you've got to be able to keep the opponent's offense off the field.

And if we go back a few years, Lloyd Carr and his old-school attack fared pretty well (unless his opponent was Jim Tressel.) He had a better bowl record than Bo Schembechler, won five conference titles and shared one national championship.

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