The Death of the Big Ten

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterSeptember 7, 2014

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If you flew cross-country on Saturday—gazing out your football-less window of sorrow—you would have seen ominous smoke hovering over various parts of the Midwest, painting the sky black.

Over South Bend, over West Lafayette, near Chicago and certainly above Columbus, where the sky seemed extra threatening, there was darkness, thick pockets of smoke foretelling distress below. Elsewhere, in Eugene, the sky turned a menacing color no sky has a right to be. And, when you finally touched down, you learned of the panic that afflicted the other areas you passed over just hours earlier.

There is no easy way to put this—even for a Midwesterner who has defended the Big Ten from the tired narratives that have dogged the conference—so let’s just call Saturday exactly it what it was.

This was a catastrophic day for Jim Delany’s baby, a 13-hour stretch that could seemingly crush the Big Ten’s College Football Playoff hopes while furthering the national criticism that has grown louder in recent years.

But before we dive into the rabbit hole of bad, let’s dispense the limited praise where it’s due.

Michigan State put forth an admirable fight against Oregon, and the 46-27 score wasn’t nearly indicative of the game, at least the first three-and-a-half quarters. At halftime, Sparty looked to be in control behind quarterback Connor Cook, and then the Ducks fought back and took over.

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There’s nothing to be ashamed of for losing to the nation’s best player in one of the nation’s most hostile environments, although it served as a valuable showcase for the conference to deliver. Michigan State, which still has the look and feel of a Top 10 team, was unable to take advantage.

Compared to the rest of the conference, however, this seemed worthy of mild applause. Well, Indiana did have a bye.

As for the B1G in its entirety, here was how it played out. The following should come with a disclaimer.

Big Ten Results From Week 2
GameResult
Western Kentucky at IllinoisIllinois 42, Western Kentucky 34 (W)
McNeese State at NebraskaNebraska 31, McNeese State 24 (W)
Akron at Penn StatePenn State 21, Akron 3 (W)
Central Michigan at PurdueCentral Michigan 38, Purdue 17 (L)
Howard at RutgersRutgers 38, Howard 25 (W)
Western Illinois at WisconsinWisconsin 37, Western Illinois 3 (W)
Northern Illinois at NorthwesternNorthern Illinois 23, Northwestern 15 (L)
Middle Tennessee at MinnesotaMinnesota 35, Middle Tennessee 24 (W)
Ball State at IowaIowa 17, Ball State 13 (W)
Michigan State at OregonOregon 46, Michigan State 27 (L)
Michigan at Notre DameNotre Dame 31, Michigan 0 (L)
Maryland at South FloridaMaryland 24, South Florida 17 (W)
Virginia Tech at Ohio StateVirginia Tech 35, Ohio State 21 (L)
ESPN.com

Let’s play a game—find the best win.

Was it Iowa, which had to fight and claw to victory at home against Ball State? How about Wisconsin, which scored in the first second—literally—and then struggled offensively before pulling away from Western Illinois, a Missouri Valley team? What about Minnesota? Or Penn State? Or Illinois? 

Nebraska needed a Herculean effort from running back Ameer Abdullah to get past McNeese State, a Southland team that nearly pushed the Cornhuskers to the brink and Bo Pelini to the volcano seat.

His 58-yard touchdown catch was the difference in the game, securing a 31-24 win for Nebraska. (It was also the most impressive play you’ll see all weekend.)

On the other side of the results spectrum, the losses were notable. Some of the Big Ten’s most noteworthy brands—Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan—all lost on the same day for a first time in a long time. (I was three years old.)

The Wolverines’ 31-0 loss to Notre Dame in the final rivalry game (for now) served as perhaps the most disappointing showing all weekend. It’s not that Michigan lost on the road to the Irish, and more specifically, a locked-in Everett Golson; it’s that it was kept off the scoreboard entirely.

When was the last time Michigan was shut out? I’m glad you asked. It’s been quite a while. (I was a year from being born.)

Ohio State made history of its own in Week 2 against Virginia Tech, and not the kind you want to make. The inexperience at the offensive line served as the Buckeyes’ undoing, while quarterback J.T. Barrett threw three interceptions. In fairness to Barrett, he wasn’t given much of a chance.

The 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech was the first time the Buckeyes lost at home to an unranked, out-of-conference team in 64 tries. (I was three years from being born.)

Add in losses from Northwestern to Northern Illinois and Purdue to Central Michigan, and you cover the full spectrum of disappointment. It wasn’t just the top teams in the conference that fell short; it was, from the top down, a historically disappointing morning, afternoon and night.

Despite the horrendous nature of the day, the Big Ten should not be ruled out of the College Football Playoff. Not yet, at least. There is far too much football to be played to cast such blanket statements, so let’s leave those for later in the year.

When your likely playoff candidates all enter Week 3 with a loss, however, the siren should be warming up. One loss shouldn’t eliminate any team from contention, but the losses collectively are killing the perception of the conference and thus the candidacy any team will have once resumes are held side by side. 

Lost in the carnage of Week 2 was the fact that the Big Ten stepped up and played quality power-five opponents, which is more than most can say during a week where quality matchups were lacking. It’s noteworthy, but given the overall lackluster showing, sympathy will be hard to come by.

This is what the Big Ten is up against: not just the out-of-conference teams it struggled mightily with, but the image problems it has had all along.

It's slow.

It can't score.

It can't win big games.

Etc.

The jokes became a reality. The criticism was realized. The teams expected to carry the conference beyond these stigmas crumbled; the teams without expectations stayed the course.

Where the conference collectively goes from here will further shape the future, which suddenly feels far less promising than it did days ago. The sun will come out again, just like it always does, although the darkness still speeding toward the sky is making it hard to guess when exactly that will be.

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