The Bright Future of Big Ten Football: 2008 as a Conference Nadir

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst ISeptember 14, 2008

There's a lot of gloom-and-doom floating around after yesterday's dismal performances from the Big Ten's top two programs.

It's population shifts.  The talents all in the south and west these days.

It's the cold weather. That's it!

They just don't play good football up around the Great Lakes anymore.  They're bland and boring, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust.

That there's SEC SPEED, Y'ALL!

Yesterday, Ohio State had their clocks cleaned by consensus No. 1 USC, and Michigan looked nothing short of awful in their rivalry game against previously struggling Notre Dame.

Illinois and Michigan State had significant struggles against Sun Belt teams at home.  Purdue blew a double-overtime game against Oregon.

Michigan lost to Utah at home.  Illinois couldn't beat Missouri.  Michigan State couldn't hang on against California.

Until Wisconsin's 13-10 win over Fresno State late last night, the most impressive Big Ten victory all season had been Penn State shellacking Oregon State.

While the Big Ten still has four ranked teams, this is the absolute worst the Big Ten has seemed in my lifetime in terms of competing on a national scale, a conclusion many are agreeing with across the media, especially in the south and west.

And it's the lowest we're ever going to see the Big Ten.


Contrary to the wishes in Texas or California, this year is not a pit-stop on the road to Big East/ACC irrelevance for the Big Ten.  Rather, it's a year where, by pure chance, half the league finds itself in flux or having relatively poor teams.

For better or worse, the Big Ten is graded by Michigan and Ohio State.  Michigan is in a state of transition between two coaches (and, for that matter, fundamental philosophies) and finds itself without a quarterback of any experience or repute. 

Ohio State is being evaluated solely by its performance in three key games over the last three seasons: the losses to Florida and LSU in the national title games and the recent loss to USC.

Is it Jim Tressel's preparation abilities?  I don't think so.  This is the same coach who triumphed over an NFL-stocked Miami for a national title and racked up 600 yards against Notre Dame in the '06 Fiesta Bowl.

What most commentators miss about both OSU and Michigan is that they have a distinct lack of raw talent this year, at least by OSU and Michigan standards.

Ohio State had a complete catastrophe of a recruiting class in 2003, Todd Boeckman's incoming year, a group that saw double the arrests, transfers, and injury cases than actual contributors (such as David Patterson, Kirk Barton, and Anthony Gonzalez).  From 2004-2007, the Buckeyes had respectable top 15 classes, but nothing in the echelon of USC or Florida.

They were a step behind in their recruiting compared to what they were used to, and they finished a clear step behind on the field.  Why anyone outside of Columbus was surprised to see them lose to Florida, LSU, or USC is beyond me.

But where are they going in the future?  Right back up to the top echelon.  In 2008, Tressel scored a class ranked fourth overall by rivals.com, garnering as many five-star players as his '04-'07 classes combined. 

In 2003, all but two of Tressel's recruits came from Ohio, while 2008 saw him bring in top talent from Texas, Florida, D.C., Pennsylvania, and Chicago in addition to keeping his Ohio base.

In 2009, they currently have the top-ranked class overall.

In Michigan's case, it's a matter of having improper raw talent for the current coaching scheme.  While the Wolverines have consistently done well on the recruiting trek, Lloyd Carr was recruiting for his offense.

This caused Ryan Mallet and 2008 recruit John Weinke to bail at quarterback, leaving Rich Rodriguez with virtually no one at the most important position on the field.

But Rodriguez has proven himself an able recruiter — it's just a matter of matching the talent to his system, which has a much greater chance of happening than failing.


As for the rest of the conference, Wisconsin is playing perennial top 15 football.  While recruiting may be a long-term concern, the Badgers seem to have built a blue-collar system that allows them to get every ounce out of their players, and it hasn't stopped them in the past.

Illinois and Michigan State have programs in place that will allow them the greatest chance for consistent, on-the-field success since about 1990.

Minnesota looks to be on the road back to respectability after taking care of business in their first three games.  Brewster is already a better recruiter than Glen Mason, and taking steps on the field with the addition of a new stadium in 2009, fortunes are certainly up for the Gophers.

Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern and Bill Lynch of Indiana have their programs headed in the right direction.  Today, Northwestern landed its highest ranked recruit since 2002 and will likely head into Big Ten play 4-0. 

Similar to the situation Fitzgerald inherited taking over for the late Randy Walker, Bill Lynch has rallied the Hoosiers to a Bowl Game in '07 and a solid start in '08 after taking over for Terry Hoeppner after his tragic death from cancer.

Though Purdue's recruiting for 2009 is currently nonexistent, they don't stand to lose much with the retirement of Joe Tiller.  Despite Tiller's success, Purdue has become the epitome of Big Ten mediocrity the last five seasons and without a Kyle Orton or Drew Brees-caliber quarterback, he's a below-average coach. 

Purdue already has put a succession plan with Eastern Kentucky's Danny Hope in place.  At the very least, the Boilers should see the talent level stay steady from what they've had over the last few years.

In fact, the only two football programs who look to drop over the next five years are Penn State and Iowa.  The former will have major succession issues when Paterno finally leaves the field one way or another. They've seen a slight recruiting drop from '06 on that will affect them in two or three years as well. 

As for Iowa, they just keep sinking from their number 13 ranking two seasons ago, and the once-immaculate Kirk Ferentz will be lucky to see 2010 wearing Hawkeye gold.

In summary, nine of the eleven programs have situations that bode for a higher level of football from 2009 onwards, especially at Michigan and Ohio State.


This isn't to say the critics are entirely wrong.  Though Ohio, Michigan, and northern Illinois are still fantastic places to find high school talent, the bulk of the nation's better players come from the South, and Big Ten schools outside the "big two" have responded by consistently building recruiting connections in other parts of the country. 

Ron Zook at Illinois has built himself steady pipelines to northern Florida and the D.C. area.  Tim Brewster at Minnesota has used his connections to make inroads into California and Texas.  Even Wisconsin has started to gain recruits from Texas and Florida.

Fitzgerald, Brewster, Zook, Mark Dantonio, and Bret Bielema all look to have stable, long-term futures ahead of them, and as they build their recruiting connections, more and more talent will come to these schools from diverse parts of the country. 

Throw in the fact that the talent level at Ohio State and Michigan will soon be back to where it has been in the past, and there should be no reason the Big Ten can't compete with the SEC or Pac-10 at both elite- and high-level competition levels.

Furthermore, Notre Dame — a traditional rival for three Big Ten schools (with a minor rivalry against Penn State) — is enjoying a resurgence in its talent level and should be a factor on the national scene in the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

While Notre Dame recruits nationally, they still pluck recruits from Big Ten hotbeds, especially Chicago.  Strong showings by Notre Dame, both off-the-field and in recruiting, means that Big Ten teams will be (and have been) forced to recruit nationally. 

A strong Irish team can actually be good for the Big Ten in many regards, much the way that local, top-tier competition often improves businesses by forcing them to find new strategies and raise efficiency (and in the Big Ten, no one goes out of business; mediocre coaches just get the boot).


Additionally, a Notre Dame team worth watching guarantees three more Big Ten teams will have prime television exposure.  The Big Ten Network has also pioneered the ability of fans and potential recruits to see the conference at its best.  While many markets still do not have the Big Ten Network, its effect of pushing the conference as a whole in the Midwest cannot be denied.

The Big Ten still has the largest and best college football stadiums in the country.  Beaver Stadium, the "Big House," and the "Horseshoe" rank third, fourth, and sixth, respectively, in a list of the world's largest stadiums.

The athletic budgets are still comparable to (or exceed) anything else in the country and the Big Ten has just as much pageantry and tradition to sell as the SEC, and more than the Pac-10 or Big XII.

Given this favorable conference set-up, and the fact that at least seven of the 11 Big Ten schools have the necessary components in place for long, high-caliber success on the football field, with the "big two" making the necessary corrections to be truly back in the elite echelon by 2010, there's no reason to not see a bright future for the Big Ten.


This year is the nadir, the lowest of the low, absolute zero.  And the optimistic truth about hitting personal rock bottoms is that the only way to go is up.  Even in this bleak moment of apparent darkness, there's a whole lot of light in the Midwest.

Give them a few years, and you'll see an OSU team that somehow relearned how to prepare for big games (it's called "elite talent"), a Michigan team back with the best, and a conference worthy of its glorious history again.