Exactly 20 years ago Tuesday, a new Big Ten team began saying goodbye to its national championship hopes as a future Big Ten team took its place atop the polls.
A week after beating Ohio State, 63-14, and dropping from No. 1 to No. 2 in the AP poll when Nebraska beat highly ranked Colorado, Penn State allowed three late touchdowns to Indiana, causing it to drop in the coaches' poll too because of a misleading 35-29 final score. While Penn State and Nebraska went undefeated the rest of the way, they would never play each other, and Penn State never made up the ground it lost. Nebraska went on to win the 1994 national championship -- Tom Osborne's first -- in both major polls, serving as a crucial domino in the creation of the BCS, which eventually led to the College Football Playoff -- two entities that have exasperated the negative national conversations about the Big Ten. We have come a long, long way from the Nebraska-Penn State debate in '94, and Michigan and Nebraska sharing titles in '97, and Ohio State winning the BCS in 2002.
It is now college football's never-ending storyline. While the Big Ten launched its own television network in '07 and has never been more powerful off the field, the era has coincided with the downturn in public perception of the product on the field. Ohio State lost back-to-back national championship games in blowout fashion to the SEC. The SEC became the behemoth it is today, further illustrating population trends that have made recruiting easier down South. And, perhaps most fitting, the first game the Big Ten Network ever aired was Appalachian State's upset of Michigan, something that served as one of the easiest rallying points for narratives about the demise of the Big Ten.
As college football's two most powerful entities, one in the South and one in the North, the SEC and Big Ten have long been pitted as adversaries, as the two most notable signposts of the national balance of power in an age of realignment and strength-of-schedule arguments in which conference debates have taken on a life of their own.
With their own television networks, with fights for new members and with increasing emphasis on brands, conferences instead of teams have become the face of college football debates. More than anyone else, the Big Ten continues to lose those debates because of the naturally adversarial relationship it has with the SEC. When something rises, something else might fall. The Big Ten's power, and its tendency to put itself on a pedestal academically, make it an easy target, especially because there's no legitimate argument against the SEC's on-field superiority for most of the last decade.
For eight years now, the Big Ten has been on trial with hardly anyone willing to come to its defense. But no matter how bleak things look, everyone deserves a fair shake. So here's some positivity, despite the bleak picture the latest batch of selection committee rankings paint: It's not so terrible, and it can get better.
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There are numerous overall problems that have damaged the Big Ten, and they've been covered in depth just about everywhere in the college football media. There's the geographic advantage of teams in Florida, the Deep South, Texas and California, who have direct access to a deep pool of recruits. As part of that, there's the Big Ten's ongoing quarterback problem, which we explored last February. There's also the problem of a lack of competitive spending on coaches, something that (Kirk Ferentz aside) has seen schools in the South devote more resources to entire coaching staffs, which is one of the reasons Bret Bielema, coach of Big Ten champion Wisconsin, left for Arkansas, a second-tier team in the hardest division in college football, where he's yet to win a conference game.
This year, two other things in particular are killing the Big Ten in the playoff race and further burying the league. These two things can change:
1. Scheduling. How does a conference best welcome Maryland and Rutgers? Make them play all the tough teams in cross-division play. Aside from Michigan State-Oregon, the Big Ten has had a tough time attracting any sort of national hype for a big game, partly because it produced one of the most boring October schedules imaginable. The only national attention has been devoted to the disaster at Michigan, instead of Michigan State's continued success or the Heisman campaigns of Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon. Three of Ohio State's last four games have been against Maryland, Rutgers and Illinois. Since beating Nebraska in a somewhat high-profile game, Michigan State has played Purdue, Indiana and downtrodden rival Michigan. Nebraska has played Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue its last three games. Wisconsin hasn't played in a game anyone outside of the Big Ten has cared about since the season-opening loss to LSU in August. None of the marquee names play each other in the East-West games, except Michigan State-Nebraska, and all of the West's key games (between Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa) were saved for the last two weeks of the regular season.
With new divisions, entering the season the only cross-division game of consequence appeared to be Michigan State-Nebraska. That has held true. Wisconsin plays both of the newcomers. Nebraska played Rutgers too. Ohio State got Illinois and Minnesota. The Big Ten's depth was already a problem; it added mediocre Maryland and Rutgers teams and it prevented its best teams from playing each other in year one, something that's not a problem in the deeper-than-expected Big 12 or the SEC West.
2. Michigan and Penn State. We knew Penn State would go through some rough times, but that doesn't mean its mediocrity isn't felt. Anyone who suffered through the ugly, plodding nature of last Saturday's Maryland-Penn State game is well aware, and the same goes for Ohio State's double-overtime win at Penn State, which was seen as a negative instead of getting treated as a decent road win against a good defense. What really kills the Big Ten, though, is that Michigan is seen as an embarrassment, not a challenge.
When the Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland, it was an obvious grab for television markets. When the Big Ten added Nebraska, it was a highly praised addition of one of college football's most prestigious programs, with a proud tradition and a passionate fan base despite its geographic isolation. Adding Nebraska gave the Big Ten four traditional powers, joining Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, along with a handful of respectable programs capable of making leaps into the national conversation (Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa) under the right coaching staff. All told, it's a fine roster of schools, with more prestigious names than any conference outside of the SEC.
This year has seen a perfect storm of problems, however. Rutgers and Maryland, as they stand, diluted the conference's talent pool, adding two more middling top-50 type teams, right alongside a drop of Penn State and Michigan to the same level. The Big Ten has never been bigger, and it has never featured so many throw-away games.
Obviously, that's not going to change this year. But it's not terribly hard to envision a better future. Ohio State is in great position under Urban Meyer, while Michigan State is stable under Mark Dantonio. Wisconsin's ability to recruit and develop offensive linemen and running backs doesn't appear to be changing under Gary Andersen, allowing it to be a legitimate annual top-25 team. Nebraska has been stuck in a rut under Bo Pelini, but it's showed signs of life this year and, despite its problems, has hung around the top 25 and never fallen to pushover status.
Penn State is in the worst year of the rolled-back NCAA sanctions, and could be a little depth and a few offensive linemen away from becoming dangerous under James Franklin, who has repeatedly proven himself on the recruiting trail. Michigan, well ... it can't get any worse? Dave Brandon is gone, and a new AD will come on board, and Michigan will find a replacement for Brady Hoke, one that very well could prove to be a hit. It's still an attractive job. Michigan won the Sugar Bowl three years ago; in the right hands, a turnaround doesn't have to take forever.
It is not so difficult to imagine the Big Ten East Division, featuring Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, becoming a competitive division filled with top-25 teams at the top, sooner rather than later. Both divisions are going to have a tough road trying to match the depth of the SEC West or the Pac-12 as a whole, but more success at the top with big-name programs (at the same time, for once) would solve a lot of perception problems -- especially if they actually won some key nonconference games.
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No. 14 Ohio State travels to No. 8 Michigan State on Saturday night for a prime-time ABC game. College GameDay will be in town, the show's first appearance on a Big Ten campus this season, over the likes of fellow ranked vs. ranked games that include LSU-Alabama, Kansas State-TCU, Baylor-Oklahoma, Notre Dame-Arizona State and Oregon-Utah. It is one of the biggest games of the college football season, and certainly the biggest game on a Big Ten campus. It is a rematch of last year's Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, in which Michigan State surprisingly beat Ohio State and knocked the Buckeyes from a potential BCS National Championship appearance. It features an Ohio State team that has not lost a Big Ten regular season game under Meyer, and a Michigan State team that won last year's Rose Bowl and would have been in the thick of a playoff debate, had the playoff existed.
For as big as Saturday's game is, though, it cannot do anything to alter America's perception of the Big Ten. No Big Ten vs. Big Ten game can do that, which is why the Week 2 nonconference disaster -- Oregon over Michigan State, Notre Dame over Michigan, Virginia Tech over Ohio State -- loomed so large, with three games happening at the same time resulting in one of the worst single days in any conference's history.
What the Big Ten most needs is a Michigan State victory, and then some help. It could use an Oregon loss to Utah. It could use an Oklahoma win over Baylor, and a Kansas State win over TCU, and then a Kansas State loss to either West Virginia or Baylor. In other words, it needs a Power Five conference with a two-loss champion, which would likely propel Michigan State to a playoff bid, thanks to a resume that would include wins over Ohio State, Nebraska and the Big Ten West champion (possibly Nebraska again), plus a forgivable loss at Oregon. There is a genuine national respect for this Michigan State team under Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but there is not a genuine respect for the resume built against a Big Ten schedule that features the additions of Rutgers and Maryland, plus unimpressive Michigan and Penn State teams. Repeatedly beating middle-of-the-road Big Ten teams in slow-paced, boring games doesn't help anyone.
Still, the Big Ten's demise has always been slightly overstated in comparison to the other non-SEC conferences. The SEC and the Big Ten naturally get compared because 1.) They have the most money and the biggest fan bases; 2.) The meteoric rise of the SEC and the fall of the Big Ten coincided with blowout wins by the SEC over Ohio State in back-to-back BCS National Championship Games; and 3.) The SEC and Big Ten have played three prominent Florida bowl games against each other in the coveted New Year's Day afternoon time slot, maximizing exposure of the disparity.
But while the SEC has been the undisputed king over the last decade, the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC have all faced their share of problems at the top (Florida State and Miami have had stretches of mediocrity, Texas is down now, etc.) and at times with their depth. Florida State has credibility for winning big games, but its division features Wake Forest, Syracuse, N.C. State and Boston College. The ACC isn't any better than the Big Ten ... it just has a national champion. Everyone in the Big 12 still has to play Kansas and Iowa State every year. The Pac-12 South may be deep, but the North isn't. Neither is the SEC East.
In a sport in which everything gets painted in black and white, conferences are rarely as dominant or terrible as we'd like to think. Even the SEC is only half of a great conference this season, as Indiana's win over SEC East leader Missouri should remind you. Conference strength fluctuates, and from year to year there is little difference in the middle of the pack among the Power Five conferences. To get respect, a conference has to either field several marquee teams at the top (SEC), or prove that almost nobody is a tough out on a week-to-week basis (Pac-12). Right now, the Big Ten has been stuck with neither. That's where the improvement of two traditional powers, Penn State and Michigan, could go a long way toward bringing some of the lost credibility back. That's not something out of reach, either, no matter how bad things look today.
For now, what the Big Ten needs is a little bit of luck in the form of help from a few upsets elsewhere, and it needs Michigan State to solidify itself down the stretch and creep up four more spots -- something that remains feasible with five weeks left in the season. It needs to get a seat at the table, and then it needs to avoid embarrassing itself. Then it just needs a little patience. It's not going to change the world, but respect isn't out of reach.