The Big Ten Isn't As Far "Down" As You Might Think
By Joe Jenkins
We’ve been hearing the same routine for years.
This year’s bowl season was playing out exactly the way the Big Ten haters wanted with the conference winning just one out of their first five bowl games heading into the Rose Bowl, including losses for conference cornerstones Wisconsin and Michigan.
When Michigan State allowed Stanford to jump out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead, it seemed to confirm what everyone already suspected: The Big Ten just can’t compete anymore.
There’s no doubt that Big Ten football has fallen off a bit, and they’re about to get worse when they tie two cinder blocks to the bottom of the conference named Maryland and Rutgers.
But the Big Ten hasn’t “gotten bad” the way everybody seems to think. The conference is top heavy. Just like it always has been.
Don’t let nostalgia get in the way of the hard numbers. Since the Associated Press started keeping polls in 1936, the Big Ten has had two or fewer teams ranked at the end of the season 25 times, or 33 percent of the time.
As for bowl games, our fond memories might be painting a rosier picture than the reality here as well. Michigan State’s upset win over Stanford improved the Big Ten’s record in Rose Bowls to 31-37 all-time. Good for a .455 winning percentage.
Legendary coaches? Bo Schembechler was 2-8 in his career at the Rose Bowl and 5-12 in bowl games overall. Woody Hayes was dominant by Big Ten standards with a 4-4 record in Pasadena, but still only 5-6 overall in bowl games.
It isn’t that the Big Ten has gotten worse, it’s that other conferences have become more dominant while the so-called traditional power in college football has remained largely stagnant.
Maybe Billy Joel was right. The good old days weren’t always good, but he was also right when he said that tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems. Especially not for the Big Ten.
Pundits want to call the Big Ten down because they’re busy waiting for Brady Hoke to break Michigan out of the funk it has been in more or less since the end of the Lloyd Carr era.
But while we all sit focused on Ann Arbor, Mark D’Antonio has been building an empire in East Lansing. Sparty has averaged 10.5 wins per season since 2010 and are 3-1 in bowl games with wins over Stanford, TCU and Georgia. If the defense can continue to be a Top 5 unit the way they have been the last three years, the offense shouldn’t be far behind it next year. Jeremy Langford, a 1,400-yard rusher, should be back for his senior year and quarterback Connor Cook, who threw for more than 300 yards against Stamford on New Year’s Day, will only be a junior in 2014.
We all know Urban Meyer has BCS championships on his resume from his time at Florida, and that he’s only lost one game — to Michigan State — in his two years at Ohio State. Meyer has also had Ohio State consistently ranked as one of the top recruiting classes every year. While the argument can be made that recruiting success doesn’t always translate to success on the field, Meyer's. .824 winning percentage and 7-1 record in bowl games suggests he is able to maximize his players’ talents.
So what does the Big Ten need to get back to its supposed glory years?
An Ohio State victory over Clemson on Friday night would be a great first step.
Beyond that, the conference isn't too far away from what it has been for the last 80 years. We just let pretty words like "tradition" and "heritage" distort our view of reality.