College football: What's wrong with the Big Ten?
September 20, 2012Eastern Indiana Sports
Every Tuesday during football season, the Big Ten office conducts a media teleconference with the league's head coaches. This week's edition had a bit of a morose overtone.
Coach after coach was asked: "Why does the league appear to be so bad?"
"I know (the perception) is out there," said coach Urban Meyer of No. 16 Ohio State, the highest ranked team in the league. "I hear it in this conversation. I heard it when I turned on ESPN or any other channel.
"There's one answer and that's to go win those non-conference games. It's not because of a lack of players or a lack of coaching. They just have to find a way to close the deal."
The Buckeyes are 3-0, although their 35-28 victory over California on Saturday was closer than expected and Meyer was critical of his team's defensive play. Ohio State isn't eligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions.
Overall, the Big Ten is 26-10 in non-conference play and only three of those victories have come against Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) teams with a winning record: Central Florida, Northern Illinois and Utah State. Don't expect to see any of those programs in a traditional New Year's Day bowl anytime soon.
The Big Ten does not have a team ranked in the top 15 for the first time since Sept. 23, 2001 and has never finished a season with a team outside the top 15 since the AP began the rankings in 1936. (Only 10 teams were ranked between 1962-67 but the Big Ten always had a team in the poll at the end of those seasons.) Michigan State, which many observers considered the league's top team, was dominated in a 20-3 loss at home to Notre Dame.
"The once-proud league was fresh out of national title contenders after Michigan State failed to score a touchdown at home against Notre Dame -- oh, and Indiana lost to Ball state (again), and Ohio State was lucky to beat California and Wisconsin was lucky to beat Utah State," yahoosports.com's Pat Forde wrote in his popular Forde-Yard dash column.
Northwestern and Minnesota -- which aren't exactly known as the league's elite -- are the only undefeated teams besides Ohio State. The league is just 4-8 against Notre Dame and schools from the other five Bowl Championships Series conferences. Northwestern has provided three of those wins by beating Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College.
"I would say that fans have a right to be disappointed,'' said former Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network. "No one is performing especially well. I would be disappointed if the fans weren't disappointed."
But DiNardo adds that it shouldn't come as a surprise, especially for someone that has followed the recruiting rankings for the last five years.
He went back and looked at how Big Ten teams fared during that period according to scout.com, a major recruiting service. He threw out the rankings for Penn State. The Nittany Lions have two losses this season, but lost several players who were allowed to transfer immediately this summer in the aftermath of the sex-abuse scandal.
In the eight other losses by conference teams, six came to opponents that finished ahead of them in the recruiting rankings during that stretch. Iowa State's victory over Iowa and Ball State's win over Indiana were the exceptions.
"I think things will continue as they are until recruiting in the Big Ten changes," DiNardo said.
The marquee meltdowns are numerous. Michigan was soundly beaten on a neutral field by Alabama. Wisconsin lost at Oregon State after beating Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) member Northern Iowa by just five points at home. Nebraska lost at UCLA, a mid-level Pac-12 team in recent years.
"People are going to make comments based on their own opinions," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "Obviously, if we want to change that, we have to do something about it."
The man that has led the league for more than two decades isn't trying to defend it.
"I think the narrative is fair because it's based on facts," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told USA Today. "I wish it weren't the case, but I don't criticize the critics, because the facts are the facts
"If there was a way to spin it, I would try to spin it."
Most coaches cautioned it's too early to make any judgments.
"My reaction to any of these things is we all want to know how they will happen before they happen," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose team rallied to beat Northern Illinois 18-17 and lost to instate rival Iowa State 9-6. "Let the season play out."
But the chances to impress against high-level competition from outside the league are just about up. No. 18 Michigan plays at No. 11 Notre Dame this Saturday night. Conference play begins the following week. The only non-conference game after that is when Indiana plays Navy on Oct. 20.
DiNardo is optimistic things can turn around in the future. He doesn't agree with the notion the Big Ten struggles in recruiting because its campuses are in cold-weather areas.
"Look at basketball recruiting," he said. "Nothing slows those guys down. We have great recruiting coaches in basketball in the Big Ten."
But for now, the present is an uncomfortable one for the league, which has gone 1-8 in its last nine Rose Bowl appearances.
"I'm also realistic in the sense that when you don't perform and you're on the big stage, you're going to be criticized," Delany told USA Today. "Everybody's got their big boy pants on."
Now the Big Ten just needs some players who can fill them.
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