Being a fan of the Big Ten these days is like being Ricky Schroder in The Champ.
The end of major conference realignment and the NFL draft: two more areas where the Big Ten took apparent black eyes last month. The ACC teams signed a Grant of Rights that effectively dashed the Big Ten’s hopes of moving farther south, and the Big Ten was nearly shut out of the first round of the draft, further symbolizing the conference’s talent drain. Ouch and ouch.
The question remains for league fan: how can the Big Ten recover its football reputation?
Last season, I chronicled how to heal the Big Ten, citing a need for higher coaches salaries and improved national scheduling as two main foci. Other “big picture” factors certainly exist—like the SEC’s oversigning policies and their lower academic standards—but let’s talk nuts and bolts now. What specifically needs to happen for the Big Ten to take a step in the winning direction this season?
1. Ohio State and Michigan need to win. As much as it pains me as a Penn State fan to say it, the conference’s marquee teams need to get back near the top. Michigan—perhaps the Big Ten’s best national recruiter—lost a ton of talent to the top SEC teams during the disastrous RichRod years. Brady Hoke has them back on top in recruiting; it’s time for them to be a perennial top-10 team again. Ohio State seemingly has righted the ship after a miniscule one-year slump (2011); while they don’t need to hold their current No. 1 ranking all season long, they need to play like a legitimate top-5 team this season.
The only thing left after displaying their excellence in the regular season for OSU and UM? Win some elite bowl games—which is just part of what spiraled the league downwards in the first place. Two straight national title games annihilations, Buckeyes? Three bowl wins in a decade, Wolverines? Really?
2. The second tier needs to raise the bar. If the Big Ten had a heyday in the last decade, it was probably around 2002-2005. Purdue had Tiller, Minnesota had Mason, Iowa had Ferentz, and Wisconsin had Alvarez. All four of those teams had great reputations nationally as quality programs, even though none were necessarily BCS title contenders. The top teams of the Big Ten could wax (OSU ’02, UM ’04, and PSU ’05) and wane (PSU ’03 and ’04; OSU ’04, and UM ’05), but the real reputation of the league relied on the strength of the middle.
Last season’s big stomach punch for the Big Ten’s middle-of-the-pack was the collapse of Wisconsin and Michigan State. Both were top-15 teams pre-season; both crawled just above .500 by season’s end. Looking forward for this group of teams, D’Antonio and Fitzgerald seem here to stay, which bodes well for the Spartans and Northwestern Wildcats; UNL’s Pelini and Iowa’s Ferentz already have successes behind them, if only they can take more steps forward; but the rest of the league is punctuated by question marks. Which program will be the Big Ten’s version of Stanford or Oklahoma State or Georgia—second tier teams that annually increase the respectability of the whole league?
3. Bill O’Brien needs to keep working magic. Penn State is likely to be an afterthought each season when it comes to discussion of nationally relevant teams. The NCAA’s strong-arm tactics made that a reality with last July’s unprecedented sanctions. However, O’Brien’s coaching abilities last season coupled with a resilient group of underrated seniors made everyone take notice of what kind of success still might be possible for the Nittany Lions. A few favorable calls or lucky bounces, and an undefeated season in 2012 wasn’t out of the question.
What O’Brien and Penn State can offer the Big Ten over the next few years probably won’t be a sanctions-riddled juggernaut like USC ’11 or OSU ’12, but it may be a tantalizing taste of NFL-style football and a rare overachieving team among a league of recent slackers. Elite talent is still coming to PSU (current recruiting rankings have PSU as third behind UM and OSU, which is historically their fated position as well), even if it is coming in smaller numbers than to the rest of the Big Ten. It’ll be hard for PSU to be a league front-runner (like it was as recently as ’08 and ’09), but if they can push the league’s best teams and dominate the middle ones—despite the crippling sanctions—that will be far better for the Big Ten in the long run than a hollow shell of the old Beast of the East.
At some point, the Big Ten has to start trending upward again—the league is too rich financially and its fans too passionate for it not to. If this is the year, it doesn’t have to be “national championship or bust” to change the momentum. The three steps prescribed above are all it will take.