Welcome to OTE's State of the B1G 2012, where we will be examining the B1G conference from as many angles as the twisted minds of our crack staff of writers can muster up.
Today we take a look at the bottom 1/3 of the conference to examine the state of what we will refer to as the B1G's lesser class. For the purposes of this piece we will look at the state of the four teams that finished 2011 with the worst conference records: Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Northwestern. While Ohio State finished with the same conference record as NWestern, I don't think anyone would put them in the lesser class of the B1G, so we're leaving them out.
The Recent Past
If you were picking a veritable murderers row of the B1G's lesser class, you'd do pretty well by coming up with this group. Only Purdue might round out the discussion, but they found their way to a .500 conference record last season, so they are spared association with this group for now.
At the very bottom is Indiana, a team that managed zero conference win and just one win overall in 2011, beating South Carolina State. Indiana is a team that made a nice hire in Kevin Wilson before the 2011 season, but it certainly didn't translate to the field in his first year. Indiana was the laughing stock of the B1G, and for that Gopher and Illini fans across B1G country thank them.
Illinois, a team that started 2011 like a (insert euphemism for a team playing very well), ended the season like a (insert euphemism for a team playing very poorly). A 6-0 start followed by a 0-6 finish was the most Ron Zook/Tim Brewster thing that Ron Zook ever accomplished. This record got Zook fired, and his team into the Kraft Cripple Fight Bowl, where they beat another coachless team to claim the Crown of DERP.
Next up a Minnesota team that looked all " we gonna shock the world" after an opening weekend where they took USC to the brink only to follow it up by completely crapping the bed, at home, against New Mexico State. Things then got worse before they got better as the Gophers also lost to FCS North Dakota State in a game that could only be described as butthurt. They followed that gem up by losing to Michigan, Purdue & Nebraska by a combined score of 144-31. All was right with the world, however, when they beat Iowa (again), played tough against MSU, and finished the year handing Zooker his job.
Last is Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald coached team that has been feeling good about it's future for a number of years. They were bound to be #PersaStrong in 2011, leading Fitzgerald to say that one man's limp is another man's pimp walk. The pimp went limp after a 2-0 start when NWestern dropped 5 straight before getting healthy against Indiana, Nebraska (somehow), Rice(!!!), and Minnesota. They couldn't quite hang with MSU, and they finished a very Northwestern 6-6 before getting handled by Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
2011 Group Conference Record: 7-25
2011 Group Bowl Bids: 2
2011 Group Non-Con Record (incl. bowls): 10-8
In this bottom 1/3 of the B1G things are changing rapidly and everyone is gunning to get better. The coaches of the bottom 3 teams in the conference standings last season have a combined tenure at their schools of 2 years. By definition the lesser class is a class of rebuilding. They live off the of scraps left by the upper class and hope to use it to build themselves into middle-class citizens. It rarely works, but there's reason for optimism at the bottom.
Indiana has some work to do (/waits for laughter to subside) and it appears that the seat under Wilson is already getting hot. They really do have no place to go but up but the climb won't be easy as the B1G just continues to get tougher each year. Indiana does play the bulk of their tough conference games at home, as they will welcome MSU, OSU, Iowa & Wisconsin, but Memorial Stadium isn't necessarily the home field advantage you'd hope for. Chances are Indiana isn't climbing out of this group in 2012.
There is optimism at Illinois as the Zooker is out (and miss him we will). The optimism for the new guy, Tim Beckman, isn't quite there yet as Illinois' coaching search felt a lot like Minnesota's the previous year: big names mentioned, meh hired. But Beckman is a guy that knows the B1G pretty well as he coached at Ohio State and grew up watching the Hawkeyes when his dad coached there, and is a guy that knows the midwest and knows recruiting in the region. Illinois will have it's bumps as any program with a new coach does, and when we name this group following the 2012 season Illinois will probably still be in it.
Optimism is a drug that Tim Brewster peddled like snake-oil at Minnesota, but it's a drug that Jerry Kill doesn't believe in. Minnesotans tend to be people who mostly keep to themselves, who put up with the elements around them, and who work hard to build a foundation that lasts. Jerry Kill isn't a Minnesotan by birth, but he sure talks like one. The national folks say Kill didn't recruit well compared to the rest of the B1G, but Jerry did lock down the Minnesota borders landing 7 of the top 10 recruits in the state. Most importantly, the team improved in 2011 and was playing their best football by the end of the year. It's too early to say that Minnesota will climb out of this bottom group, but they have a good shot at being a part of the bottom group that goes to a bowl in 2012.
When you've got a Pat Fitzgerald you're going to feel like good things are going to happen, and Northwestern put together a decent little recruiting class last week. The Wildcats have some good things to build on as they continue to search for their first bowl win since 1949. Kain Colter should continue the tradition of NWestern QB's who put up video game-type numbers and account for a huge % of the offensive production, but that is a formula that has worked for the 'Cats before. Where Northwestern stands in the B1G conference, and where they'll be moving forward, probably has far more to do with others in the conference than it does with Northwestern, as the middle class of the B1G is just a bit tougher to crack than most conferences. 2012 is a year where Northwestern needs to find consistency week in and week out on the field, and if they can do that, they'll break the mold and move into the B1G middle class.
Look, nobody wants to be considered part of the lesser class, the "very poor" as Mitt Romney would say, or the cellar of their conference. But this is a group of programs that seem to be doing the right things in order to build a winner. In all likelihood none of these teams is going to move their way into the upper class of the conference anytime soon. But if the goal is to improve your lot in life, to get to that middle class, through hiring the right coach not just a splashy coach, through hard work, and through solid recruiting, this group of team's is going about it the right way.