The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE
So here at Off Tackle Empire, the site that brings you a healthy does of Sherman, 3 yards and a cloud of dust, and all of your College Football goodness, have been taking it a bit easy on the football editorializing. Between catching up with our significant others and covering that sport with the round ball, things have been a bit crazy. Still, that didn't stop Ted and I from starting an E-mail conversation last week to discuss the year that was, the year that will be, and where exactly the Big Ten stands these days. Considering both Ted and me have written 5,000 word piece on our own, this is surprisingly short at 4600, but who was counting anyways? For the TL;DR crowd, you can scroll to the bottom and pretend you know everything we discussed and start commenting about how we state the obvious. For everyone else, here is some pure, unaltered (kinda), E-mail discussion on the B1G 2012.
Alright Ted, let's start with your initial thoughts on this whole year. For me, I can't help but feel like the bashing of the conference was fair and unfair all in the same and that things are still trending up. If I had to sum it up in a sentence, it would be: Climbing the summit without a guide. We are definitely on our way up, but it definitely feels like we're going about it all wrong. I mean, I really do love the Big Ten and I feel like the pieces are in place to make a run at the National Title, or at least make a run at some respectability. Nebraska played with Georgia, Michigan played with South Carolina, Purdue... well, let's not talk about that. That was just silly. No, the talent disparity is not as wide as I think the perception would argue. Heck, look at what Louisville did to Florida. Conference supremacy is waning, but there is still a gap. But that's just some early thoughts without even digging in deeper. Imma hang up and lissen now.
I don't know--I'm almost to the point of believing that there are two B1G conferences--the sports on the field, and the ever expanding B1G Network. We're getting smoked in one, and lapping the field in the other. But you talked football first, so let's come back to the business side of it in a bit.
Is the talent gap narrowing? You seem to think it is, but to me, the bottom line is the B1G still loses on the national stage with embarrassing regularity. And at the end of the day, wins are all that matters. Yes, OSU and Penn State were ineligible, and that moved the B1G up a couple slots in each bowl. I'm not sure that would have mattered had they played, though. Let's say OSU went to the BCS championship (debatable, but I think it would've been them and Notre Dame). That moves Alabama down, too, and the matchups are probably just as tough. Does anyone think any B1G team could beat Alabama? OSU would probably lose by three touchdowns, and that's the best we have to offer. But I will say it's getting better, we just have to be patient.
Because in the end, it's about coaching and recruiting, and the conference had a lack of both from top to bottom for awhile. Right now, the only schools that are doing both very well are Michigan and OSU, but the caliber of coaching in the conference has gone up tremendously in three years. Wilson, Hope and Brewster for Mallory, Hazell and Kill are like night and day, and as teams like Minnesota and Indiana improve, the talent level will go up. Good teams draw talent, which make teams good, which draw in more talent. But I still think the level of coaching isn't where it should be, nor is the recruiting. So in some ways, the conference is still down, yet the BTN has been more successful than anyone could imagine. Which kind of leads me to the second half of this year in review.
And that's been one hell of a way to build a successful business model. College sports have nakedly embraced big business, and college football is starting to rival the NFL in popularity. It's going to be a big money grab for the next 5 or 6 years, until all this conference realignment settles down, the other conference networks launch, and the next round of TV contracts get negotiated. The fact that the BTN has been so profitable while the conference on the field has been down is hard to believe.
On the business side of things, the B1G is kicking the hell out of everyone for the time being. The B1G Network has changed college athletics in a way nobody saw 10 years ago, and we're still figuring out where this will all end. I think the B1G is unique here, because every school has such a strong brand in either football or basketball, and we're just as good a basketball conference, so there is year round programming. And we also have regional sports that are popular in our part of the country, like hockey and wrestling. When you add in massive alumni bases, you have a built in audience that will only help the BTN continue to grow. I'm don't think you can say that with any other conference network.
In one way, it's very exciting to see a conference turn the tables on TV networks by having their own network as a bargaining chip, but in other ways it's really destroying a lot of old rivalries, and our old geographically friendly conferences are almost extinct. Does anyone else find it ironic that the one conference that was more tied to history and tradition more than any other conference is leading the way in destroying a lot of those traditions? But I give credit to Jim Delany here--he saw the demographic problems the Midwest was facing, realized it wasn't going to go away and only get worse, and made bold moves to keep the B1G the premier sports conference in America. And I doubt he's finished.
And as dominating on the field as the SEC is right now, I'll be very interested to see how the SEC Network does. They'll get great football ratings, but I'm not sure how they'll do as a year round sports network. Outside of Kentucky basketball, their hoops brand isn't all that great, and their regional sports are almost non-existent. No one really panics if Jim Slive talks about expansion, but Jim Delany sets the pace, and it will largely be on the whims of Jim Delany as to how soon we end up with super conferences, and who ends up where.
So where do we sit in terms of conference strength? Off the field, we're setting the pace, and as the only conference with the alumni base and population that can support a TV network, we're going to stay the richest. On the field, we're still lagging behind the SEC and Big XII, but I think the improvement in coaching will lead to an improvement in recruiting, and we're getting there.
But seriously, could somebody other than Ohio State and Michigan join us in the ascension? There really needs to be four or five really strong teams, but who are they going to be?
I'm still the new guy, at least until next year when Graham follows Delany's orders and goes and raids the ACC and Big East for some more writers. Anyway, as the new guy I have not experienced the Big 2 Little 8 that so many fans here have spoken about. Still, I can imagine that even mentioning that idea, you've just enraged a lot of people. I get it, though. As I look at the recruiting races, moves to build the biggest baddest facilities, and competitions to bring in the highest paid coaches, I see Ohio State moving up, Michigan doing what it can to keep up and then a lot of schools left in the dust. But, to believe that those are the only schools doing anything overlooks some of the very good things going on conference wide.
You brought up the whole spending and business angle earlier. The BTN money is still relatively new and a lot of schools that were not previously football schools now can spend like the Kings used to spend. Speaking of which. do you know why Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, and Penn State are considered Kings? Because they spent like it in the past and treated everyone else like peasants. While it has yet to translate, the BTN money is going to make this conference strong all the way through. The SEC realized a long time ago that the way to win was to spend what it took to win. Facilities, trainers, coaches, players *coughCAMNEWTONcough* were all part of the game. If you wanted a recruit, you went out and did what it took to convince him. Weekend events with no expenses spared? Absolutely. They did what it took and it paid off. Urban knows how that works and he's going to do the same thing.
Here's a secret, though. The rest of the conference is not nearly as far back as it seems, and as younger and more aggressive coaches enter the fray, you're going to see some things change. Pelini may not be the favorite son in Nebraska right now, but he continues to put the press on kids that have committed elsewhere. Don't think he doesn't understand that recruiting who you want is all that matters. A verbal commit is a fleeting promise by a 17 year old just trying to figure this whole thing out. If he gets his coaching put together, watch out, because he has quite a few studs in the wings. The same could be said of Dantonio, BOB, and to a lesser extent, Fitzgerald, Ferentz, and Kill. These coaches have more money each year to play with because of the genius of the Big Ten Network and that should turn into something special. Believe you me, watching those January 1 games against the SEC made me more of a believer that the Big Ten isn't far off in talent than ever before. Sure, Georgia and South Carolina won, but that giant talent disparity we have heard about for years was closing. SEC SPEED was neutralized by B1G SPEED.
But that's not really what you were asking. Your question was what four or five teams are going to be at the top going forward. We have established that Michigan and Ohio State are up top. I would say that Nebraska will be up there and despite what many are saying, ten wins is ten wins. Let's add a mix of Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Michigan State as well. I think those six teams can line up and play with most anyone for the most part. Minnesota is close to that range as well. However, I am probably just overrating based on personal affinities and such. Regardless, your question was about ascension and I think these teams are still trending up as a whole -- even Wisconsin with a new coach -- and there is no reason they all continue to at least cause problems on the football lanscape. This ignores teams like Purdue and Iowa who are probably better than we think as well. The problem, though, is that there seems to be a glass ceiling they just can't bust through.
[Ed Note: I forgot Penn State, and that's not purposeful. I was focusing on teams that were going to do something now. Since Penn State was on probation, I kind of forgot them. For what it's worth, I think they can recruit with the best of them and will end up being fine when it's all said and done.]
So that's what I pose to you. How the heck does the Big Ten break through? Is it like I said? Better money = better coaches = better facilities? Can the Big Ten reach new heights or are we stuck where we are -- a great money and research group but a mediocre product?
It strikes me as funny when we ask questions like, "is the B1G going to suck forever and ever?", because it really wasn't all that long ago that the B1G was on top of the college football world, and it will be again. We seem to get so impatient as a society about everything anymore, that when something doesn't happen when we think it should, then we also fall into this line of thinking that it will never get better.
It's also funny that the B1G can be so cutting edge and slow on the uptake, all at the same time. Cutting edge, because of the BTN and everything that entails--really, Delany was so far ahead of everyone else on that, the rest of the conferences will be playing catch up for years. But slow to respond on the stuff that matters to a lot of us without the 'big picture' glasses--how to keep up with the Joneses on the field.
For years, B1G schools were pretty happy to just assume that being a B1G school was good enough, but when the SEC started getting aggressive with salaries and facilities, we didn't really take notice. And that was fine until the end of the 2006 season, when the #1 and #2 teams in the country, OSU and Michigan, got shredded in their bowl games. That really took the bloom off the rose, and we've been struggling to catch up ever since.
And to answer your question, yeah, more money for good coaches and staffs and better facilities. It's not really any more complicated than that. Nick Saban is a prime example. He was at Michigan State, wanted more money and for the University to spend money to upgrade facilities. They said no and went to a place that said they would, and he's now considered one of the best coaches of all time. Would that have happened if he had stayed at MSU? Folks that hate the SEC and scream 'oversigning' would be quick to tell you that no, there's no way he would've done that with a strict scholarship limit, but Saban attracts and can evaluate the top talent in the country. MSU would be a powerhouse right now, make no mistake.
And the B1G is finally starting to catch up to the SEC in terms of coaches, their salaries, and facilities. And to be a good coach in college football, you have to do two things very well--know your X's and O's, obviously, and recruit. A good coach can get wins with mediocre talent, and then attract better talent, which begets more wins, which begets better talent, and so on. LSU was a mediocre football program until Saban and then Les Miles came on scene--they had finished ranked in the top 25 only 4 times between 1988 and the year they won the BCS title in 2003. How did they get there? They got a great coach--Saban, and followed it up with Les Miles. They pay their coaches and staffs well, and they attract top talent.
While the SEC was hiring great coaches--Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen, Steve Spurrier came back, Saban then Les Miles, Will Muschamp, Bobby Petrino, the Big Ten was hiring guys like John L. Smith, Ron Zook, Tim Brewster, Danny Hope, and the ultimate square peg in a round hole in Rich Rodriguez at Michigan.
I know I talked about it earlier, but I think the conference has done a great job of getting rid of the buffoons that were in this conference, and every school that's made a coaching change in the last two years got a really solid replacement, except maybe Illinois. Guys like Mark Dantonio, Meyer, Hoke, Darrell Hazell, Kevin Wilson, Gary Andersen, and Jerry Kill are all solid X and O guys. Meyer and Hoke are pulling in great recruiting classes, and Bo Pelini is doing very well himself. The other guys have a ways to go to start attracting talent, but they're starting to get there. For example, Minnesota is finally getting most of the top kids in Minnesota to stay home--that wasn't happening three years ago. Get guys like Jonah Pirsig and Philip Nelson to stay home, get to 6 wins, then get to 8, then start attracting bigger 3 and 4 star guys from places like Illinois and Ohio. Michigan State fans take justifiable pride when they say 'we take 2 and 3 stars and coach them into 4 and 5 stars.' 6 years ago, they only quality guys they could get were JUCO transfers, and they had no 4 star guys (all my rankings are from Scout). But back to back 11 win seasons, and guess what? 2012 shows them with 4 4 star guys and three guys not ranked nationally, and 2013 has the same amount of 4 stars, with all players ranked nationally.
And MSU has a couple of built in disadvantages--they have an uphill battle with OSU and Michigan for guys, and their recruiting footprint isn't as big as some of the other major programs. Which kind of leads me back to what a big deal this conference expansion is. The potential to open up new recruiting grounds in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic states will help drive recruiting to a higher level, which might close the gap with the SEC faster.
"Well, that just seems silly, Ted." Why? When Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big Ten, a lot of Nebraska fans were worried that recruiting would tank now that they wouldn't be playing Texas and have that presence there anymore. But Pelini is doing a good job of going into Big Ten country...and Caifornia, and getting good recruits. He's got the #12 class right now, and has some great prospects. And only one guy is from Texas. Three years ago, they had 8 guys from Texas. New areas can lead to an untapped potential that we're not even aware of yet. And the money from expansion is going to bring us closer to even in the ever evolving Arms Race in terms of facilities upgrades.
And in some ways, I think Urban Meyer coming in to this conference might be one of the best things that could happen. And I'm not just saying that because he's Ohio State's coach. I want the B1G to have 12 Urban Meyers in terms of recruiting and being able to coach. He's making guys recruit their ass off, all the time, and that's what it's going to take to become great. That 'Gentlemen's Agreement' that Bret Bielema talked about wasn't doing anyone any favors, and it made guys like Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr lazy in their last couple years. Now it's a legal cut throat business, which is what it should be, and it's going to make guys not only go afer talent, but work their ass off to keep talent at home.
So that's my theory, anyway. And you seem to think the B1G is close to being 'back'. I still think we're a few years off, but maybe I'm the one who's off. When do you see the B1G being 'back' and not just competing with, but beating the Big XII and SEC at a better than 50% clip?
Well, I might be a little too close to the Kool-Aid (it is, after all, a Nebraska thing), but I think it's sooner than that. The SEC is good. The Big XII is good. Heck, the AC... well, they're not so good, but we'll get back to them in a moment. We've both hit on some important parts of the equation, but the one that usually matters is money. Money in a program, even without cheating, makes the world go 'round. Look at Oregon. Who are they without Phil Knight? Look at the entire SEC. Look at Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Nebraska. These schools have been successful at times due in part to the influx of money each school was willing to spend. Sure, there are opportunities for schools to make a splash without the huge budgets and best facilities i.e. Iowa in 2007, but that is not a sustainable model.
So why do I think we are maybe only a couple years off? Look at the head-to-head on where we stand right now. If Ohio State were to face off against Alabama, Notre Dame, Oregon, Texas A&M, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, etc., I would argue that they could hang with these teams. Do I think Ohio State beats Alabama? It's hard to say, but I will point out that Urban is a better coach than Brian Kelly. Add in the talent and a 'year 2' comfort, and I think the top of the conference starts to look like it could compete. Of course, that is just conjecture. Go down that list, I think Michigan and Nebraska played well on New Years Day, and while Richt and Spurrier got the best of Bo and Hoke, the fact still remains that the B1G's best went toe to toe with the SEC's best. Additionally, Northwestern played tough and won against comparable SEC teams, MSU proved it can play with good teams by beating Boise despite being a semi-mediocre shell of itself as well (Sparty had a down year and still went bowling for a win which is a good thing for them). Minnesota was close to winning a bowl after we lambasted them last year for their awfulness (seriously, you all need to look at past power polls... we went to some dark places in 2011 when describing the Gophers).
All that to say, we're close. The bottom and bottom-middle needs some work and everyone at the top or near-top of the conference needs to suck it up and win a big game. These are on the road games and it will usually mean playing up, but that will be what it takes. I believe it will start next season. Of course, I also think it helps that there are going to be a lot of home games to beef up on in the early going as well, so we got that going for us. But I digress... I think the Big Ten will have a .500 or better against BCS conference schools next season. I also think we will win more than two bowl games. Baby steps? Sure, but I believe this conference is in an upswing forward instead of backwards. But again, I'm probably pumping sunshine more than anyone not named Chad or Salt Creek and Stadium, so what do I know?
I'm not sure exactly where I'm even going with this at this point, but I have always enjoyed the E-mail format in that it allows for a little more stream of consciousness than other formats. So here's my next thoughts for you to digest -- what exactly needs to happen for next year to be a success? I've said that I think we win more than two bowls and are .500 or better against BCS Conference foes, but is that good enough? What gets the media, and even our own fans and psyches, off the conference's back?
This perception of the conference started largely with four games: Ohio State v. Florida in the National Championship, Michigan v. USC in the Rose Bowl that same year, App State v. Michigan to kick off 2007, and OSU v. LSU in the 2007 National Championship. I would argue that even two games set this conference on the slide we haven't really recovered from, the Florida debacle and the Michigan--USC Rose Bowl. Prior to those two games, Ohio State and Michigan were #1 and #2 in the country, played an epic 'game of the century', and there was a lot of sympathy to see an OSU-UM rematch in the BCS National Championship.
Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez at the end of 2007, and OSU was on the verge of getting the monkey off their back by winning a Rose Bowl and then beating Arkansas in the Sug[REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED]wl. All that momentum stalled with Tressel's firing and the 6-7 2011 season, though. I have a feeling they'll be back next year, though. But God help Urban Meyer if he loses a BCS game.
The historically strong programs of this conference are Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, and Penn State, and each program has had an embarrassing loss on the Big Stage (Nebraska against South Carolina last year, and Penn State got dismantled in the Rose Bowl a few years back). Wisconsin has been the standard bearer while OSU and Michigan were down, and they haven't been able to win a Rose Bowl. Until these flagship programs start winning big games, this conference is going to continue to take heat.
But that doesn't excuse the rest of the conference, though. Everybody needs to get better, and it seems like that's happening. Northwestern carried the flag for the B1G on New Year's Day, Michigan State is knocking on the door of being a permanent presence at the top of the standings, and Minnesota and Indiana got much better. All of those programs have good coaches, and the results speak for themselves. Purdue has a much better head coach, and Darrell Hazell is filling his staff with guys that used to be at Ohio State during the Tressel years. Penn State is going to have a tough road ahead, and Tim Beckman might be a complete debacle. I give every guy a pass in their first year, but Beckman had talent on that roster, and they were terrible. And at Iowa, I'm not sure if Kirk Ferentz hasn't been in Iowa City too long. The Hawks are a team and program I've really given a lot of respect to, because they've earned it, but they really took a step back last season, and didn't win any hearts and minds by retaining offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
It comes down to good coaching, good recruiting, and translating that into winning big games. The coaching seems to be there. Recruiting needs to pick up past OSU, Michigan, and Nebraska. And everyone needs to start winning big games, especially OSU and Michigan, especially against the SEC, and especially in the Rose Bowl.
So basically what you're saying is win. Check.
But we've known that for a while. And the thing is, you're absolutely right. You brought up that terrible stretch where Ohio State looked bad on a national stage and then Appy State v. Michigan and then the terribleness of the Rose Bowl streak of losses and then... Well, you get the point. These are easy to come up with. Sure, you can also try to juxtapose that against OSU-Michigan as #1 vs. #2, but that's one memory versus a lot of not great memories.
Anyhow, we're going to get hammered by the TL;DR crowd again because they always come out to tell us we've gone too far. So let's give them two paragraphs of goodness to wrap this beast up. I get one and you get one. In one paragraph, what is your overall hope for the conference knowing what you know from last season and thinking you know what you know about next season.
My hope is that the improved coaching leads to better teams, which leads to two BCS wins by whoever the two B1G teams are that go (and I think there will be two B1G teams in the BCS), and at least 6 bowl wins overall next year. And I also hope any B1G player that might get overhyped and pimped for a Heisman that they might not deserve has the sense to not have a fake dead girlfriend. Because fuck Notre Dame, that's why.
My hope is that the money that this conference is making turns into better facilities, better assistant coaches, and better recruits. I'm a little less expectant of bowl wins and will peg the conference at four overall with a Rose Bowl win. You know what else I hope? That James Delany completes his conquest, gets a billion dollar TV deal, and drops the mic. Because really that's where were trending anyways.
Is the B1G on its way back?
Yes (50 votes)
No (3 votes)
Ask me after bowl season next year (16 votes)
69 total votes