This morning at the OTE lair Slack channel, we had the painful experience of trying to explain to our two Rutgers colleagues that no, Rutgers was not about to shift the paradigm and power structure of the Big Ten just because their athletic department was pulling its collective thumb out of its ass (hereafter referred to as a Piscataway Plug) and hired a "good football coach" who has never, in fact, been in charge of an entire football program.
But whatever. There's enough time for Rutgers hate during their own week; that's not why we're here.
What this conversation did do was open a mighty big vein for fans of various programs who thought that their school would be the one to actually shift the ol' power structure within the Big Ten Conference. You know, that school with their "best recruiting class ever," or "coming off one of their best seasons in memory," or "adopting a new scheme sure to blow the Big Ten out of the water," or "joining a vastly inferior conference." What follows are those schools' stories. Let them be a cautionary tale. If you are a fan of one such school, grab the bourbon and try to keep your tears out of the glass.
We start with a little history lesson for you young'uns.
We already know the story. Minnesota is 6-0 following an efficient win at PSU and an absolute bukkake show against Northwestern. Everyone is already thinking Rose Bowl because the Gophers are just plowing through people with an outstanding OL and the running game featuring Barber, Tapeh, Abdul-Khaliq, and some freshman from St. Louis called Maroney. All we have to do to prove we belong is beat Michigan. This is obviously our year. Hell, they've already got 2 losses. They even lost to Oregon and Iowa. IOWA!
We jump out to a lead. Barber gets a TD. Nice. Then Maroney tears through Michigan for a 2nd. Everything's coming up Milhouse. 14-0 at halftime.
Then problems start to become noticable. Michigan starts throwing screens to Chris Perry.
They get a TD to cut it to 14-7, but we score two more to end the 3rd up 28-7. Everything's fine. Sure Perry is getting 10 yards a catch on the screens, but all is well.
You know what? Let's just skip the 4th quarter. I don't remember what happened.
Following that hiccup, and that's all it is, the Gophers will clearly get back on track and get to the Rose Bowl.
UNTIL WE LOST TO FUCKING SPARTY FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON WHATSOEVER!
2003 Sparty was the definition of mediocre. Lost to LA Tech at home, struggled mightily with Western Michigan and Notre Dame. And we lost to them.
If we circle the wagons after the Michigan game, there's no reason to think we shouldn't have circled the wagons and gotten shit done. But noooooooo.
Sure, we beat wisconsin. We should have beaten wisconsin in 2003. We should beat wisconsin at football every year like we beat them in life every day, but I digress.
BUT TO LOSE TO IOWA IN EMBARRASSING FASHION AT HOME.
And the best part of it is that a 10-3 season gets rewarded with a trip to the Sun Bowl because Sparty got our trip to the Alamo Bowl because fuck Jim Delany.
Fortunately, everything continued to get better for Minnesota and they built on the amazing season that almost was by recruiting strongl.
Or Glen Mason gave up, recruited 6 QBs, none of which ever played more than mop-up duty and a few spot starts, and things went into the shitter until Jerry Kill arrived to clean up the toxic waste dump that Tim Brewster made on top of the abandoned program Glen Mason left behind when he kept cashing checks while furiously masturbating in a Brutus the Buckeye driver headcover at night and crying because they wouldn't return his calls.
That Michigan game was one of the last time I felt any negative feelings other than "numb."
Speaking of Michigan, Graham Filler wants to remind you that a schematic advantage (no, we're not talking Charlie Weis, otherwise I would've said "decided") and #TRADITION is not nearly enough to reverse a few years of incompetence:
RichRod, who met with the esteemed Graham Filler preseason, thus ensuring success after success (link), was under tremendous pressure to win and win now at Michigan. And people reallllllly felt that the offensive firepower, and the #DenardCheatCode healthy...Michigan could probably make a run at Top 20....
[I have no idea why it ended here. All we could hear was sobbing...]
But of course, merely scheming isn't enough. Nor is bringing a couple decades of that #TRADITION and a whole bunch (FIIIIIIIVE) of national championships to a conference dedicated to welcoming you with a heaping helping of MANBALL. Right, Jesse Collins?
Nebraska, coming off of a 10 win season in which we almost - almost - beat a National Title contender in a game we murdered a Heisman finalist (winner? I don't remember McCoy's finish) was picked to be good still. We had future NFL players across the defense. We had talent, potential, and Taylor Martinez.
Of course, the Big Ten is mean.
Nebraska, with legitimate credentials, played tough in a new conference with new friends. We had money, recruits, and a not new coach. We still didn't win the fucking division.
So what I'm saying is... this conference is hell. And we came from a real-ish conference.
Oh, and then there's the time we won the fucking division. That went well.
Jesus. Why did I get reminded of this shit? WE USED TO BEAT UP KANSAS AND COLORADO!
But not everyone comes from money, historic or otherwise, like our friends in Lincoln and Ann Arbor (and even Minneapolis, if the 1940s are your thing). But a school with all the institutional resources, next to America's Second City and its fertile suburban recruiting grounds, building a program on the shores of Lake Michigan! That'll do it, right? Yours truly:
2013 was going to be The Year. Northwestern, fresh off its first 10-win season in almost two decades, riding a two-quarterback system of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, and facing a Legends Division lacking a clear front-runner, would cement its name among the second tier, if not the upper tier, of the best in the Big Ten.
A tricky night game at Cal that began at 9:30pm CT [side note: fuck your body clocks, Stanford]? #22 ‘Cats shoot down the Hippie Bears, 44-30, on two Collin Ellis pick-sixes.
A home date with an uncertain but daunting Syracuse club? Handled by the #19 ‘Cats, 48-27. Offense was flyyyyyying.
MACrifice time with the Fightin' Boat Rowers in the first season of Their Lord and Savior PJ Fleck? Another day at the offense for #17 Northwestern, 38-17.
Follow that up with an unconvincing romp over Maine, and Northwestern stood #16 in the nation at 4-0, poised to host #4 Ohio State at Ryan Field, under the lights, with ESPN's College GameDay on the Lakefill to take in the spectacle.
And the ‘Cats stood in and took every punch the Buckeyes had to offer. Riding a 20-13 lead into the half, we really thought we could do it. Sure, Ohio State had made blocking a punt look easy and Carlos Hyde hadn't yet found his stride, but we were winningâfinally, we would do it. When Siemian threw a bad interception in the fourth quarter and Hyde punched it in from the twoâtwo of his something like 170 yards on the dayâthe ‘Cats marched right back down the field and hit paydirt when Siemian found Cam Dickerson in the back of the end zone. It was going to be our day.
And then Hyde scored again. All wasn't lost. Colter and Siemian started to march the ‘Cats back down the field, just 4 points off the lead and with visions of a last-minute touchdown dancing in our heads. We would dethrone Ohio State and announce our emergence into the upper echelons of the Big Ten.
And then Kain Colter got fucked on 4th-and-1 [get fucked, Ohio State fans. He did]. It was over. Just like that.
I looked for perspective in the aftermath of the game. I announced that Northwestern had emerged on the national stage and was there to stay as a power in the Big Ten. We were committing money to campus and facility improvements, becoming a nationally-known football program, making headlines for positive and negative things alike, and had a well-liked (among Northwestern fans) coach who could sell the program like none other [sound familiar, Eastern brethren?] and lead us into the next generation.
Northwestern lost to Wisconsin 35-6. The ‘Cats would not win another game in 2013 until a HAT victory over our hapless rivals to the south. 5-7, 1-7. We went just as quickly as we arrived.
The next season was a brutal reminder that we'd not upset the existing order, just given them a little spell of amusement. Losses at home to Cal and Northern Illinois. A win at home against Wisconsin, because fuck them and why not. A win on the road at Penn State, and another at Notre Dame. And then a home loss to Illinois. No bowl. No nothing.
You can fight it all you want, but it'll come back to bite you. More often than not, trying to break through the Big 1/2, Little 10/12/13 of the Big Ten will just hurt you. Look to the positives all you want-I did!-but this conference chews you up, spits you back out, and waits for the chance to do it again.
It is not The Year. It will never be The Year.
And last but certainly not least, we turn to our friend in one of the talent-heavy states in the Midwest, Illinois. Thumpasaurus explains:
2009 was to be the year the Illinois Fighting Illini took their place among the elite programs in college football. Ron Zook's fifth year would build on a disappointing 5-7 followup to the surprise 2007 Rose Bowl squad. A new offensive coordinator in TCU's Mike Schultz was described as a perfect fit, and the Zooker had pulled in three straight top-35 classes. In fact, 21 players on the 2009 team would eventually start an NFL game, and that doesn't even include senior quarterback and three-year starter Juice Williams, who was named to the preseason Manning Award watch list and was even on some Heisman watch lists (http://nationalchamps.net/2009/sub/heisman/preseason.htm). He'd be throwing to surefire NFL superstar Arrelious Benn, who was pretty high on the Biletnikoff watch list. Phil Steele predicted a 10-2 season (http://www.news-gazette.com/sports/illini-sports/football/2009-05-31/steele-thinks-illini-will-return-elite-status.html) and even went so far as to say "If you told me at the end of the year, Illinois goes 12-0 and plays in the national title game, it wouldn't surprise me."
Even if the Fighting Illini weren't destined for a national title, they would sure as hell beat Missouri in the Arch Rivalry Game after they lost Danario Alexander and Chase Daniel. Illinois was a 7 point favorite, and finally getting a win in this series would be the opening act of a triumphant season heralding a level of greatness not seen at Illinois since the days of Red Grange.
A 37-9 loss ensued. Benn left the game in the first quarter with an injury. Juice never found a rhythm and Blaine Gabbert torched the defense for over 400 yards. Star linebacker Martez Wilson's season ended during the following week's cupcake game against Illinois State, and a 30-0 loss at Ohio State opened the Big Ten slate. Desperation set in. Redshirts burned. Penn State reeled off second-half touchdowns through the mist in Champaign. Juice Williams became the all-time leader in total offense at Illinois, and was benched in the same game. The fourth-year starter on whom our hopes were pinned was now in a quarterback battle with Eddie McGee and Jake Charest, neither of whom would ever start for Illinois again after 2009.
After a loss at Purdue in which three quarterbacks played despite no garbage time in the game, the Fighting Illini Dream Team sat at 1-6, 0-5 in conference play. A delirious win over Michigan fueled by Terry Hawthorne running down Roy Roundtree at the 1 yard line and Mikel Leshoure emerging as a star back led to a win at Minnesota. Hey, if we win out, we could make a bowl game!
Northwestern came to Champaign and kicked us around for three quarters until Jake Charest came in late and started throwing touchdowns. The game ended when former 5-star recruit Jarred Fayson made a catch on his back and Northwestern CB Sherrick McManis came in late and took the ball away, which is apparently an interception sometimes. The offense finally woke up, hanging 36 points on Cincinnati. Unfortunately, it was literally the best Cincinnati team in history, and they hung 49 on the Illini. The season ended with a frigid track meet against Fresno State, and the last play so perfectly encapsulates the season I thought it had been rehearsed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQS72wMeFHo
After going 3-9 with a team full of NFL talent, Ron Zook was given...a slight raise, a budget increase and a directive to hire a new coaching staff. The 2009 season so thoroughly destroyed his credibility that he never again recruited a top-50 class despite going to two bowl games in his final two seasons.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. This is the Big Ten. There are haves, and there are have nots. Give up now.