June 12, 2009
There's been a lot of talk the last couple years about the Big Ten's national "image problem," and whether it exists after three very bad bowl seasons. Rhetorically, maybe, but on paper, it's hard to argue disrespect when the conference can still put a pair of teams in everybody's top-10 going into the year -- especially when both of those frontrunners, Ohio State and Penn State, both have so many holes to fill. It's no diss to drop the league bellwethers slightly off the national radar when they're both so riddled by attrition.
I don't like the conference wars. But I do know that when a conference with no apparent national contenders is called out en masse for lame scheduling by national headlines, as the Big Ten's "little five" were this week during ESPN's schedule-analyzin' extravaganza, that is not a P.R. victory:
1. The little five
Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Wisconsin hail from the Big Ten, but you wouldn't know it by glancing at their nonconference schedules. Combined, they play five FCS opponents, five smaller directional schools and only three opponents from BCS conferences (and that includes Syracuse twice). The five schools combined play only four non-Big Ten road games, and Michigan and Penn State don't play a single nonconference game away from home. ... No wonder Penn State coach Joe Paterno didn't want Notre Dame in the Big Ten. Why would he want to give up playing Akron, Syracuse, Temple and FCS opponent Eastern Illinois at home?
• Sept. 5: Illinois vs. Missouri (in St. Louis)
• Sept. 12: Southern Cal at Ohio State
• Sept. 12: Purdue at Oregon
• Sept. 19: Michigan State at Notre Dame
• Sept. 19: Arizona at Iowa
• Sept. 19: California at Minnesota
• Sept. 26: Notre Dame at Purdue
• Nov. 25: Illinois at Cincinnati
It's entirely possible that Illinois, Michigan State or Iowa will mount a stunning charge to the conference title, in which case wins over fringe top-25 outfits like Missouri, Cincinnati, Notre Dame or Arizona might ultimately serve them well in the polls and punditry. But realistically, with Michigan seemingly down for the count for another year, there are two contenders carrying the banner for the Big Ten nationally, and one of them -- Penn State -- has no claim to stake outside of the conference barring an all-time, miracle turnaround at Syracuse (which would be written off for occurring in the wide-open Big East, anyway). The Lions' "big game," their potential claim to national prowess, is Ohio State on Nov. 7. Fair or not, even if it's only based on perception, the top teams from the SEC and Big 12 have multiple shots at bagging big game within the conference, with the championship showdowns at the end to boot. The only really impressive head PSU can conceivably bring to the BCS belongs to Brutus.
And if that head is already bloodied by USC? How will Penn State or Ohio State offset that? With wins over Iowa? Michigan State? Who beat ... Arizona and Notre Dame?
I thought the Buckeye-Trojan tilt in the Coliseum last year was borderline cataclysmic for repudiating Ohio State's own reputation for big-game flops, which was cemented all too decisively in that disaster (and later in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Texas). Once they were humiliated on that stage, the Bucks had no chance of recovering a shot at the national championship. This year, minus almost everyone who touched the ball last year on offense and three draft picks from the defense, they don't have the same lofty expectations for themselves. Barring another surprise this year on the order of Oregon State's run following its loss to Penn State last year, I think it will be hard for the entire conference to recover from another Trojan romp in Columbus.
What the presumptive heavy hitters in this conference really need is another heavy hitter, and without another marquee out-of-conference game to boost teams like Illinois and Iowa on the fringes, USC is it. If the Buckeyes strike out again, it's going to be hard to prove -- for this year, anyway -- that the Big Ten is really the big leagues.