August 03, 2009
The newly launched AnnArbor.com, more energetic Web successor to the Ann Arbor News, caught up this weekend both with Lloyd Carr, newly minted playoff advocate, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who quickly crushed Carr's modest vision of a four-team bracket beneath his spotless wingtips at a charity golf outing. Delany was also unusually frank about the Big Ten's image problem in big games:
"In any particular time frame, could be three years, could be five years, could be two years, you could get your ass kicked, OK?" Delany continued. "It can happen. We’re not playing Little Sisters of the Poor. We’re playing the best football teams in their region.
"So were we 1-6 (in bowl games) last year? Yeah. Were we 0-6 in the BCS in the last (three years)? We were. Those are the facts. But take me from 2000 or 1997 to 2005; I remember when Michigan played Ohio State [in 2006]. We were the toast of the town, one versus two, game of the century."
That's probably true on both counts: These things are cyclical, especially due to small sample size over a two-to-three-year window, and the Big Ten has held up just fine over time. Michigan-OSU in 2006 was pretty epic on all fronts. There is very, very scant evidence for any big-picture issues prior to Florida pantsing Ohio State in the '07 mythical championship game.
But the looming issue I keep returning to going into this season is how few opportunities the Big Ten has had for its name-brand programs to play "the best football teams" in any region, an issue here only because of the ongoing struggles in bowl games. Ohio State caught a lot of heat in 2007, apparently justified after the championship loss against LSU, for playing a non-conference schedule highlighted by a win at Washington (final record: 4-8). Penn State's blowout over Oregon State last September looked good in retrospect, but at the time, with OSU coming off an opening night loss at Stanford and still two weeks from conquering USC (and more than a month from finally entering the polls), it looked more like a confirmation of the Beavers' descent.
And that, along with Michigan's upset over Florida in the '08 Capital One Bowl, are by far the Big Ten's best non-conference wins of the last two years. Including Lions over Beavers, the conference was 1-6 against non-conference teams that finished in the AP's final top-25 last year after going 1-4 against the final poll in 2007. Last year's regular season highlights included Utah upsetting Michigan; Oregon holding off Purdue; Missouri hanging 52 on Illinois; and of course, USC nearly wiping Ohio State off the face of the earth.
The issue this year is the same: Assuming Minnesota and Purdue do not shock Oregon and California, the most winnable games against any team with top-25 credentials going into the year are Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue's annual dates with Notre Dame -- and if the Irish struggle in those games, the resulting meme won't be "Wow, the Big Ten is succeeding against Notre Dame." It will be "Notre Dame still sucks." It just doesn't mean much anymore to beat ND, a killer turn when almost a third of the conference traditionally bases its non-conference schedule around the Irish as the quality "national" opponent.
That's not to single out the Big Ten for deficient scheduling -- on the whole, its non-conference schedules aren't substantially different from those in the SEC or Big 12, and not much removed from the Pac-10. But those conferences are winning bowls and other big games and aren't facing the same persistent questions about their inherent strength. It seems clear enough that the Big Ten has one big chance to break the current cycle -- even Penn State knows its national ambitions hinge in part on Ohio State beating USC on Sept. 12 -- or face another yet round of condescension heading into the bowl season.