For the past five years, the debate about Big Ten football’s weaknesses has occurred on New Year’s Day. Bowl game loss after bowl game loss—mostly against SEC foes—caused a whole heap of abuse on the Midwestern conference as the season wrapped up.
But this year, it happened at an even more embarrassing time. After the non-conference slate of games.
To be fair, no single conference schedules difficult non-conference games all the way down the line. The Big Ten’s cupcake parade isn’t unusual. What’s unusual is the struggles the league had against those cupcakes.
Numerous losses to MAC team and ugly victories over inferior foes brought about a firestorm of justified criticism to the entire league. Not to mention going 0-for-Notre Dame.
The question on everybody’s mind is: what’s wrong with the Big Ten?
Let’s start by answering what’s NOT wrong with the Big Ten.
The Big Ten has talent. Sure, the SEC has more, but if recruiting services and NFL draft results mean anything, no other conference has more than the Big Ten.
The SEC has a leg up in recruiting over the Big Ten (weather, ESPN’s backing, coaching prestige, etc.), but this still doesn’t answer why the Big Ten has fallen behind even the Pac-12 and ACC.*
The two main problems with the league are also the primary areas where the league needs to heal itself: coaching and scheduling.
Joe Paterno once quipped that football is more about “Jimmys and Joes than about Xs and Os.” But if the Big Ten has comparable talent with everyone outside the SEC (and even there, the gap probably isn’t as pronounced as some would have us believe), why is the product so inferior? Look at pipeline and pocketbooks.
Most of the SEC’s top coaches are either ex-head coaches from other major college teams, ex-coordinators for elite college teams, or former NFL coaches. The Big Ten, on the other hand, relies mainly on a MAC pipeline. Urban Meyer’s hire was truly the only splash head coaching move the league had made since Rich Rodriguez was Michigan’s nineteenth choice back in 2008.
One of the reasons the Big Ten doesn’t make glitzy hires? They don’t pay enough. Seven of the eleven highest-paid coaches come from the SEC. Think there might be a correlation there with on-field production?
Granted, you can’t buy wins (unless your Auburn). But perception feeds reality. If a recruit is deciding between Michigan State and Auburn, he might factor in that Auburn’s coach makes twice as much as Michigan State’s.
I’m not saying that the Big Ten pays peanuts for their coaches. Iowa, for some reason, pays Ferentz a boatload. Hoke at Michigan has a top-ten salary. But the personalities, the names, the hyped coaches live elsewhere. Meyer is a start, but he’s gotta be looking at the stiffs around the league, thinking “Help me out here, guys.”
Penn State, although far from a “typical” situation to draw examples from, got a decent name for its head coach (an NFL coordinator with sufficient college experience). But they pay him less than a million. I know they had their external pressures in doing this, but you send a message when your salaries are low.
The Big Ten makes more dollars through TV deals than anyone else. Fact.
It’s time to jump in the ring with the big boys. Create a perception that you want to compete for national titles.
This points comes in two flavors: vanilla opponents and vanilla arrangements. Okay, I guess that’s one flavor.
Like I said earlier, the Big Ten’s cupcakes are no different than any other conference’s. But the times are a-changing. The mantra of “the Midwest is dying” is echoed nationally, and it’s sticking in everyone’s psyche.
The Big Ten needs to get out there and create compelling match-ups. To do this, schools have to kill the dream of getting eight home games in any given year. This might balance the checkbooks, but it’s killing the league.
Seven home games is a fine amount. Go away to one BCS opponent and host one BCS opponent. Bring in your two mercy-kills, and you’re done.
The Big Ten’s big stadiums need their revenue. I get that. But stick with just seven home games each year. It’ll go a long way for national perception.
The next thing the league needs to do is pick interesting non-conference games on a national scale. Easier said than done.
They tried to align with the Pac-12, but the Pac-12 couldn’t hack it. And I can’t blame them. They have nine league games. To lock into a Big Ten agreement would mean that their schedules would either be A) far more difficult than the rest of the country or B) far less diverse than they’d like.
Dropping Notre Dame is essential for the league. Notre Dame hates you, Big Ten. Quit sending the Irish love letters and asking them to move back in. They are in the league’s footprint, and this does nothing to increase the league’s national perception. When Stanford or Miami plays the Domers, it’s interesting national football. When Purdue and Michigan State do, it’s boring Midwestern football.
Scheduling the SEC is easier said than done. Few of them want to travel north, and many of them have non-conference opponents from the ACC. (Georgia Tech-Georgia, Florida-Florida St., Clemson-South Carolina, etc.) Alabama—with its principal rival in division in the SEC—has some scheduling flexibility. (Have fun with that, say Michigan and Penn State.)
The other reason the SEC isn’t eager to jump into contracts with the Big Ten? They aren’t facing the negative perceptions. If they play four games against high school teams, no one will criticize because “the SEC is so tough.” Perception is reality.
Penn State’s current out-of-conference schedule is a perfect example of how NOT to select teams to improve your national perception. Virginia, Rutgers, and Pittsburgh highlight their next few schedules. Not only are those teams not blue-blood programs; they’re all less than 200 miles away. Sprinkle in a home-and-home with UCLA or Texas or LSU on top of those solid regional foes and you’re on to something.
Another thing the league can do is start league games earlier. If the Big Ten wants to keep the cupcakes on the schedule, at least don’t put them all at once. The SEC stole the stage in week two the last two seasons—first with a huge Georgia-South Carolina match-up and then with their welcome-to-our-league games for Texas A&M and Missouri.
I like having a tune-up game for week one, but then let’s jump into it. The Big Ten already recognized its outdated scheduling practice when it added Nebraska. We now play after Thanksgiving, and we have a conference championship game. Delany and Co. have shown they can adapt to the times. Now it needs to adapt by moving league games up earlier.
Pay up and schedule up. Two simple remedies for what ails the Big Ten.
*One side note that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere: perception feeds reality and vice versa. The Big Ten Network has brought financial windfall to the league, but it has meant less exposure from ESPN and perhaps even negative exposure from ESPN. To be blunt—ESPN is college football for the masses. I watched Penn State play Virginia on ABC earlier this season, with every replay being preceded by an ACC on ESPN logo. You don’t think those subliminal messages affect teenagers?
Ryan Murphy is a regular contributor to Nittany Lions Den and author of Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives, the perfect gift for the Penn State fan in your family this holiday season.