Big Ten football coaches defend their conference with the loyalty and veracity of a German Shepherd. Ask about a leaguewide epidemic of poor performances, and they’ll trot out hackneyed responses noting the talent level, work ethic and coaching ability at each school remains second to none.
What they won’t openly admit is something so obvious to everyone else: Results on the field ultimately determine just how successful a conference really is. And this year, the Big Ten stinks like week-old diapers.
A look at some of the more surprising nonconference outcomes show Louisiana Tech hammering Illinois (52-24), Ohio beating Penn State (24-14), Central Michigan edging Iowa (32-21) and Ball State outscoring Indiana (41-39) — all games that took place on Big Ten turf.
Certainly, none of those teams is considered elite this year by any stretch, but if a chain is only as strong as its weakest links, the Big Ten is broken and collecting dust in the attic. Those results served as only part of the problem for the league, which also finished a putrid 6-9 overall against BCS teams and Notre Dame during the nonconference season.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio tried to explain that these things are cyclical and that parity across college football was responsible for the conference’s struggles, although his response sounded convoluted at best.
“Winning and losing by one point or by two points, whether it’s a bowl game or whether it’s now, there’s not very much difference in that except one is a definite loss and one is a definite win,” Dantonio said. “When you look overall at the entire team, if it can go either way, I think the team and the conference is competitive. And that’s the way I see it right now.”
Really? Since when has merely being “competitive” with other conferences been a source of pride in the Big Ten?
This year, it isn’t a stretch to suggest the Big Ten is the fifth-best conference among the six BCS leagues, ahead of only the sagging Big East. The SEC — winner of six consecutive BCS national championships — has four teams ranked in the top six and five in the top 10. The Pac-12 boasts six teams in the top 25, the Big 12 five in the top 17. And even the ACC has a viable national championship contender in Florida State.
The Big Ten, which has only three ranked teams, doesn’t possess a realistic national title hope in the bunch.
The conference’s strongest team, unbeaten Ohio State, is ineligible for postseason play. The only other unbeaten team, Northwestern, hasn’t won a bowl game since President Harry S. Truman was finishing his first of two terms in office (Jan. 1, 1949).
Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State all opened the season ranked in the top 13 in the Associated Press poll. After six weeks, none of them is ranked.
“I know we don’t have as many teams ranked now as we did before the season, including us,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “But I also have been in football long enough to know it’s not how you start the race, it’s how you end the race. My guess is there will be quite a few teams up there knocking at the end of the year.”
Several coaches, including Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and Penn State’s Bill O’Brien, insist that we must wait until the results of bowl games to accurately determine where the Big Ten stands.
“Let’s see how it all plays out after January,” said O’Brien, whose team is banned from postseason play for the next four years. “We’re not going to be in it, obviously, and Ohio State’s not going to be in it. But let’s see how the Big Ten does in the bowl games when they play the other conferences.
“The only way you’re going to be able to make a statement like that is to see what happens in head-to-head competition.”
Recent history suggests we already know what’s coming.
Since 2000, the Big Ten is 34-52 in bowl games (.395 winning percentage), the worst record among BCS conferences. The Big Ten is 6-11 the past two years and infamously went 0-for-5 on New Year’s Day games in 2011.
But if the past doesn’t dictate this year’s results, let’s examine exactly what has gone wrong in 2012.
The Big Ten has for years been viewed as a grind-it-out, physical league, but statistics don’t show the same defensive success. Only Michigan State ranks in the top 20 nationally in total defense. Last season, six Big Ten teams finished in the top 20 in total defense.
Offensively, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez is the only Big Ten quarterback rated in the top 40 in passing efficiency. Only two conference teams (Nebraska and Purdue) rank in the top 40 in scoring offense.
The so-called top-tier teams in the preseason rankings all have their own issues that have hampered their shot at a national title.
Wisconsin benched starting quarterback Danny O’Brien, fired its offensive line coach after two games and can’t provide returning Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball with any open holes at running back. Michigan State ranks 110th out of 120 FBS teams in scoring offense at 20.0 points per game, last in the Big Ten. And Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, a former Heisman candidate, has thrown more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six).
Maybe the explanations are complex. Maybe they’re not.
“On any given day,” Dantonio said, “anybody can beat anybody else.”
True. But the Big Ten has proven especially susceptible to being beaten by other conferences. And no matter how coaches try to spin it, it is simply inexcusable.