Has the Big Ten surpassed the SEC thanks to better coaching?
Over the course of the college football season, a fun debate has popped up among pundits: What is the best conference in college football? While the default answer has been the SEC for over a decade now, the Big Ten is definitely encroaching on their territory with four teams in the Top 10 entering this weekend.
The question now: What has led to the power shift? Well, as Colin Cowherd brought up on “The Herd” Thursday, it might just be thanks to a slew of new coaches who have come into the league in recent years. Urban Meyer set the trend when he joined the Big Ten as Ohio State coach in 2012 and Jim Harbaugh turned things up a notch when he arrived in Michigan three seasons later. Add in the arrivals of Paul Chryst and Mike Riley in recent years to other established coaches (Kirk Ferentz and Mark Dantonio) and it’s the best coaching this league has seen in years.
And Cowherd says it’s the coaches that just might be the reason the league is as good as ever. He went ahead and ranked the coaches on “The Herd” Thursday, and as you’ll see, it had a decidedly Big Ten feel to it. Here are Colin’s Top 10 (with the video at the top of this post):
10. Mike Riley, Nebraska
9. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
8. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin
7. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
6. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
5. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
4. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
3. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
2. Nick Saban, Alabama
1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Certainly this is only Colin’s opinion, and others might have a few different names on this list. A case could be made for Hugh Freeze, as he’s taken Ole Miss from SEC doormat to team that has won 19 games the last two seasons. Same for Auburn's Gus Malzahn, who once coached in a BCS National Championship game.
At the same time, Cowherd’s larger point that the Big Ten’s coaching appears to be up, and the SEC’s either stagnating or going down, is a fair one as well. The group in the Big Ten is pretty darn impressive, especially when you remember that one of the three SEC coaches on that list (Bielema) actually came from the Big Ten. Or that the hottest young coach in the country not named “Tom Herman” could be in the Big Ten (Maryland’s D.J. Durkin).
And what is most interesting might be a point that Cowherd brought up later in the show: Is it possible that the SEC’s overzealousness in firing coaches might have cost them some good ones? How different would this list be if it was done a year ago, when Les Miles and Mark Richt were still coaching? Both were fired in the last year despite winning over 70 percent of their games.
Dantonio had a losing record in year three at Michigan State, only to pick up 11 wins in his fourth year — arguably the season that really got the Spartans’ program rolling from that point forward. Would he have been given a fourth year had he been in the SEC?
What about Fitzgerald, who dealt with back-to-back five-win seasons in 2013 and 2014? It might have cost him his job somewhere else. Instead, he was spared, and got Northwestern to 11 wins last season. Ferentz could have been let go several different times but was spared, and rewarded Iowa with a 12-win season in 2015.
Whatever the case is, it seems like this is the best the Big Ten has been in a long time. And it might just be because the league has the best group of coaches in college football.