Big Ten struggling to stay relevant

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska defeated Michigan 23-9 on Saturday night in a smash-mouth football game that helped clarify the clear favorite for the Big Ten championship. Yet outside the Cornhusker State and parts of the Midwest, nobody cared.

Fifteen years ago, the year these two football programs finished the season undefeated, a Nebraska-Michigan game in late October would have captured the mind of the sporting world for the entire week leading up to it. But on Saturday night the shaking walls of a sold-out Memorial Stadium didn’t even reverberate past the Missouri River.

There was so much else to pay attention to other than the forlorn state of today’s Big Ten football: The World Series, undefeated Notre Dame making its national title case with a win at Oklahoma, Georgia knocking off No. 2 Florida, and Collin Klein making his Heisman with unbeaten Kansas State — which just happens to be 136 miles south of Lincoln and in the conference the Huskers left for the Big Ten two years ago.

Heck, even the evening’s trade of last season’s Sixth Man Award winner in the NBA captured more of the national sporting chatter than this game with huge Big Ten implications.

Saturday’s game was more notable for what it wasn’t — a game that mattered — than what it was. And what was it, exactly? The same type of hard-hitting, sloppy football that seems to be the current signature of the Big Ten.

Denard Robinson, the speedy Michigan quarterback, named in every preseason Heisman poll but who has put up another subpar season, injured a nerve in his throwing arm on a second-quarter scramble and did not return. His replacement, redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy, played like a redshirt freshman, only completing 3-of-16 passes while throwing three interceptions.

The Huskers offense turned in an uninspired, inconsistent performance, keeping Michigan in a game that, without its senior quarterback, shouldn’t have been close. Aside from the Cornhuskers defense capitalizing on the rookie’s mistakes, the only bright spot a college football fan could find at Memorial Stadium Saturday night came not from the field but from the stands. It’s where Nebraska celebrated its stunning streak of 323 homes sellouts over the past 50 years.

But what the sellout crowd saw was the best bowl-eligible team in a conference without too many of them.

The true game of the week in the Big Ten, the Ineligi-Bowl, was over in State College, Pa. There, the only undefeated team in the conference, scandal-beleaguered Ohio State, defeated the most surprising team in the conference, scandal-beleaguered Penn State, in a game that had zero impact on the Big Ten because both squads aren’t allowed to play in the postseason.

So instead of the undefeated Buckeyes bringing the Big Ten back to national relevance, it’s the Cornhuskers, who committed eight penalties for 104 yards at home on Saturday, who carry the conference banner.

After the game, coach Bo Pelini was asked how big of a step this was for the Huskers’ “ultimate goal” of getting to Indianapolis, site of the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 1.

“It was the next one, so it was the biggest one,” Pelini said. “Next week, that becomes the biggest one. … The stakes get higher and higher every week.”

The problem is that the team sitting in the catbird’s seat in the Big Ten was getting questions about the conference championship game being the “ultimate goal.” This should never be the “ultimate goal” of the football conference with as much tradition of any in the country.

Schools like Nebraska and Michigan (not to mention the Big Ten black sheep Penn State and Ohio State) ought to speak of the BCS title game as the ultimate goal. The way things have been going, the Big Ten Championship Game means less and less every year.

Don’t think that the Big 12 — left for dead after Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten was the first Big 12 realignment domino to fall over the past couple years — isn’t snickering that it had five teams in the BCS standings’ top 25 before Saturday’s games, including national title contender Kansas State. The Big Ten only had two.

“It’s all relative sometimes,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis told “I see games every week where I know the teams playing in them aren’t very good. … I think some of the whole conference thing is a little bit overblown. Everyone has some respect for the SEC. (But) I don’t see how some of the other leagues are better or not than the Big Ten. Some of that is, you gotta fill up a lot of air time.”

It’s a fair point. Sports pundits in recent years have made ripping on the state of the Big Ten into a cottage industry. It’s fun to compare conferences and make black-or-white statements. But this much is true: the Big Ten has won one national title in the 15 years since Nebraska (then in the Big 12) and Michigan finished on top of the football world.

And this year’s conference sure isn’t inspiring hope that things will change any time soon.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at