On New Year's Day, January 1st, 2011, the world ended. A huge flash of light appeared, buildings crumbled, and the Earth was vaporized in a burst of flame….
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Well not exactly. But, for the sake of the Big Ten's ego, I didn't want to skimp on the drama. That's because something did die on January 1st, 2011 and that was the notion that the Big Ten was still the top conference and could compete with anybody, anytime, on any given day. That idea had been dying slowly for much of this past decade, but the conference's dismal 0-5 showing on New Year's Day showed exactly how far it has fallen from its glory days of dominance in decades past.
What was interesting is that this apocalyptic showing came after what appeared to be a strong season for the conference. Ohio State, the conference standard bearer ever since Michigan became a Division II team (and that comment comes from a lifelong, devout Michigan fan in case anyone was wondering), was number one in the nation for several weeks and suffered only one loss on the season. Wisconsin and Michigan State also had one loss seasons and ended the year ranked in the Top 10 while Penn State, Iowa, and Northwestern also posted very solid seasons and received premium bowl invites. With Big 12 powerhouse Nebraska on the cusp of joining the conference, it appeared that the Big Ten was ready to become the dominant conference in college football…again.
Then reality came crashing down. Even cautious optimists like myself were a bit stunned. The Big Ten did not just perform relatively poorly-as it has the past few seasons-in bowl games, it was absolutely man-handled and posted the conferences first 0-5 performance in New Year's Day bowl play. It was a truly sad day for the conference and for college football.
But what does it really mean? What is the significance of that historic 0-5 ofer performance on New Year's Day? After all, it is important not to overdramatize and overhype. Teams lose games; favorites bite the dust, and sometimes conferences perform poorly in bowl games. That's a reality and a fact of life and five bowl losses is not the end of the world. That said, I think there are some fairly significant lessons we can take from these defeats-and some of the other bad losses in recent years-because when compared together, these losses showcase some important changes in the college football landscape that can no-longer be ignored.
The first reality is that the SEC is the best conference in the game and will remain so for years. However, these losses show more than that so let's take this analysis beyond the basic "SEC is best" approach, which is where most sportswriters seem to leave it. From the Big Ten's perspective, the problem is more pervasive and the reality far worse than simple "SEC superiority." The problem has to do with why the SEC is better and why, even with conference additions, rule changes, and more, it will likely remain better for the foreseeable future.
The SEC is not just a better conference than the Big Ten right now; it will be the better conference for years to come because the landscape of college football has changed. The Big Ten used to dominate the college game because its schools were adept at recruiting nationally and getting the very best recruits from across the nation. While they still recruit top talent, Big Ten schools do not get the very best talent anymore because those players go to SEC schools. For example, according to several different draft class analyses, Florida, Alabama, LSU, and Auburn all had top ten recruiting classes. In contrast, only one Big Ten school, Ohio State, had what would be termed an ‘elite' class. Several others, Michigan and Wisconsin included, snagged some four-star talent but their recruiting classes were more comparable to those of South Carolina and Mississippi than the true SEC powers. What's more, it wasn't a superficial difference: the difference in talent level between the top SEC classes and top Big Ten classes was profound.
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What caused this change? It's hard to argue that this massive shift is rooted in a single issue; instead it was due to a confluence of factors working against the Big Ten for much of the last decade. SEC schools have gradually closed off their own home turf to non-regional recruitment; it is now extremely rare for a top Southern talent to sign with a big northern school. Because more than half of the nation's top talent comes from the southern Bible belt and Texas (which is already under Longhorn domination) this recruiting shift has caused talent drops in the Big Ten that won't end anytime soon. Moreover, the Big Ten also seems to be gradually losing its ability to recruit out west or even hold on to all of its own talent. The incredible success of the U in the 1980s, Florida State in the 1990s, and now Florida and Alabama has changed top recruit's perception of the college football landscape: southern schools are now perceived as the best-performing BCS programs, the top NFL talent factories, and the most fun, warm weather environments. Why freeze and suffer through a 7-6 season at Michigan when you can party and go 13-0 at Florida? Lots of recruits now think this way and it will be very difficult for the Big Ten to change these perceptions and recover lost ground.
Of course, all is not lost. The Big Ten still has a number of powerhouse programs and there are solutions. If Michigan adds master recruiter (and some say master strategist) Les Miles, then the Wolverines will again be able to recruit in the southern belt because of Miles' extensive relationships in that region. The re-emerge of Michigan alone would help the Big Ten recover some of its lost greatness. Furthermore, the addition of Nebraska and its elite program will extend the Big Ten's recruiting reach into the deep Midwest and, if the conference ever manages to add a re-emerging Notre Dame, it may even accumulate enough top programs and recover enough prestige to again dominate college football. Finally, the Big Ten schools perform far better academically than SEC schools. This factor is a wild card because, while academic ratings and performance have not seemed to matter to recruits in recent years, that factor could change and, if it does, the Big Ten will again become the dominant recruiting conference.
All in all, however, the Big Ten has a long way to go. Its programs still receive high BCS rankings on prestige alone but continued annual beatings in bowl play will erode this over time. Ultimately, its top programs will have to find recruiting solutions and new schools will need to be added before the Big Ten regains what it has lost.
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