- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Today on ESPN.com, we put the Big Ten's struggles under the microscope, trying to figure out why the league has underperformed and what can be done about it. Here are several pieces for you to digest:
Adam Rittenberg writes that there are many theories for the Big Ten's poor showing:
"The narrative is we've underperformed, and I can't argue with that," Delany said this week. "We haven't won big games. The narrative is about right. When you have big brands, expectations are high. I can't discount the facts, and I can't discount the critics."
The Big Ten has taken its lumps in recent years, from Ohio State's back-to-back losses to SEC teams in national title games, to the 0-for-New Year's Day bowl performance in 2011, to a near repeat on Jan. 2 of this year. The early season struggles aren't new, either. The league's combined record of 33-13 through the first four weeks is just one game off last season's pace (34-12). The Big Ten has the same number of FBS wins and just two more FBS losses than last year.
What stands out about this season is the lack of signature wins -- or even many decent wins -- and more important, the lack of elite teams. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the last time the Big Ten didn't have any top-12 teams in the fourth AP poll of the season was in 2001, when No. 16 Northwestern was the league's highest-ranked team. Illinois finished the 2001 season as the Big Ten's highest-ranked team at No. 12, the last time the league finished without a top -10 team in the final polls.
"The league obviously is down," said Joe Tiller, who coached Purdue from 1997-2008. "In my 12 years of coaching there and three years since, I don't remember it struggling this much as a conference. … It pains me to admit this, but I don't think there's a single great team in the league, and there aren't many good teams in the league, maybe four good teams out of 12."
Brian Bennett writes that there are no easy cures to what ails the Big Ten:
The reality is, all the resources for success are there. Except maybe real estate.
The population shift from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt has thinned the recruiting pool in the Midwest for Big Ten schools. There's a reason the SEC and other warm-weather schools have been dominating college football: They have better access to more great players.
"If Michigan was located in the state of Florida, its tradition, history and stature alone would put it where Florida State and Alabama are now," ESPN recruiting expert Tom Luginbill said. "What prevents that from happening is what's in their backyard."
Ivan Maisel and Mark Schlabach debate whether the Big Ten will get better or get worse.
Recruiting writer Jared Shanker writes that poor classes and signing restrictions have hurt the league.
The Big Ten has also been constricted by oversigning rules for much longer than the rest of the country. It is harder to come back from a bad class when the team can sign only so many in the next class and has to explain to the commissioner's office the reason it is oversigning if it does. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier criticized the Big Ten in March 2011 for its oversigning policies, telling the Wall Street Journal it put the conference at a competitive disadvantage.
While the rest of college football has to adhere to a signing limit now, too, it still remains that the Big Ten has an uphill battle each year when it comes to recruiting. Aside from the Big East, no BCS conference has seen as much ridicule as the Big Ten. Recruits take notice.