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Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Out of the spotlight, Big Ten tries to stay busy

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Tim Brewster would rather spend this week in the film room and on the practice field than inside airplanes and rental cars. 

The Minnesota coach shares the opinion of many Big Ten fans, who would love to watch their favorite teams in action Saturday.

Despite the addition of a bye, the Big Ten finished the regular season a full two weeks before the other five BCS conferences. So while the college football spotlight shines on championship games (SEC, Big 12, ACC) and BCS bowl contenders (USC, Cincinnati), the Big Ten has nudged itself backstage. 

It doesn't help that the Big Ten doesn't have a team in the BCS title mix, but it has become the forgotten conference right now. 

"I would like to play on, to be quite honest," Brewster said. "I don't mind playing a game the week after Thanksgiving at all. It's something I've been accustomed to. I don't have any problem at all with playing on as long as you have a bye [week]."

Before taking the Minnesota job last year, Brewster usually spent Thanksgiving week and beyond immersed in game preparation.

He came to Minnesota after spending five years in the NFL, which always plays through December. Brewster previously worked on Mack Brown's staff at Texas, which played Texas A&M on Thanksgiving or the day after and participated in the Big 12 championship in 1999 and 2001. 

"Nationally televised games at this time of year are very special," Brewster said. "People right now are watching college football with tremendous anticipation and excitement. To me, playing right now, playing this time of year, the most important thing is playing meaningful games, playing against a big rival opponent. That creates tremendous excitement for your football team, for your fans, for everybody."

The Big Ten sacrifices the excitement and attention to uphold its tradition of finishing the regular season before the Thanksgiving holiday. Only when Big Ten coaches demanded a bye week did the league relent and agree to have games after Thanksgiving.

Most Big Ten teams won't have bye weeks next season, though Wisconsin will have a game after Thanksgiving (at Hawaii). The Big Ten bye and post-Thanksgiving schedule doesn't take full effect until 2010.

What if things were different? What if the Big Ten had a full slate of games this weekend? What if, gasp, there was a Big Ten championship game on tap Saturday, either at Solider Field in Chicago or at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis?

Ohio State might have a chance to solidify itself as a stronger team than Boise State and a team more deserving of a BCS at-large bid. Penn State could move up from No. 8 in the BCS standings with another convincing win. Big Ten teams like Wisconsin and Minnesota wouldn't have such long layoffs before their bowl games.  

A Big Ten championship game looks like a pipe dream, and there are no imminent plans to add a 12th member, but having conference games or even some nonleague affairs with teams from the Pac-10 or Big East could sustain the buzz around the Big Ten.

The early finish is unpopular with most Big Ten fans, but it has some benefits for the players and coaches.

Two Big Ten coaches who played in the league -- Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald -- said the Thanksgiving break serves as a welcome respite for players after a grueling season. But the biggest advantage comes in recruiting. 

"Right now is a live recruiting period, and I've talked to two buddies that are [coaching] in other conferences who are preparing for their final game," Bielema said Wednesday morning between recruiting visits. "They're in a position where they need to get out and recruit, and they can't because they've got a game this weekend.

"One of them, for instance, had a bye week last week, so they couldn't go out and recruit last week. Now they have a game this week, so it kind of gets you as a double-edged sword."

Wisconsin's coaches spent three days on the road last week, an evaluation period where off-campus recruiting is allowed but in-person contact with prospects is prohibited. The contact period began Monday, so Bielema and his assistants are spending this week visiting their "high-priority guys."

They'll return to Madison on Friday for practice and a big recruiting weekend.

Like Brewster, Bielema spent time in the Big 12 and experienced the pros and cons of playing beyond Thanksgiving. 

"My last year at Kansas State, we played in the Big 12 championship game," Bielema said. "We beat Oklahoma, who was No. 1 in the country. It worked out pretty well for us that year, just because we were Big 12 champs and we were able to go on the road in December and talk about that, but we basically missed a whole week of live recruiting."

Brewster also is capitalizing on the opportunity to focus solely on recruiting. He and six of his assistants are spending the early part of the week visiting prospects -- the NCAA allows a maximum of seven coaches to recruit on the road at a given time, and Brewster is "always one of the seven."

He spent Monday afternoon in Aiken, S.C., before driving to Atlanta to recruit Tuesday. From there it was on to Dallas for two days of recruiting. Brewster plans to be in Minneapolis in time for the team's 6 a.m. workout Friday morning. 

"It's just something that's vitally important to our program, so we're out here banging away," Brewster said of recruiting. "Our guys back home are working and doing the things they need to do. So I feel good about it."

Brewster said his team, which dropped its final four regular-season games, "ran out of gas" down the stretch and is using this week to focus on conditioning and strength training. The Gophers will do running and conditioning Monday, Wednesday and Friday of this week, and team captains will hold practices Tuesday and Thursday. 

Wisconsin will hold two sets of practices beginning later this week, one that includes all the players and the other that focuses on developing younger players. 

"We put our developmental guys through some high-intensity basic fundamentals, basic offense versus basic defense and just get good at football," Bielema said.

Northwestern is practicing four times this week and Penn State resumes practice Friday. Other bowl-bound teams have similar schedules this week. 

Bielema thinks the perfect solution for the Big Ten calls for an in-season bye week and the final round of games the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This way coaches could still capitalize on the start of the live recruiting period. 

In terms of maintaining buzz for the league, the answer is simple. 

"Obviously, we don't have a team with a chance for the BCS [title game] this year," Bielema said. "But to have Ohio State in there the last two years was huge. It really gets down to how you finish the season. All you've got to do is win football games and then people talk about you."