Big Ten: Mountain West
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
A peek inside Big Ten media days last week served as proof that the debate about conference strength is alive and well.
It seemed like Big Ten coaches received more questions about the league's struggles against the SEC than anything to do with their own teams. Illinois' Ron Zook, who coached in the SEC at Florida, addressed the speed argument. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz praised the SEC but didn't think the gap separating leagues is that great.
Still, by almost any measure, the Big Ten has slipped behind the SEC, which has won the last three national titles, two against Big Ten member Ohio State.
The SEC has become the nation's preeminent conference, but how many other leagues separate the Big Ten from the top?
I put the Big 12 at No. 2 in my conference power rankings, but well behind the SEC and not far in front of the Pac-10 and Big Ten. The Big 12's quarterback play is superb and the offensive innovation from Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Texas and others is fun to watch. But the Big 12 was less than impressive during the postseason. Though the Big Ten went 0-3 against the Big 12 in bowls, two of those games (Fiesta and Alamo) easily could have gone the other way.
Still, the Big Ten's putrid postseason performances can't be overlooked. Six consecutive BCS bowl losses. Six consecutive Rose Bowl losses. A 1-6 record last year. The Big Ten's bowl lineup is harder than that of any other league, but teams have got to start winning again.
No team has hurt the Big Ten more than USC, and other Pac-10 teams, including Oregon, have notched key wins against the Big Ten. The Big Ten has dropped its last six bowl matchups against the Pac-10. Geography undoubtedly plays a major role in these games, but I'm giving the Pac-10 a slight edge entering the fall. Both leagues have some depth questions, and things could go either way.
The Big Ten finishes No. 4 in my power rankings, ahead of the ACC, Mountain West, Big East and WAC. A lot of folks love the ACC this year, but the league plays a flimsy bowl lineup, nothing resembling the Big Ten's, so it's hard to get a good read there.
2. Big 12
4. Big Ten
6. Mountain West
7. Big East
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
If you check out the college football front page, you'll notice a bar graph displaying schedule strength around the country. The Big Ten, needless to say, doesn't pack much punch in its nonconference slate for 2009.
Colleague Mark Schlabach examined the easiest and most challenging nonconference schedules from around the country, and the Big Ten comes in at No. 1 on his list of cupcake collectors.
1. The little five
Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Wisconsin hail from the Big Ten, but you wouldn't know it by glancing at their nonconference schedules. Combined, they play five FCS opponents, five smaller directional schools and only three opponents from BCS conferences (and that includes Syracuse twice). The five schools combined play only four non-Big Ten road games, and Michigan and Penn State don't play a single nonconference game away from home. Indiana plays at Akron and Virginia. Northwestern plays at Syracuse. Wisconsin plays at Hawaii. No wonder Penn State coach Joe Paterno didn't want Notre Dame in the Big Ten. Why would he want to give up playing Akron, Syracuse, Temple and FCS opponent Eastern Illinois at home?
A lot of the criticism is justified, and it never helps when big-name programs like Penn State and Michigan schedule the way they have for 2009. Big Ten teams have been increasingly reluctant to give up home games and increasingly willing to add FCS opponents (Purdue and Ohio State are the only league members not facing FCS foes this fall). And as the league continues to get rich, its members will continue to pay large guarantees for these games.
But as I've stated before, I don't think the Big Ten is immune from these practices, and the conference seems to take more abuse than other leagues that do the same thing (ahem, SEC and Big 12). It's also worth restating several factors that have contributed to the decline of Big Ten scheduling:
- Notre Dame is no longer guaranteed to be a marquee opponent, which can hurt Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and any other Big Ten team that faces the Irish.
- While other BCS leagues are located closer to the better non-BCS leagues (Pac-10 and WAC, Big 12 and Mountain West), the Big Ten continues scheduling games against the MAC, which has fallen off a lot since its breakthrough season in 2003. Nonleague games against the likes of BYU, Utah, Boise State and even East Carolina are seen as more challenging than those against even a top-level MAC program like Central Michigan.
- Several rivalries that Big Ten teams schedule with other BCS foes have really lost some luster. Iowa State isn't considered a marquee opponent for Iowa. Neither is Syracuse for Penn State.
For what it's worth, one Big Ten team made Schlabach's list of hardest schedules:
9. Illinois Fighting Illini
Unlike most of their Big Ten brethren, the Illini are actually playing a very aggressive nonconference schedule this season. Illinois opens the season against Missouri in St. Louis on Sept. 5. After playing FCS opponent Illinois State on Sept. 12, Illinois plays eight consecutive Big Ten opponents. Then the Illini finish the regular season with non-Big Ten games at Cincinnati on Nov. 27 and home against Fresno State on Dec. 5. Scheduling nonconference games so late is a risk, but the Illini might help their bowl chances by winning one or both contests.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Hours before national signing day, let's see what's on your mind.
John from Mansfield, Ohio, writes: Adam, I have just read in the paper today that the Athletic Department at Ohio State will be in the "Red" for the first time. They intend to raise ticket prices for football and men's basketball. Two questions: 1. What do you attribute this failure to at least break even? The excessively high salaries? 2. Do you think this could be the start of a trend in major college athletics?
Adam Rittenberg: John is referring to this article in The Columbus Dispatch. I'm not an economics expert, but it seems as though the financial crisis is hitting mega athletic departments with large numbers of varsity sports. Stanford, a regular contender for the Director's Cup, also reported major financial problems because of the economy. Ohio State and Stanford both carry a ton of sports. Escalating coaching salaries certainly play a role, and Ohio State has two very highly paid coaches in Jim Tressel and Thad Matta, but having to fund so many varsity sports really takes a toll at times like these. I definitely see this becoming a trend in major college sports, and other so-called factories will be hit hard.
Brian from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: I was reading the signing day preview and it says they asked the bloggers to fill out the "best" section. You picked Michigan as having the best uniform? I can see them being in the running for best helmet, but overall uniform has to go to Iowa's home attire.
Adam Rittenberg: I love the Hawkeyes' look at home, but Michigan boasts a more recognizable and traditional feel. I probably would have put Penn State second behind the Wolverines for best unis. Iowa is certainly among the Big Ten's top half, but I'm pretty sure most people outside Des Moines would pick Michigan's threads over the Hawkeyes'.
Derek from Glen Gardner, N.J., writes: In your last mailbag you mentioned that you thought the BigEast was deeper than the MWC. I have to agree with you, but what I believe you forgot was that BigEast teams have the ability to tell recruits that they can contend for a BCS game year-in and year-out. If the MWC was able to do that for the next 5 years, do you think the BigEast would still be deeper?
Adam Rittenberg: Having a BCS berth as a carrot for recruits certainly would help the Mountain West's bottom rung. I've never understood why San Diego State couldn't be a powerhouse, given its proximity to top recruits. Wyoming and UNLV seem like tough places to win, but both programs have shown flashes of promise. There is potential throughout the Mountain West, but the same can be said for the Big East. Syracuse won't be down for much longer, and Louisville has shown an ability to win in the past. The two leagues would be pretty close in the scenario you present, and the Mountain West might get the edge.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Aaron from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: I'm looking at Penn State's schedule for the fall, and then Iowa's. Do you think Iowa has a chance to knock off the Lions at home due to being tested prior to the game? Like you said, Penn State doesn't play anyone in the nonconference, and this game will be the conference opener for both teams. Iowa has two tough games at Iowa State and home versus Arizona leading up to the showdown at Beaver Stadium. What are your thoughts? Is the winner of this game the favorite to win the conference?
Adam Rittenberg: Iowa certainly will be better prepared for the game, but Penn State is extremely tough at home and remains mostly a veteran team in 2009, led by quarterback Daryll Clark, linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee, and others. Despite the rivalry factor, I wouldn't call Iowa State a tough game next year. Arizona, on the other hand, should provide a really nice test for Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa really didn't have a signature road victory last year, so this game certainly qualifies. Penn State obviously wants revenge after the loss at Kinnick on Nov. 8. Should be a great one. As for the winner being the Big Ten favorite, there still is a team named Ohio State to consider. Last I checked, the Buckeyes know how to win Big Ten road games. Iowa must follow suit in State College.
Todd from Wilmington, Ohio, writes: Adam, first I just want to thank you for your blog, you give me my daily Big Ten news fix. I just had a few comments regarding your article about Penn State's schedule for next year and the Big Ten's 2009 schedule in general. You mentioned that several Big Ten teams have solid non-conference schedules next season, but you didn't list Ohio State among them. They play USC and Navy, as well as a neutral site game against Toledo, an in state FBS opponent who historically contends for the MAC title on a regular basis. New Mexico seems to be the lone bomb on the schedule. Any insight into why you don't count the Buckeyes schedule among the strong?
Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Todd. I certainly wouldn't put Ohio State at the bottom of the Big Ten in nonconference schedule strength, but I have mixed feelings on the Buckeyes' scheduling philosophy. Though I love the one marquee game every year -- Texas in 2005 and 2006, USC in 2008 and 2009, Miami in 2010 and 2011 -- the other three games are usually unexciting. Navy is sort of an exception next year, but you can't really sell me on the Toledo argument. Sure, they beat Michigan last year and had some excellent teams in the early part of the decade, but Toledo is in rebuilding mode and Ohio State will stomp them in Cleveland. Sometimes I wonder if Ohio State would be better off scheduling two decent, above-average BCS teams instead of the one top-tier team. It could create some problems with having enough home games, but what if Ohio State played, say, Kansas and Arizona State every year. Or North Carolina and Rutgers. The Buckeyes would almost always be favored in those games, and having two solid BCS opponents might change the perception held by some that their nonconference slate isn't tough enough.
Zeus from Mt. Olympus writes: If you got a chance to do it all over again, which Big Ten campus would you spend your four (five?) years?Adam Rittenberg: Great question, Zeus. Love it. Hmmmm ... sadly, I wouldn't go back to Northwestern for four more years. I'd have to say Wisconsin. Madison is an awesome city and reminds me a bit of where I grew up (Berkeley, Calif.). Sports are certainly big enough at Wisconsin with football, basketball and hockey, and there's a lot going on in town. After Wisconsin, I'd put Michigan (fun town, big-time sports) and Indiana (great campus). I haven't spent much time at Penn State yet, and my list might change after a few more trips to State College.
Tim from Columbus, Ohio, writes: This is just out of frustration of falling in maybe the past four big games, but since it is assumed that the Ohio State coaching staff will remain intact, what will it take for new assistants and/or ideas to be introduced to the program? Something is wrong.
Adam Rittenberg: It will take administrators or high-level boosters to force Jim Tressel to make changes. Or it will take assistants leaving for head-coaching jobs. Tressel is extremely loyal to his assistants, and Ohio State has created some good continuity in recruiting, so I don't see him making many changes any time soon. There has been a lot of vitriol directed toward offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Jim Bollman. If the play-calling is the problem, though, the blame really rests with Tressel himself. If the offensive line play has declined, which you could argue it did this past season, Bollman is at fault. It's an interesting situation because Ohio State has won so much and done so well in the Big Ten. A change or two might be in the program's best interest, but I don't see it happening.
Derek from Glen Gardner, N.J., writes: I know I send you my 2-cents more often than you care for. But. In your recent mailbag you mentioned Zug and Brackett and 'somebody with speed to replace DWill' (to paraphrase.) You forgot Chaz Powell, who will probably be their #1 receiver next year (maybe not statistically, but he will be their 'DWill' for their offense next year).
Adam Rittenberg: Keep 'em coming, Derek. I appreciate your interest. Powell could play a bigger role next year as Penn State looks for a speed receiver. But he only had two receptions for 37 yards this season. That doesn't scream No. 1 receiver to me, but the competition at that position certainly will be wide open come spring ball. Powell will have a chance to step up, as will Graham Zug, Brett Brackett and some of the incoming freshmen.
Jeremy from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Hey Adam. I assume you have seen the argument about Big East vs. Mountain West. No offense to Brian Bennett, but he's the blogger for the Big East. So, I want to ask your opinion on the situation, sans bias. Do you think the Mountain West is a better candidate for as a BCS conference then the Big East? And can we take in officiating crews into consideration? The Big East officiating crew should be reffing junior high ball.
Adam Rittenberg: First off, Brian does a great job with the Big East blog and provides a sound opinion on this subject. The Big East's relatively strong performance in BCS bowls legitimizes the league as a worthy BCS member. On the other hand, the Mountain West has progressively become stronger over the years, with programs like Utah, TCU and BYU regularly in the Top 25 and top-15. I'm still not sold on the bottom of the Mountain West, however, and while several Big East teams have been down (Syracuse, Louisville), there's still more solid programs top to bottom in that league. If I had my way, both leagues would be part of the BCS in some way. Unfortunately, a lot of this comes down to money and market size, and the Big East, much like the Big Ten, still occupies a stronger market than the Mountain West. What could change all of this is if Boise State joins the Mountain West, which has come up before. With Boise State, Utah, BYU and TCU in the same conference, the argument for BCS inclusion would be even stronger.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Utah Utes finished the season with the strongest résumé for a non-BCS program in recent times.
- Utah (13-0) was the only undefeated FBS team.
- The Utes swept through the Mountain West Conference, which reached a new level for a non-BCS league.
- They beat TCU and BYU.
- They beat an Oregon State team that knocked off No. 1 USC the week before.
- And they topped it off with quite possibly the most impressive win of the bowl season, a 31-17 triumph against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Sure, USC looked impressive against Penn State, but the Rose Bowl is a virtual home game for the Trojans. Utah essentially beat Alabama in the Crimson Tide's backyard.
And the amazing thing is, Utah's profile could have been a lot better.
Remember who the Utes beat in the season opener Aug. 30? Michigan. Utah outlasted the Wolverines 25-23 to kick off a very special season.
Now imagine Michigan was Michigan, not the rudderless 3-9 product we saw this fall.
What if this was a standard Michigan team, one that finished the season ranked in the top 20? How much better would Utah look with a win in the Big House against a solid Wolverines squad from a solid Big Ten?
I'm not saying it would have put Utah ahead of Florida in the final polls. But as someone who voted the Utes at No. 2 in the ESPN.com final Power Rankings, I would have given a lot of thought to putting Utah on the top line.
As it turned out, Michigan was one of Utah's least impressive victories. Only San Diego State (2-10) had a worse record. The Wolverines are barely mentioned when Utah's résumé is discussed.
Many teams saw this as a good season to play Michigan. But for Utah, the game in Ann Arbor didn't really help.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Helmet stickers are coming a bit later tonight, but before I leave Michigan Stadium, some final notes and observations:
- Michigan sustained injuries to wide receivers Greg Mathews (ankle) and Junior Hemingway (shoulder). Safety Brandon Harrison didn't play the second half because of a groin injury. Running back Carlos Brown was limited with a shoulder injury. Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor hurt his foot and was in a walking boot after the game.
- A road win against Michigan should never be minimized, even this season, so kudos to Utah. But if the Utes want to make a serious run at BYU, a Mountain West title and just maybe a BCS berth, they have to get better on special teams and limit silly mistakes. Blocked punts and fumbled kickoff returns will kill you in most games, and the Utes were flagged 15 times for 137 yards. "We've got to finish the game," running back Matt Asiata said. "We can't lay off. We've got to keep a swagger."
- The Wolverines defense showed in the second half that it can be legit this fall. The line consistently put pressure on Utah's Brian Johnson, and the secondary came up with several big plays. But the Wolverines can't afford to start games like they did Saturday. Linemen Brandon Graham, Will Johnson and Tim Jamison combined for seven tackles for loss. "We were coached up on how to make those plays, we just weren't doing it," said linebacker Obi Ezeh, who had a team-high 15 tackles and an interception. "The second half we came out and executed a little bit more. Maybe a lot of the young guys out there were a little nervous [in the first half]."
- We knew the quarterbacks would struggle, but Michigan has to generate much more from its running backs. Junior Brandon Minor showed the most promise before a fumble in Utah territory. Freshmen Michael Shaw and Sam McGuffie looked good catching passes, but neither did much out of the backfield. "The running game was a huge disappointment," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Our offense didn't give the defense much chance to rest because we couldn't establish any long drives because we weren't running the ball effectively. ... There's a lot of precision involved in every offense and we didn't have that today."
- Michigan had seven first-time starters and 15 players make their collegiate debuts today.
- Rodriguez lost his first nonconference game since 2005, when West Virginia fell to Virginia Tech.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
2:00 PM ET Washington State Colorado State 3:30 PM ET 20 Fresno State 25 USC 5:30 PM ET Buffalo San Diego State 9:00 PM ET Tulane Louisiana-Lafayette
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
2:30 PM ET Marshall Maryland 6:00 PM ET Syracuse Minnesota 9:30 PM ET Brigham Young Washington
12:00 PM ET Rutgers Notre Dame 3:20 PM ET Cincinnati North Carolina 6:45 PM ET Miami (FL) 18 Louisville 10:15 PM ET Michigan Kansas State
11:45 AM ET Middle Tennessee Navy 3:15 PM ET Ole Miss Georgia Tech 6:45 PM ET 10 Oregon Texas 10:15 PM ET 14 Arizona State Texas Tech
12:30 PM ET Arizona Boston College 2:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 17 UCLA 4:00 PM ET Rice Mississippi State 8:00 PM ET 24 Duke 21 Texas A&M
12:00 PM ET Nebraska 22 Georgia 12:00 PM ET UNLV North Texas 1:00 PM ET Iowa 16 LSU 1:00 PM ET 19 Wisconsin 9 South Carolina 5:00 PM ET 5 Stanford 4 Michigan State 8:30 PM ET 15 UCF 6 Baylor
7:30 PM ET 13 Oklahoma State 8 Missouri 8:30 PM ET 12 Clemson 7 Ohio State