Big Ten: SEC

Ducks, Buckeyes hammer perceptions

January, 2, 2015
Jan 2
LOS ANGELES — Perception, that truth-y thing that often stands in for reality, was front and center during the buildup to the College Football Playoff semifinal matchups on Thursday.

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston talked about how “perception is reality” for him and how he can’t change the minds of haters. Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost noted that coach Mark Helfrich had “an uphill battle in terms of perception” having to following Chip Kelly at the Ducks' helm. Helfrich’s squad endured another round of questions about being perceived as a finesse team that wilts against programs perceived as more physical.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonOhio State ran away from Alabama to cap a miserable bowl season for the SEC West, and there was nothing fluky about it.
Down in New Orleans, the perception was that top-seeded Alabama was too big and too bad and was going to leave a footprint on the collective foreheads of Ohio State, because that’s what SEC teams do to Big Ten teams, particularly when that SEC team is Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.

It’s then fair to say that perception suffered as bad a bowl season as the SEC West, which was unmasked as college football’s tough guys when Saban’s Crimson Tide capped a shocking 2-5 divisional face-plant by being bullied by the Buckeyes.

That, of course, happened just after Helfrich took a decisive step out of Kelly’s shadow by leading his Ducks to a 59-20 brutalizing of a Seminoles team that hadn’t lost in 29 consecutive games, a team that impressively passed the sight test but nonetheless was frantically tapping out to the Ducks' jujitsu on both sides of the ball before we were more than a few minutes into the fourth quarter.

And so the dominant college football paradigm was sledgehammered in the first go-round of our new system by a matchup that resembles a traditional Rose Bowl. For the first time since 2005, no SEC team will play for the national title, and the SEC will not win a national title for a second consecutive year after winning the previous seven.

Friday was an odd day if you’ve been around the sport for a while, not only because postgame celebrations at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl were muted by the fact that the victories were secondary accomplishments that didn’t conclude the season. The much-maligned Big Ten took down the state of Alabama -- Auburn lost to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl -- which had won four of the previous five national titles, and Michigan State hushed Baylor, a team that still doesn’t understand that its cowardly scheduling is the problem, not the media or CFP selection committee.

Those marquee Big Ten victories came after Michigan made a thundering statement by acquiring Jim Harbaugh, a hiring that stands in contrast to SEC power Florida looking to Colorado State for its next coach. No offense to the capable Jim McElwain, but his pleated khakis aren’t nearly as inspiring or fascinating as Harbaugh’s.

Oregon and Ohio State arrive as our finalists after seasons laden with adversity. Both have been wracked by injuries, the Buckeyes at quarterback, the Ducks everywhere else. Both suffered early-season defeats that had many dismissing them from the national picture. They also both feature creative, up-tempo offenses that stand in contrast to the two-back, pro-style sets that many traditionalists still write sonnets about. So there are some notable similarities.

There also are differences, of course. Ohio State has won seven national titles, the Ducks zero. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer is probably a win away from having his face carved into the Mount Rushmore of coaches. Winning a third national title after capturing two at Florida and previously winning big at Bowling Green and Utah would insert him into the "best ever" discussion.

Of course, Phil Knight might build a golden statue of Helfrich outside Autzen Stadium if the Ducks win the first CFP, grabbing the only prize that has eluded the program during its steady rise as a national power since the 1980s.

Oregon will beat Ohio State if it sticks to the simple plan it used against the Seminoles. Before the Ducks squared off against FSU, another college football blue blood, Frost spoke of the necessity of "dictating" instead of reacting to what the Seminoles were doing.

"If we are reacting to what they are doing, we aren't at our best," he said.

[+] EnlargeJan 1, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks running back
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State couldn't stand up to Oregon's physicality, another way the College Football Playoff semifinals contradicted conventional wisdom and stereotypes.
Did a team ever dictate a big game more than the Ducks did to the Seminoles, particularly in the second half, when FSU was supposed to take control? While Winston pulled out the "we beat ourselves" line afterward, he apparently failed to pay enough attention to Ducks' game film. Rendering teams into bloody hamburger during a sudden transformative frenzy is what Oregon does. The Ducks were not gifted those five turnovers from the Seminoles. They took them. The Ducks forced 30 turnovers this season and ranked second in the nation in turnover margin. They ranked first in turnover margin in 2012 and have been in the top 25 every year since 2010.

“All they did tonight was go out and act like themselves,” said Frost.

Yet there was a little bit more to the Ducks' effort, and perhaps this can be attributed to Helfrich. There is no question that Oregon players and coaches were annoyed by the pregame talk about "finesse." Receiver Byron Marshall, who was pretty snappy about the topic before the game, said afterward that certain dismissive comments that were attributed to Florida State players were posted in the locker room, which further motivated the team. Kelly would have outright rejected such an approach as an outside distraction that had nothing to do with the quality of execution. Helfrich seemed to let his players marinate just a bit in the perceived -- that word! -- tweaks.

When asked about what Winston could have meant when he said "this game could have gone either way," about a 39-point defeat, Oregon center Hroniss Grasu was at a loss.

“I don’t know what he was thinking," he said. "We beat them physically, we beat them mentally, our coaches outcoached them."

He then added: “They are a great team. We are just a better team."

Here's a guess that many of the Buckeyes could identify with those pregame sentiments and postgame conclusions.

Both these teams want a national title above all else. Winning is always the ultimate reward. But you can also bet both will sustain an internal perception that they still have to prove their doubters wrong, that they must still play with a chip on their shoulders.

And no matter what, when the smoke clears on Jan. 12, one more set of perceptions will be sledgehammered.

Power rankings: Big 12 solidly second

October, 13, 2014

Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBryce Petty and kicker Chris Callahan survived TCU. The teams are part of the top-heavy Big 12.
The “hot” debate entering the season was whether the Pac-12 could surpass the SEC as the top conference in the nation. The Big 12 was rarely mentioned as a top conference, however, despite returning the majority of its starting quarterbacks and having two of the top five defenses in ESPN’s preseason defensive efficiency rankings.

Five of the Big 12’s 10 teams are in the top 15 of The Associated Press poll, tied with the SEC (which has 14 teams) for the most top-15 teams in the nation. Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State all have one or fewer losses and a legitimate shot at the College Football Playoff.

All of those teams will not finish the season with one loss, but it’s worth noting that two of their losses came in close games against the teams that played for the 2014 BCS National Championship (Auburn defeated Kansas State and Florida State defeated Oklahoma State).

The bottom of the Big 12, however, is not as strong as that of the Pac-12 or SEC. The Big 12’s average FPI ranking, which is designed to measure a conference’s depth, ranks below that of those two conferences.

The SEC remains at the top of the conference power rankings. It has the top team in the AP poll (Mississippi State) and in the FPI (Auburn), the two components of these power rankings. The SEC West remains unbeaten against any team not in the SEC West as the Magnolia State has catapulted to the forefront of the college football world.

The Pac-12 will rise in the conference rankings if its top teams can continue to win. Last week, we discussed how the Pac-12 is missing an elite team. Oregon looked strong against UCLA, and the defenses of Stanford and Washington defenses looked solid against explosive offenses in Week 7. The issue is that the Pac-12 does not have a team in the top eight of the AP poll.

In other conference action, next week is a big one for the ACC as Notre Dame heads to Florida State. The Seminoles are the best team in the ACC, but if they lose to Notre Dame at home, the conference could take a big hit in perceived strength and in the College Football Playoff race.


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska extended its streak of nine-win seasons to six under coach Bo Pelini with a 24-19 upset victory over No. 22 Georgia in the Gator Bowl. Here's a quick recap:

It was over when: The Bulldogs (8-5) turned it over on downs with 25 seconds to play as tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a fourth-and-3 pass from quarterback Hutson Mason inside the Huskers' 10-yard line. Nebraska linebacker David Santos received credit for a breakup, but it appeared to bounce straight off the hands of Lynch, who was the top receiving target all afternoon for Mason.

Game ball goes to: Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers' redshirt freshman quarterback was cool under pressure in his return after missing most of the season's final two games with an ankle injury. Armstrong threw a pair of touchdown passes and had another dropped. He made smart decisions in the run game and largely avoided mistakes.

Stat of the game: Twelve. That's the touchdown catch total for Nebraska senior Quincy Enunwa after his two scores on Wednesday, including a 99-yard reception from Armstrong in the third quarter. Enunwa's total breaks a Nebraska record set in 1971 by Johnny Rodgers, one year before he won the Heisman Trophy. A physical force in the run and pass game, Enunwa, by the way, didn't make it on the Big Ten's all-conference list, even at honorable mention. With the likes of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Penn State's Allen Robinson, it was an exceptional season for receivers in the league. But Enunwa deserves some recognition.

Unsung heroes: Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, the seniors up front on the Nebraska defense. Randle has never been healthy in college, and Ankrah was without help on Wednesday from Avery Moss, who didn't travel to Florida. They formed an important part of the front seven, which was as usual led by Randy Gregory at defensive end. They slowed Todd Gurley and pressured Mason on Wednesday. In the red zone, the Huskers were especially strong.

What Nebraska learned: It's got a gamer in Armstrong, the quarterback who started eight games this year and will enter spring practice as the leader to start in 2014. He'll get pushed by Johnny Stanton and possibly incoming freshman Zack Darlington, but Armstrong might be tough to unseat after the poise he showed Wednesday. If I-back Ameer Abdullah and Gregory return, the building blocks exist for Nebraska (9-4) to break through in 2014. It would help mightily to use Wednesday as a springboard to play fundamental football in the new year and capitalize on opponents' errors.

What Georgia learned: Transition from the Aaron Murray era won't be easy. When a program has played with one quarterback for four seasons, the offensive system morphs to reflect his strengths. Under Mason, the Bulldogs must find the right balance. It wasn't going to happen in this bowl season. The problems in the secondary on Wednesday can't be explained away by injuries. While Georgia has the talent to field an elite defense, it never came together over the past four months.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Gator Bowl, click here.
Aaron Murray and Taylor Martinez, the shelved senior quarterbacks at Georgia and Nebraska, started 95 college games.

They won 67.4 percent.

Bet you thought that rate was higher.

Seems we’ve watched these two operate forever. In the past four years, Murray and Martinez meant something important to college football. They tormented defensive coordinators and served as the poster boys for a pair of proud programs, trying -- desperately close at times -- to break through.

It’s not going to happen in their time.

Despite 64 victories between them (35 for Murray, 29 for Martinez), neither won a conference title. At Georgia and Nebraska, a conference title, at minimum, is the standard of success.

Yet as Murray and Martinez depart the college game in sadly anticlimactic fashion as the Bulldogs (8-4) and Huskers (8-4) meet for a New Year’s Day rematch in the Gator Bowl, they leave a record of greatness.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Josh Wolfe/Icon SMITaylor Martinez's final season didn't go as planned, but he'll be remembered in Lincoln.
Murray’s senior season was nearly doomed from the start. Injuries to running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, several top receivers and playmakers on defense contributed heavily to four Georgia losses.

The QB persevered until Nov. 23, when he suffered an ACL tear in a 59-17 victory over Kentucky. Murray played through the injury for one series but couldn't fight the pain any further.

In similar fashion, Martinez battled for two weeks through a foot injury, suffered in the Huskers’ season opener.

He led the Huskers to a 21-3 edge over UCLA in the second quarter on Sept 14, but any thoughts of a storybook ending to his career crashed to a halt in the second half. The Bruins scored 38 consecutive points. Martinez clearly wasn’t himself, unable use his usually dangerous feet to stem momentum.

A one-game comeback fell flat at Minnesota in October. Martinez was finished. He lost his final two starts and an opportunity to join Colin Kaepernick as the only players in FBS history to pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 3,000. He finished with 7,258 passing yards and 2,975 rushing yards.

He lost his chance to win a conference title, a hope so promising back in 2010, when Martinez led Nebraska to a 17-point lead over Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game as a freshman.

Martinez never broke through.

“It’s been hard,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “This whole season’s been hard on him. It’s not the way you want to see him go out.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt said the same thing about Murray. Richt visited a hospitalized Murray after he underwent surgery on the damaged knee. Richt said he wanted to feel sorry for his quarterback, but Murray wouldn’t let him.

His positivity is relentless. And that’s part of Murray’s legacy, alongside the 13,166 passing yards and 121 touchdown passes.

No Southeastern Conference quarterback before Murray threw for 3,000 yards in three seasons. Murray did it four times. He broke Danny Wuerffel’s SEC record for touchdown passes and Tim Tebow’s record for total yardage.

But, like Martinez, his teams never broke through.

Murray’s best chance fell 5 yards short last year against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He targeted Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone, a shot within reach to win an SEC title as the clock ticked away. Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley deflected the pass to Georgia receiver Chris Conley. Conley slid to the turf, surrounded by defenders. Time expired on Murray’s best opportunity.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia's Aaron Murray
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAaron Murray's place in Georgia and SEC football history is secure.
Instead of a shot to play for the national title, Georgia beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl as Murray threw for 427 yards and five touchdowns, both career-best marks.

It all felt anticlimactic for Murray, though nothing like this year.

“Obviously I had a vision of how I wanted to go out,” Murray said recently.

This wasn’t it.

“It’s almost like I didn't say goodbye,” he said, “which, I guess, is a good thing. I guess it's like, 'to be continued.' I'm not leaving. I'm always a Bulldog. I'll always be a Bulldog, and I guess if I would have been there to wave and really cherish the end of it, that would have been like, 'Book closed, it's over,' and I feel like it's not over for me.”

Murray is eloquent and charismatic. Martinez is quite the opposite.

Uncomfortable in the spotlight, the Nebraska quarterback hasn’t spoken to the media since the Minnesota game.

But Martinez appears to be at peace. He has remained at the side of teammates through conditioning drills and practices this month. Those close to him, though, say he’s devastated by the injury.

A generation from now, Murray and Martinez will be remembered not for this anticlimactic ending or their inability to break through and win a championship.

Time will heal their wounds. History will reflect well on their legacies. College football will remember them.

Ohio State: What might have been?

December, 31, 2012
Ohio State posted one of the great "What might have been?" seasons in the history of college football this year.

Just imagine what might have happened had the unbeaten Buckeyes, say, anticipated oncoming NCAA sanctions and self-imposed a bowl ban last year, so they would have finished 6-6 instead of 6-7, thereby matching the most losses in school history.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Cal Sport MediaUrban Meyer remembers clearly and fondly a win at Northwestern while at Bowling Green
That might have completely transformed the 2012-13 postseason. It certainly would have made for a much better Rose Bowl, however things played out.


  • It's possible 12-0 Ohio State would be playing Notre Dame for the national title, instead of once-beaten Alabama. That would have ended the SEC's national title streak at six.
  • If the Buckeyes were headed to South Florida, the Rose Bowl would have had first pick among the remaining BCS bowl eligible teams. That probably would have given us a scintillating Florida-Stanford, SEC-Pac-12 matchup -- No. 3 vs. No. 6 -- instead of the Cardinal vs. five-loss, unranked Wisconsin.
  • Or, if the BCS standings still had Alabama ahead of Ohio State, which would have been highly controversial, Ohio State-Stanford would have been a classic Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup between elite, highly rated teams.
Of course, this speculation includes the assumption that the NCAA would have been satisfied with the Buckeyes just sitting out the 2011 postseason. It rarely pays to assume what the NCAA will do. Based on wanting to make an example out of Ohio State for a scandal that included extra benefits violations involving memorabilia, tattoos and cash, as well as a cover-up by former coach Jim Tressel, the NCAA quite possibly still could have banned the Buckeyes from the 2012 postseason.

But you never know.

That is the excruciating discussion Ohio State fans have had among themselves all season as the wins piled up in coach Urban Meyer's first campaign. Many have dumped the blame on athletic director Gene Smith, who was admittedly -- and curiously -- surprised when the NCAA opted to ban the Buckeyes from the 2012 postseason.

It's apparently a sore subject around Columbus. Ohio State declined an interview request for this story, with spokesman Jerry Emig saying "A would of, should of, could of, wouldn't read well."

It probably would have read better than the Badgers' record, which features more losses than five other Big Ten teams.

Of course, the Rose Bowl and its participants are trying to grin through the curious circumstances that created a less-than-thrilling matchup. As could be expected, Stanford folks are going out of their way to not slight Wisconsin. The Cardinal, said coach David Shaw, won't take the Badgers lightly.

"We're not built like that," he said. "Our guys aren't built like that. We talk a lot about respecting the game. The game deserves our respect. Our opponent deserves our respect. We can't change how we play based on who we play. How we play never changes. We're going to play fast, we're going to play physical, we're going to play our style of football, and we don't take our foot off the gas pedal. Never, ever anyway. We're going to respect these guys. These guys have earned our respect. Watch the film, look at the scoreboard, and watch the film, and these guys will get your respect."

There is good news here, for Ohio State, for the Rose Bowl and for the Pac-12.

While the Big Ten has been on an extended swoon in terms of national perception, and one of its top teams, Penn State, has been wiped off the map by NCAA sanctions, Ohio State is clearly rising under Meyer. The Buckeyes will be national title contenders next fall. Or, failing that, they could become a worthy Rose Bowl foe.

As college football moves forward in 2014 with a four-team playoff, the Pac-12 needs the Big Ten to produce elite teams -- and vice versa -- or the continuing and evolving Rose Bowl partnership will suffer.

This "What Might Have Been Season" for Ohio State, which has broadly affected teams coast-to-coast, is almost certainly an anomaly.

That might not salve the immediate pain for the Buckeyes, or help make this year's Rose Bowl any better, but a hopeful glance toward the horizon is all we have for you.
Has something seemed odd to you about the BCS bowls this year? Does it seem like ... oh wait, West Virginia just scored again.

Does it seem like ... wait, there goes De'Anthony Thomas. Don't think he'll get caught from behind.

Does it seem like ... wait, would somebody please tackle Justin Blackmon?

Does it seem like there have been a lot of points this bowl season?

It's not just you. There have been a lot of points. More points than ever before. And by huge quantities.

So far, BCS bowl teams have averaged a total of 77 points in the Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls. That, folks, is nearly 26 points more than last year (51.6). And it's nearly 11 points better than the previous high of 66.3 from 2001-02.

Perhaps pairing two SEC teams in the title game has created a black hole sucking all defensive stinginess into the LSU-Alabama rematch, which you might recall went 9-6 with no touchdowns in their first meeting. West Virginia scored 10 touchdowns -- 10! -- against Clemson. Alabama gave up 12 TDs all season.

Speaking of Clemson: ACC. Well, well, well.

After the Tigers ingloriously fell 70-33 to the Mountaineers, we got our second story from the BCS bowl season: The ACC's insistence on throwing up on itself in BCS bowl games.

The conference that was once expected to challenge the SEC is now 2-13 in BCS bowl games. That's hard to do. You'd think in 15 BCS bowls the conference could get lucky at least five or six times. But no, it insists on making ACC blogger Heather Dinich, a genuinely nice person, into some sort of Grim Reaper every bowl season.

Heck, the Big East has won seven BCS bowls -- second fewest among AQ conferences -- but it's 7-7.

Of course, this all ties together, and we're here to bring out a bow, but first a warning: If you don't want to read about how good the SEC is for the 56,314th time this year, then stop reading. I'd recommend an episode of "South Park" or perhaps a John le Carré thriller as an alternative for passing the time.

We can all agree the SEC plays great defense right? Alabama and LSU will play for the title Monday with the nation's top-two defenses. Do you think perhaps that it's not a coincidence that the conference that is 16-7 in BCS bowl games plays great defense?

The only other AQ conference with a winning record in BCS bowl games is the Pac-12, which is 11-7. The Pac-12 isn't known for defense, either, but USC was when it won the conference's last national title in 2004.

The only team to win a BCS national title without an elite defense was Auburn in 2010, but the Tigers' defense seemed to find itself late in the season. Since 1999, eight national champions had a top-10 defense. Other than Auburn, the lowest-rated defense to win a BCS national title was Ohio State in 2002. It ranked 23rd in the nation in total defense.

Three of the four BCS bowl games have been thrillers. Two went to overtime. We've seen big plays all over the field in the passing game and running game. Yet, if things go according to script in the title game, we'll see none of that. We might not see more than a couple of plays that go for more than 20 yards. We might not see any.

Some might call that boring. It might seem that both offenses are so paranoid of making a mistake that they are stuck in mud, both in game plan and execution.

But, snoozefest or not, when the clock strikes zero a team from the SEC will hoist the crystal football for a sixth consecutive time.

That might say something about playing better defense.
The Big Ten has benefited from the BCS system more than any other conference.

The league has made the most BCS bowl appearances (21), earned the most at-large selections (9) and sent a team to play for a national title three times despite a so-so record (10-11) in BCS games. And while the Big Ten didn't send a team to the Rose Bowl three times (2002, 2003, 2006), it maintains strong ties to the Granddaddy.

The Big Ten did all of it as an 11-team league without a championship game that ended its regular season before Thanksgiving.

Things will change in 2011, as the Big Ten welcomes Nebraska as its 12th member. The addition of a league championship game also is likely.

It begs the question: How will expansion and a likely championship game impact the Big Ten's BCS hopes?

A title game ensures one more loss for one of the Big Ten's top BCS at-large hopefuls. If the Big Ten goes to a nine-game conference schedule, an option athletic directors are considering, it means even more losses for the conference.

It's very likely the Big Ten won't have as many attractive candidates for BCS at-large berths as it did before expansion.

Could the Big Ten soon become a one-bid league?

"I’ve looked back at it and I don’t think you can quantify that [a championship game] has made a whole lot of difference," BCS executive director Bill Hancock said this week. "The jury’s still out on the effect of championship games of how many teams you get in the BCS. We’ll know more when Big Ten and Pac-10 go to championship games, but I don’t see a tremendous advantage or disadvantage."

Perhaps the best barometer for the Big Ten is the SEC, which also boasts famous teams with huge fan bases.

The SEC has only two fewer BCS appearances (19) than the Big Ten and has received at-large berths in each of the last four seasons. While the loser of the SEC championship received at-large berths in each of the last two seasons, five of the SEC's at-large berths went to teams that didn't reach the league title game.

Translation: the Big Ten still could be in good shape for at-large berths, but the loser of the league championship game might want to make alternate plans.

"Conferences that deserve [at-large berths] are getting them," Hancock said. "The at-large spots are filled by the bowls, and they’re choosing those teams for the same reasons they’ve always used."

Those reasons include name recognition and size of fan base, two categories where the Big Ten excels.

Let's look at the Big 12, another league with a championship game. The Big 12 has made 17 BCS bowl appearances but sent multiple teams to the big bowls on only five occasions. The Big 12 title game loser has only reached the BCS once: when Oklahoma qualified for the BCS championship game despite a 35-7 loss to Kansas State a month earlier.

In most years, a loss in the Big 12 title game seals a team's BCS fate. Missouri got passed up for Kansas in 2008 even though Missouri beat the Jayhawks to reach the Big 12 title game, where it got pummeled by Oklahoma. Colorado lost the Big 12 championship game in 2002, 2004 and 2005 and each time failed to receive a BCS at-large berth.

I'm very interested to see how expansion impacts the Big Ten's BCS at-large chances. Bowls always will have a hard time passing up teams like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin when they're available.

Just as long as they don't lose the Big Ten title game.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 25, 2010
Big Ten expansion actually takes a backseat in the links today, although I doubt Michigan likes being in the spotlight.

Video: Big Man on Campus

September, 14, 2009

Pat Forde recaps a busy weekend in college football, including Matt Barkley’s performance, Terrelle Pryor’s struggles and Tate Forcier leading Michigan to a win over Notre Dame.

Posted by'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. 

Conference Rankings

1. SEC
2. Big 12
3. Pac-10
4. Big Ten
5. ACC
6. Mountain West
7. Big East
8. WAC 

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Colleague Bruce Feldman recently conducted his annual search for cupcakes and ranked the nation's 10 easiest nonconference schedules. Not surprisingly, two Big Ten teams topped his list, as Northwestern had the easiest slate and Penn State wasn't far behind. 

Here's Feldman's take on the Wildcats' cakewalk:

1. Northwestern (Towson; EMU; at Syracuse; Miami [Ohio]) Quality point average: 2: Wow. The Wildcats face three FBS opponents and all three are projected to finish in the cellar of their respective conferences or at least conference divisions. Plus, that FCS team they've got, Towson, is coming off a 3-9 season. This is about as close to four sure wins as anyone is going to get.

And his thoughts on Penn State's stay-at-home vacation:

2. Penn State (Akron; Syracuse; Temple; Eastern Illinois) Quality point average: 2.5: Yes, this is the same exact rating as Ole Miss. PSU wins (or is it loses?) the tiebreaker because the Nittany Lions didn't even schedule a road game and because Ole Miss at least faces someone who went to a bowl game in the past three seasons. PSU has six of its first seven games at home, and the closest thing to a formidable nonleague opponent is Temple, which is 3-34-1 against the Lions and hasn't knocked off Penn State since 1941. Akron also is an OK opponent, but is still coming off a 5-7 season. It's worth noting that this is only the third time in 16 years since PSU arrived in the Big Ten that the Nittany Lions have scheduled an FCS opponent.

No major surprises here, though the order could be switched. Syracuse is definitely down, but in my view, a road game against a BCS opponent still carries a higher degree of difficulty than home games against supposedly superior MAC teams (Akron and Temple). 

Wisconsin finished No. 10 on Feldman's list, which also included three SEC teams (Ole Miss, Kentucky, Arkansas). I think Florida gets a pass on a lot of these lists. The Florida State game is a mere shell of what it used to be, and the Gators' other three nonconference games are ridiculously easy. 

When I look at the nonleague slates of the Big Ten and the SEC, I don't see much difference. But the Big Ten seems to get bashed more in the scheduling debate because its power teams (Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin) all scheduled easy for 2009, while Georgia beefed up its slate and Alabama opens with Virginia Tech. 

As for Northwestern and Penn State, more challenging days are ahead, thankfully. Northwestern faces Boston College, Vanderbilt and possibly Stanford in future seasons, while Penn State takes on Alabama, Rutgers and possibly Miami. 

Posted by'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.

Most of us who closely follow Big Ten football would love to see teams take more risks with their schedules. It's why recent announcements from Minnesota, Michigan State and Penn State are exciting.  

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's Adam Rittenberg

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has called league expansion a "back burner issue" more than once in recent weeks.

Well, here's one for the conference to put on the front burner. 

The hiring rate of minorities to head coach and coordinator positions remains well below what it should be in college football, and it's reflected in the Big Ten.

The league has one minority head coach -- Michigan's Rich Rodriguez is Hispanic  -- and only two minority coordinators in Michigan offensive coordinator Calvin Magee and Michigan State offensive coordinator Don Treadwell.

The league had six coordinator changes during the offseason, including the departure of Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who became one of six black head coaches in the sport when he took over at New Mexico. But none of the vacancies was filled with a minority candidate.

The Big Ten has had only three black head coaches and only one, Michigan State's Bobby Williams, since 1991. Northwestern had consecutive black head coaches from 1981-91 in Dennis Green and Francis Peay.

Before Michigan hired Rodriguez, the Big Ten had only one other minority head coach in the last two decades -- Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, one of the most successful coaches in recent league history.

"It's not more of a concern today than it was a year ago or two years ago, but it's a constant focus," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said of minority coach hiring. "We want diversity on our campus from the president's office to the faculty, including the athletic department. And the only way you get that is through purposeful recruitment. It's not just who applies. It's who you're looking at and who you're developing through your ranks."

(Read full post)

Big Ten mailbag

May, 26, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

A week's worth of mail to sift through today ...

Vincent from Westerville, Ohio, writes: Hi Adam, do you think that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney is unfairly criticized or attacked? It seems like every time there's a topic, it's his comments that get pointed out (already realizing he may be the most powerful commissioner in the NCAA). And why is it always the Big Ten that has to expand? No one is asking the Pac-10, Big 12 or SEC to expand, and the Pac-10 doesn't have a championship game either.

Adam Rittenberg: I think to a certain extent, you're right. Delany is often the target for criticism, and it's because to many folks, he represents the old guard in college football, the traditionalists who are resistant to change the game. But you hit on a great point about Delany being powerful. Whether fans want to acknowledge it or not, Delany holds tremendous power with the NCAA and throughout college sports. If his opinion didn't hold so much weight, there wouldn't be as much criticism toward him. As for expansion in other leagues, the Big 12 and SEC already satisfy the championship-game crowd, and the Pac-10 plays a true round robin and extends its regular season until the first weekend of December, unlike the Big Ten. There's less to criticize with those leagues.

Charles from Linden, Mich., writes: How does Norm Parker continue to put top defenses on the field, no matter how many guys he loses each year, no matter where he is (Michigan State, Vanderbilt or Iowa) his success doesn't waiver, Is this a question of system over talent and how come more DC's can't be as consistant.

Adam Rittenberg: Parker's success stems from an unwavering belief in his system. Many defensive coordinators are tempted to shake things up these days, especially with the rise of the spread offense, but Parker sticks to what he has run over the years. Opponents know exactly what they're getting from Iowa's defense, and they still have a tough time moving the ball. Iowa also is always very technically sound on defense, and polished techniques and fundamentals always make the scheme less essential.

Jason from Illinois writes: Adam, I happened to see the Big East blogger did its conference workout warriors are we going to see anything like that from you for the Big Ten? How was Martez Wilson, Matt Mayberry and Brandon Graham not on the original list by the way?

Adam Rittenberg: The Workout Warriors stems from a piece my colleague Bruce Feldman does every year at this time. This year's story did not include any players from the Big Ten, although Feldman did include Martez Wilson and Brandon Graham in the "just missed the cut" section. Since the Big Ten didn't make the rundown, I wrote instead about Wisconsin's strength program under new coach Ben Herbert. There certainly are some exceptional weight-room guys in the Big Ten, and I'd certainly include the three names you mention.

Chad from Parts Unknown writes: My question revolves around the depth Michigan State has at QB, with Cousins and Nichol going head to head for the starting job and Andrew Maxwell coming in the fall, how do you see this position working out over the mext few years and will the you see Maxwell or Cousins transfer if Nichol is named the starter.

Adam Rittenberg: It's a very interesting question, Chad. Kirk Cousins doesn't seem like the type of guy who would transfer if he didn't win the job. He's got other plans academically, and I'm sure he would still get some playing time even if Keith Nichol was the starter. As for Maxwell, he'll almost certainly redshirt this season, so I don't think you need to worry about a transfer scenario with him until a few years down the line.

Mike from Evanston, Ill., writes: Adam, Thanks for keeping Northwestern so well represented in your blog. One Wildcat who you have given a lot of hype has been sophomore Jeravin Matthews, the converted WR/special teams player who is now in the Cats' system as a RB. Im excited about Matthews potential out of the backfield, but I really question his ability to carry the load in the conference season due to his size (5'11'', 170). Simmons, who has seemed to assume the role of #1 back heading into the summer, is also a undersized at 5'8', 175. What do you think about the possibility of Alex Daniel or Mike Trumpy, the incoming freshman, assuming the role of featured back in '09? Daniel was a pleasant surprise in the spring game, and Trumpy seems to have gotten significant praise coming out of high school. Do you think Matthews could be better used as a secondary back who could also line up at receiver in the Cats no-huddle spread?

Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some excellent points, Mike, and size is a concern with both Simmons and Matthews. You would think that after seeing bigger backs like Jason Wright and Noah Herron perform well in this offense, Northwestern would be signing more big backs. I haven't seen enough of Daniel or Trumpy to brand them a serious candidate to start, but expect to see a larger rotation than normal at running back. Northwestern's best between-the-tackles runner might actually be quarterback Mike Kafka, so it's more important to have a guy who can pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. To me, Matthews is the perfect fit.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The ACC recently made a change to its bowl lineup, swapping the Humanitarian Bowl for the much-closer GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala. The Big Ten is locked into its bowl agreements through the 2009 season, but the tie-ins will undoubtedly be discussed at next week's meeting of league coaches and athletic directors in Chicago. 

There's some mounting concern about two Big Ten bowl tie-ins, the Capital One Bowl and Champs Sports Bowl, both of which are held at Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando. At issue is the stadium and plans for renovations, which the Big Ten and SEC desperately want but might not get in the current economic climate. 

[Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan] said the SEC and Big Ten have grown tired of waiting for the renovation -- especially with other cities such as Dallas, with a new $1 billion stadium, looking to muscle in on Orlando's bowl positioning.

"The first thing the commissioners told me was 'I thought you guys had approved renovation of the stadium. I don't think you guys realize how important this is for us,'" Hogan said. " ... I didn't expect to be shocked as I was about how pointed and concerned our existing sponsors are right now."

It would be tough to see the Big Ten dump the Orlando games, especially the Capital One, considered by many to be the most prestigious non-BCS bowl. But it's always a good idea to evaluate the league's entire bowl lineup.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette's Bob Asmussen thinks the Big Ten should make at least one change, swapping either the Insight or Motor City bowls for another game, or possibly adding a game. Asmussen argues that the Big Ten could benefit from a bowl game located closer to the league footprint, or perhaps a second bowl in tourist-friendly California. 

I doubt anyone has a major problem with the Outback or Alamo bowls. Those are solid games, so let's not waste time there.

The Big Ten's decision to trade the Sun and Music City bowls for the Champs Sports and Insight looked good at the time, and despite the stadium issues, the Champs Sports is a solid destination for mid-level Big Ten teams. I love the Sun Bowl and the Pac-10 matchup and would be thrilled if it came back, though El Paso is a tough place to travel to. The Insight Bowl is in a great location, but doesn't provide the exposure of other comparable bowl games.

The Motor City is an interesting dilemma for the Big Ten. Keep in mind the MAC-Big Ten relationship does help with nonconference scheduling, especially in this era of playing FCS teams. Playing a MAC team in the postseason helps this relationship. But few Big Ten fan bases like the idea of downtown Detroit in December.

On the other hand, it's rare when a Big Ten team actually plays in the Motor City Bowl. Only two teams have appeared in the game since the agreement began before the 2002 season.