Monday, November 19, 2012
Maryland, Rutgers add little in short term
By Brian Bennett
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany sees the upside in adding Maryland and Rutgers to the conference.
Maryland and Rutgers bring a few immediate things to the Big Ten. Big markets and TV eyeballs. New recruiting areas. Some East Coast partners for Penn State. Crab cakes and Under Armour. Grease trucks and trips to New York City (via Newark).
One thing you may have noticed in that list of benefits: All of them involve off-the-field items. As far as the actual, on-the-field product? The Terrapins and Scarlet Knights add very little, at least in the short term.
This is a move about revenue and population shifts, not about enhancing the Big Ten's competitiveness in the near future. On that front, it pales in comparison to the SEC's adding Texas A&M or the Big 12's adopting TCU and West Virginia. This is more like the Pac-12 taking in Utah and Colorado, which was a success in that it allowed that conference to add a championship game and sign a big TV contract. But the Utes and Buffaloes have barely made a dent in football.
Luckily, neither Maryland nor Rutgers is anywhere near the Carrie Mathison-like hot mess that is Colorado these days. Yet neither offers much brand-name appeal or, judging by recent history, any boost to the league's sagging competitive fortunes.
Maryland is 4-7 this year and went 2-10 last year and in 2009. Second-year Terps coach Randy Edsall could be on the hot seat next season. A Penn State rival? The Terps have beaten the Nittany Lions once in 37 tries, and that was during the Kennedy administration. Aside from some pockets of success under Ralph Friedgen, Maryland has been irrelevant on a national stage for most of the past 50 years. The school's athletic department is also saddled with so much debt that it recently had to cut multiple sports.
"If you wanted to judge it on the basis of this year or even the last 10 years, I would say that Maryland football has not performed at the level of the top half of our conference," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com and the Chicago Tribune. "I would also say that there’s no reason why they can’t be a prominent football program. ...
"I just believe they have real upside. I recognize in the last couple years they haven’t been as competitive. We’re not always going to be able to add a member that has got a nationally relevant, top-tier program like Penn State and Nebraska. If that’s the litmus test, then there wouldn’t be a lot of expansion around the country.”
Rutgers wouldn't come close to passing that litmus test, either. The Scarlet Knights played in the very first college football game against Princeton in 1869 and then decided to rest on that achievement for more than a century.
OK, I exaggerate, but Rutgers had been to only one bowl game before 2005. Former coach Greg Schiano finally got the program back on solid footing before departing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Scarlet Knights have never even won the Big East title.
That may change this year, as Rutgers is 9-1 and No. 19 in the BCS standings. That's one spot higher than Michigan, and in a year when only three Big Ten teams are ranked in the major polls, that must seem attractive. But take a closer look at Rutgers' season: The Scarlet Knights haven't beaten a ranked team, and their best win came at dysfunctional Arkansas. They were beaten by double digits at home by Kent State.
Many of Schiano's best seasons were built on extremely weak nonconference schedules. I covered Rutgers for three years on the Big East blog, and while the school did an excellent job of improving its facilities and becoming a consistent bowl team, it remains light years away from competing with big boys like Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan.
While Rutgers and Maryland will finally make Penn State feel less like it's on an Eastern island, neither new team creates much of a rivalry elsewhere in the league. Will anyone get excited about, say, Maryland versus Minnesota or Illinois versus Rutgers?
What's worse is that this further dilutes what was so special about the Big Ten: tradition-rich, history-seeped Midwestern rivalries. In August, Delany said, "We don't expand to play each other less." But unless the league changes course on the idea of a nine-game schedule, that's exactly what will happen. Get used to fewer games like Nebraska-Ohio State, Michigan State-Wisconsin and Penn State-Michigan.
"I still believe what I said," Delany told ESPN.com. "We have great integrated rivalries, great integrated markets, and on the other hand, it’s not the world necessarily that you want, it’s the world that you live in.
"So I still believe the more you play each other, the better off you are, the better chance to bind your fans to rivalries and tradition. I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a half-step away from that."
Delany said he'll bring up the nine-game schedule "as a discussion point," but ultimately it will be up to the league's athletic directors to decide on that. Longstanding nonconference rivalries and some recently added, top-flight intra-sectional matchups could be affected by an expanded conference schedule.
The Big Ten has struggled to win big games on the national stage, including this year's poor performance in the nonconference schedule and recently on New Year's Day. Maryland and Rutgers don't seem likely to change that anytime soon, or to enhance the league's chances of earning a spot in the forthcoming four-team playoff in any possible way.
There is hope that the Terrapins and/or Scarlet Knights can raise their current level of competitiveness and eventually become impact programs. Maryland has Under Armour founder Kevin Plank as its benefactor, and perhaps he can become the Terrapins' version of Phil Knight at Oregon. Rutgers has access to pretty fertile recruiting ground and should enjoy the added exposure of playing in a traditionally strong league. The influx of Big Ten cash should help both programs immensely in facilities, salaries and other areas.
Still, greatness is hard to achieve and even harder to predict in college football. The Big Ten is gambling on two teams that potentially could become good one day instead of taking established ones like Nebraska and Penn State. The league couldn't talk Notre Dame into joining as a full member and couldn't reel in a big fish like Texas. Now it will have to fight the perception that it's adding teams just to add them.
Delany has proved to be a visionary, and maybe the added revenue and markets are worth the on-the-field gamble. But in the immediate future, Rutgers and Maryland do very little to enhance Big Ten football.