Big Ten changes tradition, not talent
CHICAGO -- Tradition is a wonderful thing in college football, right up to the point where it becomes a roadblock to progress.
The hidebound Big Ten was at that point. An ancient refusal to play conference games after Thanksgiving left it out of sight and out of mind as other leagues reached a crescendo. The buzz surrounding a conference championship game was absent in the Midwest. Michigan's refusal to host a night game or build luxury suites cost one of the league's marquee programs exposure and revenue.
So the Big Ten was faced with a challenge. It had to break its decades-old mold without breaking ties with the hard-core traditionalists.
That's been a work in progress over the past few years, and now we're ready for the unveiling of a thoroughly modern Big Ten. It has 12 teams, two (lamely named) divisions, a conference championship game, lights at the Big House and a schedule that will keep the conference visible all season long.
"Our change has been incremental, not radical," said commissioner Jim Delany. "Our conference has been pretty conservative."
Give Delany credit for skillfully selling a conservative conference on expansion twice (first Penn State, now Nebraska), and on instant replay (first major conference to use it), and on starting its own network, and on loosening up the schedule restraints. It's been a pretty significant makeover.
Aside from playing its title game indoors instead of at Soldier Field or another outdoor locale, in the elements that are part of the Big Ten's DNA, I believe the newest and biggest changes are good. I believe the league will benefit. And I believe it will do so without sending the old guard screaming that the apocalypse is nigh.
Change doesn't mean Penn State is going to start dressing like Oregon. Or that Ohio State's band will spell the state name in block letters. Or that Michigan's "Go Blue" banner will feature flashing neon. Wisconsin fans will still jump around and the Iowa-Minnesota winner will still get a brass pig. It's all good.
"I think bringing Nebraska in was a real big asset and I think the league's great," said Penn State's Joe Paterno. "And the fact that it gave us an opportunity to play for a conference championship game, I think it's kind of exciting, it really is. It's something we want to do. If we end up winning the division in a big game in Indianapolis, I think that's great."
There you have it. If the 84-year-old guy in the league is OK with it, everyone else should be, too.
But here is what's not so great about the new Big Ten: It looks a lot like the Big Ten of recent years when it comes to talent and athleticism.
Frankly, that hasn't been good enough, at least not to be what the Big Ten aspires to be -- ruler of the Earth. It has not won a national championship since 2002 and has won just two of them since 1968. To the chagrin of Delany, his nemesis Mike Slive and the Southeastern Conference just keeps winning everything.
The problem largely lies in geography. There are more and more people living where the sun shines year-round, and more and more good players coming from there, as well.
As a high-ranking college insider told me earlier this month: "This is so much Sun Belt versus Rust Belt, and the best players are in the Sun Belt now. It's made Jim combative, because he knows he can't compete anymore."
Recruiting rankings are a dangerous yardstick -- I don't remember seeing top 10 programs Boise State and TCU dominating on signing day, whereas I've seen a lot of highly ranked classes fizzle at places like Miami and Clemson. But even with that in mind, the Big Ten is generally being left behind by warm-weather schools.
In the current ESPNU 150 ranking of the Class of 2012, 65 players are from the SEC footprint (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas). Just 14 are from the Big Ten footprint (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska).
It was shocking to see that bedrock football states Ohio and Pennsylvania have a combined seven players in the ESPNU 150. Alabama and Georgia, which have about 10 million fewer residents than Ohio and Pennsylvania, have a combined 22 players in the top 150. Mississippi and Louisiana have a combined 10 top 150 players; Illinois and Michigan (which has been leaking population) have a combined four.
And almost all of the top southern prospects appear intent on staying in the region. Michigan is in on a few ESPNU 150 players from Florida, and Northwestern is in on one. But for the most part, they're going to play their college ball below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Of the ESPNU 150, only nine have committed to Big Ten schools. Twenty-nine have committed to SEC programs, 22 to the Big 12 and 21 to the ACC. (Caveat: Football recruits change their minds the way runway models change outfits, so August commitments are not set in stone. Check back in February.)
In the previous six years, ESPN has placed no Big Ten program higher than sixth in its final recruiting rankings. The average final recruiting ranking of the top Big Ten program in that time is ninth.
The top five has belonged to the Sun Belt. Not the conference, the geographic area.
Those are geographic facts that the new and improved Big Ten will struggle to overcome. The league has done a nice job updating itself, but Jim Delany & Co. might not have an answer for the modern realities of population shift.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.