Last weekend, what was shaping up to be one of the best time slots of the first month of college football in 2014 turned into yet another instance of "let's all laugh at the Big Ten."
The league's prime time participants all came up short. Michigan State, a team known for its defense, allowed 46 points and 7.2 yards per play in losing by 19 to Oregon. Ohio State, a team known for its offense, scored only 21 points and gained only 4.2 yards per play in a 14-point loss at home to Virginia Tech. Michigan is known for, well, not much these days, but it confirmed that Brady Hoke's teams struggle away from Ann Arbor, as Hoke remains stuck on a grand total of one road win at Michigan against a team that finished with a winning record (a 2011 victory over collapsing Illinois).
While the big names took beatings under the lights, the rest of the conference didn't exactly cover itself in glory, with MAC losses and unimpressive wins throughout. We're two weeks into the season, and the Big Ten's best non-conference scalp is either Penn State kicking a last-second field goal against a UCF team that plainly started the wrong quarterback or Rutgers winning at a Washington State team that proceeded to lose by 11 to Nevada.
Happily for commissioner Jim Delany, most of the conference's struggles on Saturday were buried in low-profile games so the general viewing public didn't see just how bad things were for his league. As a result, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State have taken the brunt of the criticism because they lost in the games that got the biggest ratings.
Of those, Michigan State and Ohio State had extenuating circumstances, whereas Michigan did not. The Spartans were playing on the road against one of the very best teams in the country. The Buckeyes also faced a worst-case scenario. While Virginia Tech has been shaky, Bud Foster's defenses are consistently excellent. Ohio State came into the season heavily reliant on Braxton Miller to cover for the fact that the Bucks were replacing four starters on the offensive line, as well as Carlos Hyde. When MIller went down, Urban Meyer was confronted with a redshirt freshman quarterback starting behind a green offensive line against a Foster defense.
The conference should have sufficient depth that it can survive those hits. It has four teams in the historical top 20: Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Penn State. Of those four, only Ohio State is fully healthy at present as a program. The Buckeyes have a coach with impeccable credentials, they've been recruiting well, and their results on the field have been consistently good.
If we are going to place blame for the Big Ten's current state, then the arrows need to be lobbed at Ann Arbor and Lincoln.
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Michigan is a mess. The Wolverines have lost seven of their last ten games. They haven't won a conference title since 2004 or beaten their arch-rival since 2003, save for a sole six-point win over an interim coach in 2011. The fan base is responding to the program's struggles with apathy.
Nebraska's recent track record is arguably worse than Michigan's. The Huskers haven't finished a season with fewer than four losses since 2003, and they haven't won a conference title since 1999. While Bo Pelini looked like he was on the cusp of producing excellent teams in 2009 and 2010 -- both seasons in which the Huskers lost narrowly in the Big 12 title game -- his teams have regressed since then. Moreover, recruiting has been relatively poor, as the Huskers have struggled to find a new recruiting base to replace Texas after moving from a Texas-centric conference to one in the Midwest.
Penn State looks the most likely to join Ohio State as a traditional power whose results match its pedigree, but that does not mean that the Nittany Lions are there yet. Penn State appears to have the right coach (Vandy's results this year certainly seem to indicate that James Franklin and his staff are quite valuable) and recruiting is going well, but for this year and maybe next, PSU is still a rebuilding program as a result of NCAA
In a world in which Michigan looked good in South Bend and delivered another memorable classic for the viewing public, in which Nebraska justified its preseason top-25 ranking by plowing through overmatched opponents, and in which Penn State were playing with a full deck, then Michigan State and Ohio State losing in prime time would not be a big concern. The conference would have five ranked teams, and therefore, the winner of the league would stand a good chance at making the Playoff. Instead, the league lacks sufficient quality at the top for any one team to develop a Playoff-worthy resume.
Saturday's shock to the system for the Big Ten was vaguely reminiscent of a recent major defeat experienced by another proud, but arguably declining sports power. We are roughly two months removed from Brazil losing a World Cup semifinal at home to Germany by the now-famous score of 7-1. The loss was seen as a shock to the system, a massive embarrassment to a country that prides itself on its national team's tradition of success. The loss could have been a call for change, but the men in charge of Brazilian soccer instead chose to double down on the uninspiring style of play that got Brazil into a position where it could be undressed by Germany in the first place.
The Big Ten just suffered through a weekend that, while not quite as embarrassing as losing a home World Cup semifinal by six goals, was fairly humiliating. Delany, a man perpetually concerned with the financial ledger, has to be wondering whether fans will continue to buy tickets and turn on their TV sets to watch a plainly substandard product, especially with the Playoff continuing the trend of college football becoming a national sport as opposed to a regional one. Collectively, the conference cannot take the Brazilian approach of doing things the same way. Individually, the changes have to start in Ann Arbor and Lincoln.