These are not good times for the Big Ten.
It doesn't seem all that long ago that the Big Ten really was a big deal; anchored by historic powers Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State and bolstered by strong, rising programs such as Iowa and Wisconsin, the Big Ten of the early 2000s had the look of a true power conference. It may not have been the best league in the nation, but it was certainly in the discussion, and there was a sense that, yes, there really was a rivalry between the Big Ten in the north and the SEC in the South.
Well, those days are over.
As the SEC has gone about the work of completely taking control of the college football world, the Big Ten has fallen almost completely off the map. Penn State and Ohio State have been rocked by scandal (though Ohio State, it should be pointed out, seems to be recovering just fine), Michigan is just finding its way back to relevancy after a few years in the wilderness, Iowa has descended into mediocrity, Wisconsin just saw its coach leave for a mid-level job in the SEC and, well, there is a sense that this league just isn't anywhere near as good as it used to be. The teams aren't ranked as highly as they once were, the players aren't as talented, and any sense of rivalry with the SEC has long since dissipated. Besides, that war is over, and the SEC won.
So what happens now for the Big Ten? What's the future hold? We attempt to answer those questions here, in Part IV of our ongoing season preview edition of College Football Questions & Answers.
Is it really that bad for the Big Ten?
Yes. Yes, it is. Look, for years and years I defended the Big Ten. In part that was because I really did believe that some of the criticism that was lobbed at the league--the idea that the players ran too slow, for instance--was off the mark, and in part because, well, I grew up in Big Ten country and knew what Big Ten football was about. I had seen the league in its glory days. I had experienced Big Ten gamedays. I knew that, when Big Ten football was good, it was as good as any football played anywhere. But here's the thing: I don't believe that anymore. I look at the Big Ten today and I see a conference playing a football at least one level below what they're playing in the SEC. While I didn't believe it to be true in years past, I do believe it to be true now: SEC players are faster, because SEC players are better. There are still great players in the Big Ten (look no further than Ohio State's Braxton Miller). There just aren't as many as there are down South. Once you accept that truth--and yeah, I think it's pretty obvious a truth--then it's not exactly difficult to come to the conclusion that the teams up north aren't as good as the ones down south, either. The balance of power has tilted southward. The Big Ten has been left behind.
So what can be done about it?
If the recruiting experts are to be believed, a big reason for the SEC's recent dominance is the fact that the South boasts more top high school players; given that it's easier to convince kids to play close to home rather than travel across the country to play in the cold North, then, it's easy to see how the talent equation has turned. So if we are accept this as reality--the idea that the South has an inherent advantage when it comes to talent--then the only way forward for the Big Ten (and other programs playing up north) is simple: They need to double-down on the effort, and they need to double-down on the money. Kids want to play at programs that look the part. They want the best facilities. They want all the bells and whistles. They want to believe that they are going to a program that wants to win games, and they want to play for coaches who can get them to the NFL. In other words, what I'm saying is this: If the Big Ten wants to compete going forward, Big Ten programs will have to spend the money to bring in top staffs, to keep those staffs, to build great facilities and to give prospects the impression that they've not yet surrendered. In these times of anti-college football sentiment, the idea of spending more to win probably won't go over well in some quarters. But I'm sorry. That's the world we're living in. Alabama doesn't just win because they have Nick Saban. Alabama wins because they made the decision to invest in Nick Saban. It's safe to say the investment was a good one.
How's the league look for 2013?
It looks like it used to look back in the days of the Big 2 and Little 8. It's patently clear at this point that Ohio State is the one program in the conference that is built to compete (in theory) with the SEC, and Urban Meyer is well on his way to building a powerhouse in Columbus. The Buckeyes should be phenomenal this season and have every chance of running the table. About their only competition should come from--yep, you guessed it--Michigan, which has slowly been rebuilt under the guidance of Brady Hoke, who inherited a program almost completely bereft of defensive talent. Hoke isn't there yet, but he's built a solid base of talent in Ann Arbor and has brought a certain physicality back to the Wolverines. If any program is going to topple Ohio State from the Big Ten perch in the years to come, it will be Michigan.