Big Ten perception: Down but not out

Editor’s note: For the last few years, people have questioned the strength of the Big Ten in football and basketball. This project looks into how that perception came about and whether anything is being done to change it. Some of these quotations are take

Josh Katzenstein

As the college football season approaches, the Big Ten is looking to shake its recent reputation as a conference that canâÄôt win âÄúthe big one.âÄù Since Ohio StateâÄôs national championship in 2002, Big Ten squads have had five top-five finishes in the Associated Press poll since 2002, but the conference has failed to win national championships and Rose Bowls during that span. The perception of the Big Ten has become one of a conference on the decline, but since the âÄúfall,âÄù only a few other conferences have stepped into the championship circle. Teams from the Pac 10 (USC) and SEC (LSU and Florida) have won all but one title (Texas, Big 12, 2006) during the drought. Only teams from three of the six BCS conferences have hoisted the crystal ball at seasonâÄôs end since 2002, but the Big TenâÄôs inability to win âÄúthe big oneâÄù may be costing teams some much needed recruiting mojo. Although teams want nothing more than to destroy conference foes on game days, Big Ten victories over opponents from other conferences do help boost the conference. âÄúEvery time we line up outside our conference, obviously weâÄôre representing ourselves and our institution, but weâÄôre representing this league,âÄù Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel said. âÄúWhen those bowl games are going on, weâÄôre rooting like crazy. ThatâÄôs something thatâÄôs very, very important.âÄù When a conference team wins a championship, it allows other teams to sell the overall strength of the football being played,âÄù Pac 10 Associate Commissioner Jim Muldoon said. âÄúI think it helps the other teams indirectly because it shows that thereâÄôs a high quality football being played,âÄù he said. The quality of football being played is something University of Minnesota football head coach Tim Brewster said recruits want to see. The Gophers added games with USC for 2010 and 2011, which is something Brewster said excites recruits. âÄúI want to play nationally televised games where a tremendous exposure is put on our program,âÄù he said. âÄúWhen you play USC that happens.âÄù USCâÄôs postseason success has put the Trojans in the national spotlight, but some of the success may be skewed because the Rose Bowl is less than a half hour from the Trojans home field across Los Angeles. USC has won 24 of its 33 Rose Bowl appearances. MinnesotaâÄôs Athletics Director Joel Maturi said the Big Ten is put at a slight disadvantage for Rose Bowl games. The location in Pasadena, Calif., favors the local Pac 10 teams, especially UCLA, who plays in the Rose Bowl Stadium for all home games. âÄúIf you play Southern Cal or UCLA, youâÄôre playing in their city. ItâÄôs almost like a home game,âÄù Maturi said. âÄú[These are] not excuses, but the facts are that home teams win more often than visiting teams.âÄù Warm-weather teams often have an advantage in bowl games because they donâÄôt have to change their preparation as much as northern teams, Maturi said. Muldoon in part agreed. He said there is a comfort factor for Pac 10 teams in the Rose Bowl because they have the ability to play there every year. Possible excuses aside, the inability to win Rose Bowls is something new for the Big Ten. From 1993-2000, the Big Ten won seven Rose Bowl games. Since the Rose Bowl became essentially exclusive to Big Ten and Pac 10 squads, the current nine-year drought is the longest the Big Ten has gone without a victory. All droughts eventually come to an end, and Muldoon said he believes the Big Ten will bounce back soon. MinnesotaâÄôs coach Brewster said he has no answer to why the Big Ten is currently in a funk. âÄúOn the particular days that the games were played, we came out on the short end of the stick,âÄù he said. âÄúIt can turn and go the other direction just as easily, and I certainly hope that it will.âÄù

Possible changes

When people compare the Big Ten to other conferences, they often discuss speed and size among the players. Other differences, such as number of teams and scheduling, may play just as large a role in postseason performance. A major topic of discussion is the type of offense teams in the conference run. Many Big Ten squads run the traditional offense with the quarterback starting under center, which often sees basic running plays. In recent years, this style has been criticized as teams, such as reigning national champion Florida, have found success running a spread offense, which spreads the defense apart and allows for teams to use speed to their advantage. Under new head coach Rich Rodriguez , Michigan runs the spread, but the Wolverines found little success finishing 3-9 under the new offensive scheme. Many teams, including Minnesota, have worked some spread plays into the offense, but the players on the front line are just as important as the play calling. Illinois head coach Ron Zook has some experience in one of the recently claimed powerhouse conferences âÄî the SEC. Zook coached Florida for three seasons (2002-2004) before taking over for the Illini. When he first moved from the SEC to the Big Ten, the main difference Zook said he realized was that there were more quick linemen in the SEC. Aside from that, he said the Big Ten matches up well nationally. âÄúThereâÄôs teams in this league that can play in any league in the country,âÄù Zook said. âÄúUntil we go win the bowl games and obviously win the games out of conference, thereâÄôs not really a whole lot we can say.âÄù Zook is beginning to take some steps to look for postseason success. The Illini added a game at the end of the season on Dec. 5. Traditionally, the Big Ten has ended its season with Ohio State playing Michigan on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Playing into December is a way for teams to continue to prepare for games as possible bowl games approach. Wisconsin also added a game at the end of the season and will play Hawaii on Dec. 5. The move to add games to keep teams fresh has been a proposed difference, and some coaches besides Zook and the BadgersâÄô Bret Bielema believe it will help. âÄúI think Illinois and Wisconsin are doing a smart thing because I think we are at a disadvantage,âÄù Penn State head coach Joe Paterno said. âÄúI felt that way when we played Southern Cal this year. They had two games after we played.âÄù The Nittany Lions lost to USC in the 2009 Rose Bowl 38-24. Paterno said his team was at a disadvantage because itâÄôs tough to match the intensity of a meaningful game. âÄúI think itâÄôs a tough deal for a Big Ten team to go out and play a team thatâÄôs had two good tough games after weâÄôve finished and weâÄôre sitting around,âÄù he said. Some other changes exist that coaches believe could help the Big Ten resurface. âÄúPlaying into December, adding a team and playing a championship game, in my mind, would be a very positive step for our conference,âÄù Brewster said. Having an odd number of teams prevents the Big Ten from having a championship game because the conference cannot be split into two divisions. Adding a team could solve the problem, but Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said itâÄôs not a simple move. One reason the conference would consider expansion is to fill a marketing void of which other conferences take advantage, but Delany said there must be other substantial reasons to add a team. Whatever the future may hold, the present isnâÄôt all bad for the Big Ten. If the assessment of a conference is based on recent championships, there are still some conferences that cannot match the Big Ten. Rodriguez coached at West Virginia for seven seasons (2001-2007) and led the Mountaineers to a 2006 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia. In comparing the Big Ten to the Big East, which hasnâÄôt won a national championship since Miami (which now plays in the ACC) took the title in 2001, Rodriguez said the Big Ten is stronger overall. âÄúObviously I think the Big Ten, besides the obvious having more teams, I think the strength of the league from top to bottom may be a little stronger than the Big East,âÄù he said. MichiganâÄôs downfall over the past few years has been part of the reason for the perception of the falling conference. Michigan has had some of the greatest success of any program in the country, with the second most Rose Bowl victories (eight ) and 11 national championships. Rodriguez said the Wolverines inability to make it to a January bowl game could feed the perception, but he expects things could turn around soon. âÄúI think all their perception, negative perceptions of the Big Ten regarding bowl performances, all it takes is one or two big wins in a bowl game and all that will go away,âÄù Rodriguez said.

Basketball perception struggling as well

When people throw around rumors about the Big Ten being down in basketball, they often only look at the box scores and lack of recent additions to the trophy case. North Carolina dominated Michigan State en route to an 89-72 victory in the 2009 NCAA Championship . But Michigan State finished second among the field of 65, despite questions of the conference strength. Since Michigan State won the national championship for basketball in 2000, the Big Ten has had eight teams in the Final Four, including four runners-up. During that time only the ACC put more teams in the Final Four. The Big Ten also made a name for itself in the National Invitation Tournament, with teams taking the title three times since 2004. While the Big Ten is inching close to championships, a number of other big conferences have been able to win the title. Since 2000, the ACC has won four times, the SEC twice and the Big East and Big 12 with one each. This leaves the Pac 10 and Big Ten as the only major conferences without championships in that span. Any type of national championship drought plays no role in how the NCAA Division I selection committee determines the field of 65 each season, David Worlock, associate director for the Division I MenâÄôs Basketball Championship, said. Conference affiliation plays no role in selection, Worlock said, adding that the committee no longer looks at conference RPI as a selection tool. He said the committee tries to look at teams as complete independents when determining the 34 at-large bids. âÄúSomeoneâÄôs conference affiliation has never been brought up once,âÄù he said. âÄú[The committee asks] âÄòHow strong do you think this team is? Is this one of the 34 best teams?âÄô âÄù University of Minnesota menâÄôs basketball coach Tubby Smith has some experience in another conference that gained some recent exposure through its champions. While Smith coached at Kentucky in the SEC, Florida won the national title in 2006 and 2007. Despite the Gators winning back-to-back championships, Smith said the Big Ten might be the superior conference overall and is more consistent. Smith said Ohio State, who finished second place to Florida in 2007, would have had a good chance to win the national championship in 2008 or 2009 had they kept freshman center Greg Oden. Although the Big Ten may have missed an opportunity to overturn the national perception, Smith said the conference is currently on its way to becoming an elite conference. Last year, the Big Ten had seven of its 11 teams in the NCAA tournament, which tied the Big East and ACC for most conference bids. However, the Big East had three No. 1 seeds and two No. 3 seeds. The highest seed of any Big Ten team was Michigan State with a No. 2 seed followed by Purdue with a No. 5 seed. The Big Ten teams beat up on each other during the season, which affected the seeding of the teams in the NCAA tournament, Smith said. When teams are ranked lower, they are forced to play tougher opponents earlier in the tournament. Another reason the Big Ten is scrutinized comes from the results of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge , which the Big Ten hasnâÄôt won since its inception in 1999. Despite head-to-head losses, the Big Ten had the same number of teams in the tournament. Fortunately for Big Ten teams, a history of losing to ACC teams plays no role on the selection committeeâÄôs decision. Worlock said teams start with a clean slate each year, even if conferences go into droughts. âÄúPast success or past failures has no bearing on what theyâÄôre doing in the selection room during selection week,âÄù he said. âÄúWe wouldnâÄôt say âÄòWell Minnesota made it last year and lost in the first round, so nah.âÄô âÄù The Big Ten was a young conference all around in 2009. As players develop and continue to gain experience, Big Ten teams may be able to fight the perception.