…the Big Ten bashing, that is.
ESPN (who else?) leads off the bowl season with another anti-Big Ten article, this time by Michael Weinreb, who says the Big Ten is “a legacy of linebackers missing front teeth and running backs built like, well, Plymouth Valiants.”
And, once again, we’ve got another formulaic attack on the Big Ten. Weinreb clearly only has a rudimentary knowledge of college football, but is a clever-enough writer to mask his tenuous point behind a way-too-thick metaphor and a ton of superficial analysis. Presto! His entire point may be wrong, but who cares? He’s witty.
Worse yet, he’s stated his company line: The Big Ten had better do fantastic this bowl season, or it will confirm to the world that the conference is irrelevant.
That’s ridiculous. OF COURSE the Big Ten is going to fail miserably this bowl season. But it has nothing to do with the conference’s weakness — it’s a simple, reasonable outcome of the fact that all of the conference’s bowl representatives have unfavorable matchups. This occurred because Ohio State was selected for a BCS at-large slot. Once OSU was pulled away from the Big Ten affiliated bowls, the four other bowl-eligible teams “slid up” one slot to fill the vacancy.
Consider the following 2008/09 bowl matchups:
- Penn State vs. USC (#8 vs. #5)
- OSU vs. Texas (#10 vs. #3)
- Michigan State vs. Georgia (#18 vs. #15)
- Northwestern vs. Missouri (#23 vs. #21)
- Iowa vs. South Carolina (B10 5th vs. SEC 5th)
- Wisconsin vs. Florida State (B10 7th vs. ACC 4th)
- Minnesota vs. Kansas (B10 6th vs. Big 12N 3rd)
Of the above Big Ten teams, all are playing against higher ranked (or rated) opponents, with the exception of Iowa/SC, the lone relatively even matchup. In other words: seven teams, six underdogs and one even matchup. No favorites.
However… if Ohio State had not been selected to the Fiesta, the bowls would have likely looked this way:
- Penn State vs. USC (#8 vs. #5)
- OSU vs. Georgia (#10 vs. #15)
- Michigan State vs. Missouri (#18 vs. #21)
- Northwestern vs. South Carolina (#23 vs. SEC 5th)
- Iowa vs. Florida State (B10 5th vs. ACC 4th)
- Wisconsin vs. Kansas (B10 7th vs. Big 12N3rd)
- (Sorry, Minnesota.)
Now THAT is a more reasonable set of matchups. From this we can see that had OSU not been selected to the BCS, the Big 10 (from OSU on down) would have been on more “level ground” with respect to its opponents. There would have been a mix of favorited teams (Iowa/Fla St, OSU/GA), even-stevens (MSU/Mizzou, Wisco/Kansas), and underdogs (PSU/USC), instead of the current slate of games, in which the teams are all underdogs.
Big Ten fans are jealous, because this is the type of schedule that SEC, Pac 10, and Big 12 fans enjoy year after year. Meanwhile, Big 10 teams are just good enough and attractive enough to merit selections they probably don’t deserve.
For instance, because OSU got pulled into the BCS again – where it probably doesn’t belong this year – to play #3 Texas, Northwestern has to play Big 12 North champ Missouri.
The fact that the Big 10 is such a popular conference, and has so many good teams year to year, is probably why the conference gets such unfavorable matchups during each bowl season. Bowls are about money, not matchups, and therefore lesser-qualified Big 10 teams are consistently pulled into bowls against better opponents simply because they’re a higher $$ draw.
No other major conference has this issue. Mid-major teams like Utah and Boise St. are always underdogs, and deservedly so. But no other BCS conference has this perennial underdog matchup problem like the Big 10 does.
Put simply, the conference is too popular for its own good. It’s too good for its own good. Had OSU not finished in the top ten yet again, none of this would have happened.
So what’s left? Superficial articles like Weinreb’s that ignore matchups and instead base conference strength on bowl win-loss records.
Honestly, if the Big 10 even goes .500, that should be an indicator of the conference’s strength, not weakness.
So where did this false idea of Big 10 weakness come from, anyway?
Contrary to common opinion, the Big 10’s perceived weakness can be traced back to three events. Not a collection of data points, across years or decades, mind you – but three singular events that started this current fad of conference bashing. The talking heads took it from there.
- OSU – Florida, BCS Championship, January 2007. One of the best Ohio State offenses in history shows up uninspired, poorly motivated, and gets spanked on national TV by a Florida team that felt disrespected by the media. Media overcompensates for their error by slobbering all over Urban Meyer.
- OSU – Florida, NCAA Basketball Final, March 2007. Just 11 weeks after the BCS championship game, the Buckeyes play the Gators again, but this time on a basketball court. The Oden-led freshmen make a great effort, but are unable to topple the senior-filled Florida dynasty. At this point, it became fashionable for fans to chant “SEC! SEC!” while eating corn dogs and wearing jorts. Media REALLY likes the easy story angle the two championship games gave them, and moves from slobbering over Urban Meyer to slobbering over all things SEC.
- Michigan – Appalachian State, Sept. 2007. Michigan craps its pants on national TV to Joe Bob’s University and Lube and Tire Clinic. Awesome for the schadenfreude, not awesome in that it literally caused the Mark Mays of the world to pee in their pants a little. Media moves from slobbering over SEC to full-blown writing it love letters, sending out radio dedications, and mild stalking.
Those three events in 2007 are the lens through which every Big 10 team’s failure of the past two seasons has been viewed. Yes, I know that the OSU losses to LSU and USC were bad for the Big 10, but in all reality, had either of those games happened “in the void,” that is to say, without the three events mentioned above, nobody would have read anything else into it other than the fact that LSU was a much better team last year than Ohio State was, or that it wasn’t surprising when a banged up OSU team without a running back didn’t beat a USC juggernaut.
It was only the events of the previous year that turned OSU’s losses into an example of the Big 10’s weakness by those who were looking for a superficial thing to analyze, rather than anything significant or substantial.
So, heading into another tough bowl season, nobody is likely to care that each Big 10 team is playing a higher-ranked or rated team, and that even being competitive on a consistent basis in that situation is admirable. Like I wrote above, if the Big 10 even wins half of these games, that would be a major feather in the conference’s cap.
And it’s an absolute shame that nobody else will see it that way.