It starts. Plus, the reality behind the Big Ten’s perceived weakness

Football…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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Comments

  1. I would add one additional point to the “Anti- Big T1e1n Bias” from ESPN- I think that this may also be influenced by the Big Ten’s attempt to create their own television network.

    It’s important to remember that the E is the sports arm of ABC/Disney, and as such is about making money. It’s why they dropped a crapload of cash to get all of the BCS games in a few years, and why they also ponied up big bucks for SEC games that weren’t on CBS (the formerly Jefferson Pilot games).

    While it may seem a small thing, I would imagine that the BTN does cut into ESPN’s Gameplan revenue and the traffic that would come through ESPN360. It keeps them from having a monopoly, so of course it makes sense to denigrate the quality of the games that will be televised on the opposition.

    My $.02.

    And now, back to wearing my aluminum foil helmet behind the grassy knoll.

  2. I am anxious to see if Urban Meyer’s success continues after the OC and Tebow leave.

  3. Texas Wahoo says

    I’m not sure ranking is the right way to look at this. It seems more like you should look at where the teams fall into their respective conferences in determining whether it’s fair to blame the Big Ten for doing poorly in bowls. Texas might be ranked much higher than OSU, but their both the second best teams in the their conferences (although some might argue Texas is better than OU, OU would be favored by just as much). Mizzou was likely the fifth best team in the Big XII, while Northwestern was around the same (4th best record). Kansas was either the sixth or seventh best team in the Big XII and Minnesota was around the same (tied for 6th-7th by record).

    Penn State-USC, Michigan St-UGA, and Iowa-South Carolina also match up teams that were even in their respective conferences.

    The only game where the Big Ten is at a disadvantage in terms of rank in conference is Wisconsin-FSU, and that’s because no one has any idea how to arrange the ACC schools and the ACC has a crap bowl alignment compared to the other major conferences – except for the Big East.

    It seems to me that the reason the Big Ten has such unfavorable matchups when comparing rankings is either because the Big Ten really is down this year, or because they are ranked lower than where they deserve. If it is the latter, the Big Ten should be able to show it this bowl season against the other conferences.

  4. @MaliBuckeye – that is a fascinating insight. Worth a post in itself. Never thought of it that way…

    @Texas Wahoo –
    “It seems more like you should look at where the teams fall into their respective conferences in determining whether it’s fair to blame the Big Ten for doing poorly in bowls.”

    Well, first, the Big 10 usually does pretty well in bowls. Second, nobody’s “wondering whether it’s fair to blame the big 10.” The only thing I question is the ignoring of the actual matchups when looking at win-loss.

    Overall, though, I disagree with your point about only comparing teams based on where they finished in-conference… otherwise, you’d expect the Sun Belt champ to be on the same level as the Big 10 champ; or the Big 12 runner-up equal to the MAC runner-up. Ridiculous.

    We can use our logic to compare teams. There is no question that Missouri/NW is a one-sided matchup. Again, it doesn’t mean that NW can’t win, but that they’re definitely underdogs, fighting an uphill battle against a team that had a more impressive season than they did. Same with Wisconsin, OSU, and PSU.

    My point is still valid: 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.

  5. Texas Wahoo says

    No one is comparing anyone to the MAC/Sun Belt/CUSA/non-BCS conferences. I was just suggesting that the reason the Big Ten gets unfavorable matchups is because the bowls were meant to feature evenly matched teams assuming the BCS (besides the Big East) conferences were approximately equal in terms of depth. Recently, that hasn’t been true, and thus the Big Ten is getting bad matchups.

    I agree with you. The Big Ten does seem to be getting bad match-ups the last couple of years. I think this is probably because of the traditional strength of the Big Ten. Recently, with the Big Ten being down, matching them up evenly with the SEC/Big XII has been difficult because the bowls are drawn up years ahead of time. Perhaps if the Big Ten keeps floundering, this problem may fix itself in 5-10 years – but probably not. Or perhaps the Big Ten will improve again and once again be on the level with the SEC/Big XII – and then the matchups that are currently set would in fact be evenly matched.

  6. @TexasWahoo – I don’t think you understand the bowl affiliations.

    >>Recently, with the Big Ten being down, matching them up evenly with the SEC/Big XII has been difficult because the bowls are drawn up years ahead of time.<< The bowls are not drawn up years ahead of time. From their inception, they have very specific conference affiliation: champ goes here, #2 goes there, #3 goes there, etc. (Or, more specifically, the bowl gets first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. which usually ends up being 1-2-3-etc.). It has nothing to do with the Big 10 being "down." Actually, including nonconference matchups, the Big 10 hasn't done any worse than any other conference. Here are the non-conference records over the past 10 years: Pac-10: 54.5% SEC: 50.8 % Big Ten: 50.5 % ACC: 50.0% Big 12: 48.8% Big East: 45.9% All those are close to .500. When you consider the practical side of the equation (accounting for all margins of error), that means that every conference is about equal. No matter what reality ESPN tries to create, the BCS conferences are equal. No such thing as a "down year." But back to the main point: The Big 10 isn't getting bad matchups because they're a weak conference. They're getting unfavorable matchups because their popularity is resulting in getting two teams to BCS games on a regular basis, leaving at least one of those two in a bad spot, while the "meat" of the conference deals with the mismatches that result. Proof? Illinois, the Big Ten #3 last year, played USC, the Pac 10 champ, in the Rose. Of course Illinois got spanked. Yet, some chose to ignore the mismatch and used that as an example of "Big Ten weakness." It's a faulty syllogism. My other point was that no other conference has to deal with this on as regular a basis as the Big 10 does. Take the above example. Could you ever imagine a scenario where the Big 10 champ would play the Pac 10 #3 in the Rose? This year, that'd be PSU vs Oregon St. (To prove the mismatch, consider that the two played earlier this year, and PSU spanked the Beavers 45-14.) Or, what if the Big 10 #3 were to play the Big 12 #6 in the Alamo? (This year, that'd be Mich. St. vs Kansas). Those situations would never happen. Put it all together, and add in the fact that most bowl games are "home" games for southern/western schools, and like I wrote, it's amazing that the Big 10 even manages to stay competitive in those situations.

  7. I agree with you. The B10 has been matched against higher ranked teams in bowls for years.

    One correction: Michigan lost to Appy State on the Big Ten Network, not on National TV. The highlights spread so fast that it just seemed like it was on national TV.

  8. i’m sad/pissed the northwestern gave up a perfectly winnable game against Missouri. what a great finish that would have been to a surprising season. ah, well, lets hope the rest of the big ten does better and tOSU beats the snot out of texas.

    i mean, stranger things have happened (see: 9-4 northwestern comparend to 2007)…

  9. Great article and perspective, I watched a great game last night rooting for an underdog NW team that just missed for the Big Ten. One failed PAT attempt away from an upset, disappointing but a fun game to watch.

  10. Texas Wahoo says

    “The bowls are not drawn up years ahead of time. From their inception, they have very specific conference affiliation: champ goes here, #2 goes there, #3 goes there, etc. (Or, more specifically, the bowl gets first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. which usually ends up being 1-2-3-etc.).”

    While this is generally true. The bowl affiliations are just long term agreements – they can change. The latest round of bowl arrangements has seen the Big East get shoved down to worse bowls because of the perceived weakness of the conference.

    “But back to the main point: The Big 10 isn’t getting bad matchups because they’re a weak conference. They’re getting unfavorable matchups because their popularity is resulting in getting two teams to BCS games on a regular basis, leaving at least one of those two in a bad spot, while the “meat” of the conference deals with the mismatches that result.”

    The Big XII and SEC are also getting two teams into the BCS on a regular basis – and it isn’t resulting in unfavorable matchups. I guess the difference is that the Big Ten’s second team generally doesn’t seem to deserve to be in a BCS bowl (tOSU this year, Ill last year), whereas the Big XII’s second team does (Texas this year, Kansas last year).

  11. @Texas Wahoo:

    “The Big XII are also getting two teams into the BCS on a regular basis”

    Well, if by “regular basis” you mean the last two years only. Number of years that a conference has sent two teams to BCS bowls (out of 11):

    Big 10: 8
    SEC: 6
    Big 12: 4

    And half of the Big 12’s 4 were last year and this one (07-08). Clearly not a trend.

    “I guess the difference is that the Big Ten’s second team generally doesn’t seem to deserve to be in a BCS bowl (tOSU this year, Ill last year)”

    …that’s exactly my point, although it’s not as simple as “doesn’t deserve.” Again, the Big 10 (1) too popular and (2) too good for its own good. Too many big 10 teams consistently finishing in the top 10 every year, combined with their huge fanbases makes for an attractive package, even if it’s #15 Illnois against #5 USC, or #3 Texas against #10 OSU.

    No other conference has to deal with that, in part because (1) no other conference finishes two teams ranked in the top 10 as consistently as the Big 10 does, and (2) no other conference has as many fans who are willing to travel to warm climates in January, making their BCS selection more attractive to bowl administrators.

  12. Texas Wahoo says

    “Well, if by “regular basis” you mean the last two years only. Number of years that a conference has sent two teams to BCS bowls (out of 11):”

    I was largely referring to the last couple of years because the idea that the Big Ten is overrated seems to be have come about in that time period. I never heard many people talk about the Big Ten being overrated before the last few years. Perhaps they were underdogs in many of their bowl games then as well (I don’t know), but I don’t remember many people saying the Big Ten needed big bowl showings in those years to prove themselves.

    Also – the Big XII has had two 5 years if you are counting this year (which you seem to be doing for the other conferences).

    As a side-bar, I had no idea the ACC was 1-9 in BCS bowls. That is terrible.

  13. Texas Wahoo says

    I would also add that I think one of the major factors leading to Big Ten teams getting selected more often for BCS bowls is the fact that there is no championship game – and thus the best teams in the conference are unlikely to end the season with a loss. The BCS tends to not like to take teams that recently lost, even if they are more highly ranked than teams that lost in the middle of the season. I also think the Rose Bowl wanting to have Big Ten-Pac 10 all the time plays a part.

  14. Good points, Texas Wahoo.

    Even though the B10 doesn’t _technically_ have a championship game, 80% of the time the OSU/Mich game is for the championship, & it’s the last game of the season.

    You’re right – last year, UM’s loss to OSU for the Big 10 title cost them a shot at a BCS game.

  15. Ski U Mah Gopher says

    Actually Minnesota would have played WMU in the Motor City Bowl. Minnesota actually would have had a good shot at winning that game.

  16. Thanks for the correction, Ski U Mah Gopher. More proof that the Big 10 would have had better success overall had OSU not gone to the BCS.

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