This was supposed to be the Big Ten’s year. Or the B1G as some are now referring to it. The conference was supposed to have a number of teams fighting not only for the conference crown, but also a birth in the BCS title game. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska were all supposed to be viable contenders for the national championship. Ohio State was also thought to be very good, but ineligible for the conference championship and national title due to penalties stemming from Tattoo-gate.
Fast forward to today…
The Badgers suffered a loss to at-the-time unranked Oregon State in the season opener. Of course, after Oregon State also beat ranked UCLA, the Beavers might be better than we all expected, but I suspect we won’t see them ranked at the end of the year. What may be worse than the Oregon State loss are the three close wins over the likes of Northern Iowa, Utah State and UTEP.
Michigan State: 3-1
Sparty lost to Notre Dame. No shame in that since the Golden Domers look pretty good this year. The boys from East Lansing also struggled against Eastern Michigan though, winning a closer than it appears 23-7 contest.
The Wolverines got their ass handed to them in the season opener against Alabama, a game many were expecting to be a marquee match-up. Three weeks later, Michigan lost to Notre Dame and QB Denard Robinson, a Heisman candidate in week one, now looks like he doesn’t belong on a FBS field. In between the two losses were a close win over Air Force and a blowout of UMass. Are the Minutemen even a FBS program? Seriously, I think they’re FCS…
The ‘Huskers lost to at-the-time #22 UCLA in week two. They also blew out Southern Miss, Arkansas State and Idaho State. Apparently Nebraska AD Tom Osborne decided this would be the year to really test his football team by building a killer out-of-conference schedule consisting of a middle of the pack Pac 12 team, teams from such powerful conferences as Conference USA and the Sun Belt, and a FCS team.
Let’s also not forget that Iowa lost to Central Michigan and struggled to beat Northern Illinois and Northern Iowa, while Ohio State struggled with winless UAB this past weekend and Cal the weekend prior.
Over the last few years many have viewed the Big Ten as one of the best conferences. The SEC trumped all, of course, followed by the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12, in some order. They were definitely viewed more positively than the ACC, Big East and yes, MAC. This year, however, I would put all of those conferences (minus the Big East….they’re still a complete mess) above the Big Ten. Ok, not the MAC either, but they’ve made that call somewhat difficult to make.
Looking back, I’d put the Big Ten as one of the two strongest over the past 15 years or so. Want proof? Since 1999, when the BCS format was rolled out, only twice has the Big Ten not had two teams playing in BCS bowls (2002 and 2005). That’s 12 of 14 years, including the last seven straight. Pretty impressive. No other conference has that kind of track record.
Looking at the other major conferences (minus the Big East), I don’t see that streak continuing this year. I see at least two teams from each of the other power conferences that seem better than all the Big Ten teams. The SEC has Bama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina. The ACC has Florida State and Clemson. The Big 12 has Kansas State, West Virginia and Texas (and maybe Oklahoma). The Pac 12 has Oregon, Stanford and USC. You also have to factor in Notre Dame, who looks like it could be on its way to a BCS bowl birth.
So what’s different with the Big Ten this year?
Initially I thought lack of speed was finally catching up with the Big Ten. People have talked about this issue quite a bit the past few years – really since 2002 when the Big Ten last won a national title. Big Ten players just haven’t had the speed of SEC or Pac 12 teams. People have speculated that Big Ten programs don’t know how to recruit speed. I tend to agree. They’re still looking in the midwest for speed, where, for the most part, it doesn’t exist. Certainly not to the degree it does in the south or west where high school kids can play football year round. Teams in the SEC, Pac 12, even Big 12 and ACC, have total team speed. They know how and where to find it. It’s not just receivers, it’s all over the field.
As I thought about it more though, I realized it’s not total team speed that’s giving the Big Ten problems this year. MAC teams, who they’ve struggled with, are recruiting in the same areas where Big Ten teams are, and they’re taking players that generally are leftovers the Big Ten didn’t want. But here’s how some of those MAC teams can compete. A team wouldn’t necessarily need to have total team speed to give a Big Ten team problems. They’d just need it at certain positions. For example, while the Big Ten turns out a number of top tier NFL-ready offensive line talents year after year (look at the past few years: Joe Thomas, Jake Long, Bryan Bulaga, Nick Mangold, etc.), teams also utilize a number of plodders along the O-line that struggle with speed. Many midwestern high schools still utilize a run heavy offense, meaning a lot of the guys being recruited by the Big Ten schools to play O-line are only used to run blocking. They aren’t used to facing a quick upfield rush. Quick defense ends and outside linebackers could especially give many of these plodding lineman problems. On the other side of the ball, quick receivers and tight ends could do the same because Big Ten defenses typically haven’t been built to stop that kind of offensive attack – quick, short passes OR strong downfield passing. They’re more of a stout front seven type that can withstand a power running game.
Slowly, but surely, the Big Ten has become vulnerable to speed. We’ve seen it when they play the SEC and now I think we’re starting to see it when they play others. Sure, other factors are contributing to the conference’s struggles this season, but I think speed is common across the board.
So how does the Big Ten overcome this speed problem?
They need to evolve. Adjust to the times. It’s not 1965 anymore. It’s time to update your offenses AND defenses. Some have tried to implement new offensive schemes. Most recently, Michigan went to a spread offense with a running QB. I don’t think they’ve had the other personnel to match that though. Penn State used a modified version when they had Michael Robinson and Daryll Clark at QB. They too, didn’t really have the other personnel needed. Quickness is needed all over the offense, perhaps most importantly, on the offensive line.
Odd as it may sound, the team best positioned for the future may be Penn State (yes, I am a Penn State fan, trying to stay unbiased here). While they’re going to be slammed with depth issues, they’re now running the New England Patriots offense. The offensive shift was clearly visible in the first game of the season. It’s the exact offense new head coach Bill O’Brien was running in New England as offensive coordinator. They’re actually throwing the ball…downfield. They’re using their tight ends…as receivers. They’re creating match-up advantages. They’re running a balanced offense. These things sound crazy to Big Ten teams. Big Ten teams rarely are balanced on offense. They’re heavy run or heavy pass (Purdue under Joe Tiller), not a combination. O’Brien is actually utilizing the strengths of the team he walked into. Sure, he brought his own ideas of what the offense would be, but he’s utilizing people where they’ll make the most impact – not forcing people into positions. That means he’s changing the positions some people play. The offense is one that could be difficult for Big Ten teams to prepare for. Actually, it could be difficult for many teams to prepare for. How many teams that the SEC plays have an offense that includes a decent running game, quick short passes and the potential for a downfield home run? Not too many.
Innovation is needed – and not ‘innovating’ by following what others are doing with a spread or a triple option or lining up some RB at QB, but real innovation. Do something other teams aren’t really doing. That’s where you get your advantages.
Here’s hoping more Big Ten coaches look at what O’Brien’s doing and learn from it.
By Kevin York
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevin_york