Big Ten Football Resurgence Has Some SEC Roots

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SEC football, you can take some credit for the upcoming resurgence of Big Ten football. Some.

Three programs are primed to lead the once-proud but recently struggling conference back to the forefront of college football, each led by a head coach with SEC ties. The Big Ten’s three state-university programs–Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State–are positioning for lofty achievement in the immediate future and beyond.

The Big Ten’s national reputation took a beating during the BCS era, particularly the latter half. In the 2006 season, Ohio State and Michigan faced as No. 1 and No. 2 in one of the many Games of the Century. The rivalry showdown lived up to its billing–so much so, a conference rematch five years before Alabama and LSU was a very real possibility.

Michigan proceeded to lose the Rose Bowl to USC, 32-18, in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score might indicate. Ohio State was decimated in the BCS Championship Game by Florida, 41-14.

That postseason started a run of repeated failures on the national stage, both in bowl games and in high-profile nonconference tilts.

The Gators’ hard-hitting defense, spread offense and speed on both sides of the ball overwhelmed the Buckeyes. On the winning sideline that night was current Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, now applying the same principles that won him two SEC and BCS champions to Big Ten football.

The SEC flavor Meyer and Penn State head coach James Franklin brought to the Big Ten is evident, each having previously led SEC programs. Meyer’s two national championships put him among college football’s all-time greats, but Franklin’s success at perennial downtrodden Vanderbilt was its own remarkable milestone.

Meyer led the Buckeyes to the only perfect record among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in his first season at Ohio State, then brought them to the cusp of the BCS title game in 2013. His aggressive recruiting strategy netted Ohio State the nation’s No. 3 signing class in February with prospects plucked directly from SEC Country.

Franklin inherited a cupboard much more well-stocked than one may have anticipated in July 2012. That’s when the NCAA announced sanctions against the Penn State football program that surpassed any since SMU’s death penalty in the late 1980s.

Predecessor Bill O’Brien recruited well despite NCAA limitations, leaving Franklin with such notable talents as wide receiver Geno Lewis, tight ends Adam Breneman and Jesse James and quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Hackenberg started as a true freshman and has a bright future ahead of him, playing in Franklin’s offensive scheme–the same scheme that made Danny O’Brien a Freshman All-American at Maryland in 2010 and helped Jordan Matthews put up historic numbers at Vanderbilt.

Franklin has yet to coach the Nittany Lions in a game, but he’s already attacking the position with the kind of enthusiasm and moxie that plays to SEC sensibilities.

He explained the many nuances of his position to Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press:

“I’d love to just sit in a room and draw up plays and Xs and Os and recruit as well, but that’s not what being a college football coach is about. It’s everything. It’s getting out and interacting with the fans and the media. It’s talking to alumni. It’s raising money. It’s recruiting. It’s developing the players. It’s reinforcing academics. It’s everything. And my thing is … if you’re going to do it you might as well embrace it. You might as well have fun with it.”

Franklin made his first statement at Penn State on the recruiting, the foundation of success for any program but especially so in the SEC.

For Meyer and Franklin, accepting the head coaching vacancies at Ohio State and Penn State meant homecomings to their birth states. For Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, Big Ten Football Country has been home for more than three decades.
Michigan State, Big Ten Football
Dantonio’s been plying his trade in the Midwest since 1980; it doesn’t get much more Big Ten born and bred than that. Nevertheless, Dantonio is indeed a former South Carolina defensive back, albeit when the Gamecocks were independents.

OK, so it’s a loose affiliation. And Dantonio’s style is very much Midwestern to the core, from the geographic makeup of the Spartans roster to the prototypical Big Ten-style of ground-and-pound football he employs.

Both philosophies run counterintuitive. After all, the defense-first and power-run game style that long defined Big Ten football had been left in the Stone Age by spread offenses. The talent-rich prep football scenes of Texas, the Southeast and California provided the Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 with more local recruiting options.

Dantonio’s 2013 season defied logic, and Michigan State could accomplish more in 2014.

This alum of a current SEC program has arguably the conference’s best-equipped team for a national championship run in 2014. The Spartans come off a 13-1 finish in 2013 that culminated with a dominant defeat of Ohio State, and beating Stanford at its own game in the Rose Bowl.

Connor Cook returns behind center with a surprisingly deep receiving corps, Jeremy Langford could be a dark horse Heisman candidate, and Shilique Calhoun anchors what should again be one of the nation’s premiere defenses.

Sparty has a makeup very much like that of SEC powerhouse Alabama. Coincidentally, Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban is a former Michigan State head coach. Interesting how the cross-conference influence goes both ways.