The sky was falling upon Big Ten football not too long ago. The conference’s well-documented struggles against the SEC and Pac-12 (but especially SEC) became a declaration not just on college football, but American sociology: Top recruits want to play in warm-weather climates, American industry is moving out of the Midwest, etc., etc.
Big Ten football may as well have been dead and buried. When commissioner Jim Delany made a ridiculous comment about adopting a Div. III strategy, jokes that hit a little too close to home were abundant.
The Big Ten may not have gone to the football grave, but certainly it’s had its share of eulogies in the last few years.
The Big Ten is officially eliminated from placing a team in the playoff. It is September 6th.
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravisBGID) September 7, 2014
And yet, just a few short months after Sept. 6, 2014, Big Ten football came back stronger than ever. The conference heads into 2015 with an almost surefire preseason No. 1 in Ohio State, a likely second Top 10 team in Michigan State, and a league-wide buzz unlike any seen in recent years.
Ohio State’s run through Alabama and Oregon in the College Football Playoff exorcised the conference’s two biggest demons, in the process becoming the linchpin of an overall Big Ten football revival.
Think I’m putting too much stock in the success of just one Big Ten program? Well, consider this: With defending national champion Ohio State leading the way at 99,391 fans in attendance last Saturday, the Big Ten boasts the top three spring-game attendances in all college football.
Nebraska and Penn State both beat out Alabama and Auburn, while Michigan — a program that failed to make a bowl game in 2014 — was just behind the SEC’s last two champions with 60,000 attending its spring game earlier this month.
Of course, buzz at Michigan is the result of Jim Harbaugh’s arrival. The man who turned Stanford from a Pac-12 cellar dweller into annual contender, then later took the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl, has reinvigorated the fan base of college football’s all-time winningest program.
The Wolverines have a lot of ground to make up on arch-rival Ohio State, but the possibilities in a Jim Harbaugh-Urban Meyer rivalry are intriguing. Meanwhile, the resurgence of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry means big things for Big Ten football as a whole.
The Game has the potential to be the centerpiece of the Big Ten’s reestablished national profile, much in the same way the Iron Bowl became the flagship of the SEC’s era of dominance.
Five straight Iron Bowl winners between 2009 and 2013 appeared in the national championship game, which ostensibly turned the series into a game of national significance.
But the SEC’s rise was not Alabama and Auburn alone. This was a case of the rising tide lifting all ships, which is precisely what the Big Ten is experiencing from Ohio State.
In the SEC, LSU won a national title during the SEC’s reign and played for another, while Florida claimed two championships under Ohio State’s current leader, Urban Meyer.
Meyer bringing his SEC experience to Columbus helped change the game for Big Ten football. He brought with him a more modern offense than the traditional styles that made the Big Ten seem archaic in recent years.
Meyer’s ability to recruit within the SEC footprint also shook things up in a manner the conference needed. Penn State following Ohio State’s lead and hiring James Franklin from Vanderbilt signaled a major departure in the Nittany Lions’ philosophy.
Franklin’s presence also makes Penn State a threat in the increasingly difficult Big Ten East, a division so good that Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press posits could be college football’s toughest.
The mere suggestion a Big Ten division might be the nation’s most challenge would have elicited guffaws as recently as eight months ago. But with the defending national champions, consistently tough Michigan State, Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and James Franklin at Penn State, and even Maryland and Rutgers coming off winning seasons, Rexrode’s thesis is not far-fetched.
Heck, even Kevin Wilson has perennially downtrodden Indiana playing a fun offensive style that produced a 2,000-yard rusher, and beat the SEC East champion a season ago.
While the influence from former, successful SEC head coaches does have a role in the Big Ten football revival, isn’t indicative of a conference-wide philosophical shift. Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio has discovered the key to winning on a national stage without abandoning the roots of Big Ten football.
Sparty’s workmanlike approach is old-school Big Ten, and it’s scored Michigan State wins over Georgia, Stanford and Baylor in the past half-decade. The Spartans will open 2015 possibly ranked in the Top 10, if not Top 5, employing its usual defensive style, complemented with a power-run game.
But Michigan State also featuring a Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback, Connor Cook, gives the rough-and-tumble Spartans a look that fits with the more wide-open philosophy Ohio State rode to the national championship.
The West cannot match the East’s depth, but Wisconsin is consistently a top-tier team that flourishes with a tried-and-true style of stout defense and power run. Corey Clement is poised for stardom, much in the same vein as Melvin Gordon before him, and Montee’ Ball before him, and John Clay before him, and P.J. Hill before him, and…well, you get the picture.
Big Ten football is back, and only getting better.