“But the Big Ten sucks!” my Pac-10 friend says. I’m trying to excuse Northwestern’s 35-24 loss to Minnesota on Saturday by evoking the overall strength of the conference, and therefore the strength of both Minnesota and Northwestern. However, after his assertion of Big Ten’s inferiority, I find myself without a solid response.
It’s hard to argue against him. The reputation of the Big Ten is not what it once was. Here’s proof.
Exhibit A: Bowl games.
Over the past six years, Big Ten members have gone 15-28 in bowl games. (See, it’s not just Northwestern.) And that losing trend is only increasing, with the Big Ten going an abysmal 1-6 in bowl games last year.
Let’s add to that dreadfulness — no Big Ten team has conquered the Rose Bowl since Wisconsin won in January 2000. This nine-year gap is the longest Rose Bowl win gap since the Big Ten agreed to send its conference champion to the Rose Bowl in 1947.
The most recent Big Ten Rose Bowl efforts have not even been close. Last year, Penn State lost by 14, the year before that, Illinois lost by 32, and three years ago, Michigan lost by 14, all to USC. Since Wisconsin’s 17-9 win over Stanford, the Big Ten has gone 0-6 in the Granddaddy of them All by a combined score of 219-134.
Exhibit B: Non-conference games.
Last year, the Big Ten went 32-12 in non-conference games. That looks respectable, right? It does until the strength of competition is considered. The Big Ten will likely post a similar non-conference record this year, but it will come against teams with a combined 2008 record of 217-242. Not exactly high-quality opposition. Against fellow BCS conference teams, the Big Ten went 6-7 last year.
Exhibit: C: The pro factor.
In the 2009 NFL Draft, the Big Ten tied for third among all conferences in players selected. While the SEC had 37 players selected, the Big Ten had 28. Additionally, the Big Ten had four players selected in the first round. USC alone had three players go in the first round. If the NFL doesn’t think Big Ten players can compete on the professional level, it doesn’t say much about them at the collegiate level.
What’s to be done to fix the Big Ten’s reputation? How can we make sure the Big Ten does not become the joke of the BCS conferences and the rallying cry of the mid-majors?
Obviously, the problem will not be solved overnight, or even over the course of one season. The solution begins with recruiting. In past eight recruiting classes, the Big Ten has not had a team in the top two schools, and only once has a Big Ten school (Ohio State) broken the top three, according to Rivals.com. In that same time period, SEC teams have had 12 of the top three recruiting classes, including four recruiting classes ranked number one.
In order to get the Big Ten’s reputation back up with the SEC and the top conferences, this trend must cease. Already, the Big Ten is losing the conference battle for the Class of 2010. The current top ten on Rivals features five SEC schools, three Big 12 schools, USC and Penn State. Recruiting classes such as this will only further divide the elite conferences from the Big Ten.
If only for the sake of the conference, we as Northwestern fans must cheer every five-star recruit signed by Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan. Now is not the time to be petty. Seantrel Henderson is Rivals’ top recruit of the Class of 2010, and he currently remains unsigned. Both Ohio State and Minnesota, Henderson’s home state, are in the running. Though it would make the Wildcats’ conference schedule just a little more difficult, Northwestern needs the conference to have a good recruiting year.
The second thing that should be done to improve the Big Ten, and this is something the conference heads will be reluctant to do, is to seriously consider pursuing again the addition of Notre Dame into the Big Ten. The conference met with Notre Dame to discuss the Fighting Irish’s addition in 1999, but negotiations fell apart.
Now is the time to resume those negotiations. Here’s why the Big Ten should do it. With the addition of Notre Dame, the conference gains one of the most prestigious, historic football schools in the country. Even when Notre Dame has bad years, like when the Irish went 3-9 two years ago, ESPN and NBC still followed every move the Irish make.
Plus, with the addition of Notre Dame, the conference expands to twelve teams. That allows for the formation of two divisions within the Big Ten, and the birth of a Big Ten conference championship game. Big Ten teams will cease to be forgotten at bowl selection time because they haven’t played since Halloween. Plus, a conference championship will generate loads of cash for the Big Ten.
Here’s why Notre Dame should do it. First, similar to the Big Ten, Notre Dame has seen a drop in its national reputation. After years as a perennial BCS bowl at-large bid, the Irish failed to become bowl eligible in 2007, and played in the measly Hawaii Bowl in 2008. By joining the Big Ten, Notre Dame gets the benefit of a conference bowl hierarchy as well a guaranteed spot in a BCS bowl for the conference champion.
Financially, the Big Ten has a lot to offer Notre Dame as well. With the creation of the Big Ten Network in addition its current media contracts, the conference receives huge sums of media-related income to distribute. Also, as a BCS conference, the Big Ten is guaranteed the money that comes from playing in a BCS bowl each year.
Though a weak Big Ten makes for an easier conference schedule for the Wildcats, Northwestern needs the Big Ten to be strong. The ‘Cats already catch enough criticism for their less-than-taxing non-conference schedule – though this year it has been plenty taxing. If the Big Ten continues to slide, Northwestern ceases to be the rare combination of a highly-ranked academic institution with a competitively relevant football team. Instead, Northwestern joins the much less exclusive, much less desirable group of highly-ranked academic institutions that, yeah, I guess, have a football team.