For coaches and players, those are painful hits.
“Everybody in this room wants to change it,” Ohio State defensive lineman Doug Worthington said last week at the conference’s media day.
Around the conference, Michigan and Indiana are touting sparkling training facilities, and Minnesota is welcoming football back to campus after 27 years with a stadium set to open. But that new shine alone isn’t enough to restore an image that could use a polish.
The Big Ten is 9-20 in bowl games the past four years – including two BCS championship-game losses by Ohio State – and has not had a winning postseason record since 2002. Things have been particularly bad in BCS games, with the conference in a 0-for-6 slide the past three years, only one of those losses by fewer than 14 points. That includes a nearly decade-long dive in the Rose Bowl, where the conference has dropped six in a row since Wisconsin beat Stanford 17-9 in 2000.
“I feel like every team in the Big Ten needs to take that as a sign of disrespect,” said quarterback Daryll Clark of Penn State, a 38-24 loser to Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
He realizes the critics have plenty of ammunition. The same goes for Illinois coach Ron Zook.
“Until we go win the bowl games and obviously win the games out of conference, there’s not really a whole lot we can say,” Zook said.
The bowl losses aren’t the only elements fueling the idea that the conference isn’t what it used to be, feeding the misguided perception that it’s plodding and antiquated. The Big Ten has taken some high-profile shots in the regular season and had Michigan, one of its two flagship programs, collapse last season.
It would help if Ohio State beat Southern California in September and avenged a 35-3 blowout last year or if the Wolverines rebounded from a dreadful 3-9 showing in its first year under coach Rich Rodriguez.
The Wolverines also have been on the short end of two upsets the past two seasons. In 2007, it was Appalachian State walking out of the Big House with a victory. Last season, Toledo did the same.
Northwestern didn’t help matters in ’07 by falling at home to a Duke team that had lost 22 in a row, although the Wildcats rebounded last season to go 9-3. But Illinois fell to 5-7 after reaching the Rose Bowl, losing to Western Michigan along the way.
As for Michigan?
“You expect Michigan to be playing in a January Bowl game or potentially in a BCS game and in the top ranks,” Rodriguez said.
He sees a connection between Michigan’s swoon and the perception of the Big Ten. Wolverines linebacker Stevie Brown isn’t so sure.
“I don’t feel we have to be great for the Big Ten to be great,” he said. “I think all the schools in the Big Ten are good.”
But something isn’t working. The physical play is what attracted the 6-foot-6, 276-pound Worthington to the Big Ten. But even though spread offenses can be found throughout the league, from State College, Pa., to Minneapolis, the league just doesn’t seem as sleek as others.
“Some guys who are 150 pounds and run a 4.2 wouldn’t want to play in this conference,” Worthington said.
The coaches seem fixated on the schedule.
Most are pushing for a break from the tradition that had no conference games scheduled after the Michigan-Ohio State game just before Thanksgiving. The idea is to avoid the long layoffs they think are allowing other conferences to feast on the Big Ten in top-tier bowls.
That would mean adding an open date and/or playing into December.
Or, as Penn State coach Joe Paterno suggests, add a 12th team, split into two divisions, and play a championship game the way the SEC, Big 12 and ACC do.
“I’m trying to get people to talk about expanding so we could have a playoff, but I don’t think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for that with some of the presidents,” Paterno said. “That’s obviously their call. … I’m just putting on the table an idea.”
While Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany indicated expansion won’t happen soon, the scheduling shift is gaining momentum. Illinois has two open dates and two games after the Ohio State-Michigan weekend – at Cincinnati on Nov. 27 and Fresno State at home Dec. 5, the same day Wisconsin visits Hawaii.