Jim Delany knew. Maybe he knew more than most. By the time Ohio State had wrapped up the national championship victory over Oregon — the Big Ten’s first in over a decade and first of the College Football Playoff era — he was far more subdued than a week prior in New Orleans, when the No. 4 seed Buckeyes came from behind to beat No. 1 Alabama and end a decade’s worth of unfriendly talking points against the Big Ten.
“College sports can be very cyclical. So maybe this is our time now,” Delany said on the field of the Superdome amidst an explosion of scarlet and gray relief.
It was one game, not even the national title game, but it was far more significant to a sport that’s been reduced to fierce provincialism. Ohio State’s win over Alabama silenced the foremost criticism of the league: That in a best-on-best situation, the Big Ten can’t hang with the SEC. Well, the Big Ten’s best beat the SEC’s best, and that’s the situation entering 2015 no matter if the Buckeyes’ quarterback is Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett, Braxton Miller or even Urban Meyer himself.
“When the playoff was being formed in the final weeks of the season, I watched the tape and thought Ohio State was deserving of being one of the best four,” Big Ten analyst and former SEC and Big Ten head coach Gerry DiNardo says. “When the (semifinal) game was announced, I went right to the coaches’ tape for Alabama, then the coaches’ tape for Ohio State, and I came away thinking it was an even matchup athletically.”
Naturally, the 2015 offseason has featured a pendulum swing of bragging rights, but the Big Ten still has a tremendous amount of work to do.
“That game meant one thing: Ohio State is back. Ohio State is one of the nation’s absolute best programs. But it doesn’t mean the Big Ten is back, not yet,” DiNardo says.
In fact, the future of the Buckeyes likely won’t hinge on whatever team the SEC or Pac-12 produces to face them in the playoff. It will likely be more about how Ohio State’s own league fares. For the Buckeyes — and possibly Michigan State, Penn State and (eventually) Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan — to compete for a playoff spot, the well-being of programs such as Indiana is crucial.
Take a look at the 2014 top 50 rankings for Big Ten schools in Football Outsider’s F/+ advanced rankings, which weighs teams on everything from offensive drive efficiency to explosive plays.
And now compare that to the SEC’s top 50 F/+ ranked teams in 2014.
Twelve out of 14 SEC schools finished in the top 50, while well more than half the Big Ten was missing. And regardless of the Buckeyes’ title, 2014 was representative of the norm: In a five-year average of season-ending F/+ rankings, the SEC places 12 of 14 teams in the top 50 and nine in the top 25 (including No. 1 Alabama). The Big Ten manages only seven in the top 50 and three in the top 25 (No. 5 Ohio State tops the league’s list).
Throw aside your politics, conspiracy theories and fan bias — when a one-loss Crimson Tide team seems incapable of dropping out of the playoff field while a one-loss Ohio State has to lobby, pray and sneak into the field in the final bracket, it’s not ESPN’s fault.
Now that the Big Ten has a statement win and regained the national championship, how does the league as a whole begin to close the gap? It’s a four-part struggle that can’t be faced by Brutus Buckeye alone.
1. Create three or four more Ohio States (at least).
Even Alabama falters once and again, and no one expects Ohio State to be perfect from here on out. In fact, imperfection might actually help. Save for a few elite names, the SEC trades top-tier contenders depending on the year. One season South Carolina might be a legit contender, then Mississippi State the next. The Big Ten might never have the ability to create the same depth of potential top-10 teams (we’ll get there in a second), but it can create a top tier to share space with Ohio State.
“On paper, this Ohio State title does the same for the Big Ten what Florida State’s did for the ACC last year: absolutely nothing,” DiNardo says. “The difference in those conferences, however, is that I think you can find a group of programs — Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and now Michigan again, with no ceiling. There is no ceiling on those teams. I think it’s hard to say the same about the ACC.”
The blueprint for the Big Ten might be closer to the Pac-12 than the ACC. As recently as the early 2000s, USC was the only perennial national title contender in the league. With six Pac-12 teams in the final AP top 25 in each of the last two seasons, that, obviously, is no longer the case.
“I always said you had to rise up or get left in the dust,” says first-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley, who witnessed the Pac-12’s renaissance while the head coach at Oregon State. “One of the things that helped that was that there was a tremendous investment in football. Just about every school made major moves in coaching, in salaries, in facilities. It’s vastly different than a decade ago. You’ve seen major moves in a lot of ways in that conference to help everything basically get better.”
The ingredients are in place at several Big Ten schools to make a significant leap in the near future.
Michigan State under Mark Dantonio has been criminally overlooked by the national media. The Spartans are 53–14 since 2010 and would’ve likely been a third or fourth seed had the Playoff started in 2013.
“Mark Dantonio is always going to do things differently than the Ohio States or the Michigan of old,” says Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. “That program can take a three-star that might play like a three-star at another program who seems to somehow evolve into an elite-level guy in East Lansing.”
One thing Sparty needs: A clean September résumé. In the last four seasons, Michigan State has dropped a non-conference game (Oregon in 2014 and three consecutive losses to Notre Dame) and fallen off the radar. Their best chance for a statement in 2015: when the Marcus Mariota-less Ducks visit East Lansing.
It’s too early to determine Penn State’s worthiness as a national title contender under James Franklin, but his early returns in recruiting are inarguable. The Nittany Lions landed their second consecutive top-25 class in February (No. 14 nationally according to the 247Sports Composite, up from No. 24 in Franklin’s abbreviated post-hire debut). And don’t think PSU’s foray into Atlanta-area recruiting camps has gone unnoticed, either by rival league coaches or Franklin’s former neighbors down south.
Wisconsin has been the quiet bell cow of the league, but another coaching change raises larger questions about the program’s stability. Then again, Paul Chryst is, according to multiple coaching insiders, the most friendly hire yet to Barry Alvarez’s hands-on management style. And the Badgers stand to benefit for years to come in the East/West division alignment. Pick your metric: recruiting, coaching talent or wins. It’s hard to see the West as anything more than a two-team race between Wisconsin and Nebraska.
And those expectations for Jim Harbaugh? A seven-year, $35 million base contract in the offseason’s splashiest hire for an alumnus who has coached in the Super Bowl? No matter what Brady Hoke left for him, the time is already now.
2. Embrace the new pledges.
Delany’s expansion of the conference during college football’s era of radical realignment was arguably the most shameless of any commissioner’s resource grab. Utah and Colorado fit the Pac-12. Texas A&M fits the SEC. Maryland and Rutgers? They fit a Nielsen ratings list, a census flowchart and little else. But if you’re a Big Ten fan, learn to love it. Quickly.
“Those schools have a ton of potential now. Maryland and Rutgers already have more resources than Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota, and I could make a case they’ve got more potential than Nebraska, believe it or not,” DiNardo says.
“No (Mid-Atlantic region) four- or five-star is going to unofficially visit Nebraska, but they are Rutgers and Maryland because it only costs them a tank of gas.”
The move also allows for more consistent television and recruiting exposure in the highly populated I-95 corridor of the Northeast. What the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights give Big Ten football on the field will be marginal at best for the next few seasons, but their additions bump the Big Ten footprint above 80 million people. That’s still third behind the SEC and the Boston-to-Miami reach of the ACC.
It’s no coincidence that Ohio State at Maryland, a lopsided affair to say the least, was a national game on ABC, or that the Buckeyes’ inaugural trip to Rutgers was moved into prime time on the newly expanded Big Ten Network.
Fans in Happy Valley might not like to hear it, but the new blood arguably benefits Penn State the most. Both additions could loosely be considered rivals for the near future (just ask the Terps, who refused to shake hands with PSU players before their game). Penn State wants to absorb Pennsylvania talent much the way Ohio State does in Ohio, but the I-95 additions allow for an uninterrupted region of football talent to be staked as Big Ten territory, much the same as the SEC across multiple states or Pac-12 along the West Coast.
Franklin has rebuilt Penn State into a homegrown machine, but the definition of where “home” ends has become a sticking point: He’s repeatedly told boosters and fans that he considers the state of Maryland to be Penn State’s territory, no doubt to tweak the Terps, Franklin’s former employer who passed on naming him head coach before he headed to Vanderbilt. Depending on which recruiting service you prefer, Penn State is fighting for as many as six top Maryland recruits for 2016. But the Terps aren’t backing down. “That staff is doing everything they can to win their state, and they can succeed that way,” Simmons says. “You have to get creative, but you also have to protect your home state.”
3. Fight for “have-not” legislation.
Oh, Nebraska. Once an inarguable inclusion on any list of national powers, the Huskers have seen isolated locale and coaching unease transform them into the Big Ten’s biggest question mark. They’re joined by a group of schools — Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue — that are fighting a national shift in population density toward warmer climates and more urban locations.
Some rival fans might shrug at these woes, but getting to the playoff is a lot easier when these teams are at least formidable. DiNardo, himself a former Indiana coach, offers a stark but simple plan: Change how you recruit, and recruit harder than you ever have before. Or else. Of 247Sports’ top 25 recruiters for the 2015 cycle, only two Big Ten assistants made the list, and both (Kerry Coombs and Stan Drayton) work for Meyer in Columbus.
“If you don’t like Twitter, too bad, like it. If you don’t like Facebook, too bad, go somewhere else. I don’t care about your ‘impressions’ about social media,” DiNardo says. “Go somewhere else. If I’m running one of those schools, the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator would all be paid the same money. We can spend hours and hours debating who’s going to get the ball on 3rd-and-short, and only 20 minutes calling the top running back. It needs to be the other way around.”
It’s certainly no coincidence that the western half of the Big Ten features three names — Indiana’s Kevin Wilson, Purdue’s Darrell Hazell and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz — listed among the coaches on the hot seat in this magazine. For every feel-good, break-out year like Jerry Kill and Minnesota had last season, there are two more programs floundering to keep up with the modern game.
“And Minnesota doesn’t even have a 100-yard practice field! Build your facilities!” DiNardo adds.
And if you can’t recruit well enough to keep up? Get the lawyers.
“Every rule in the NCAA is a ‘have’ or ‘have-not’ rule. College basketball is different, it has 300 D-I schools. The ‘haves’ in basketball are in the extreme minority, whereas the ‘haves’ in football are at about 50 percent so it’s very hard to get legislation through.”
DiNardo, who routinely visits each school’s coaching staff, advocates for an aggressive overhaul of recruiting guidelines that would allow for high school juniors to take official visits at a school’s expense. “I’ve got to get that kid to my campus, away from his home in Florida or Louisiana, to see that whole new world. We’ve got to get him on our campus before he’s forced to make a decision by SEC schools he can drive to anytime.
“Show the best players in the country that new world. Maybe it’s not for them, but maybe it is. You have to show these players and their families what a Big Ten education is, what a Big Ten campus is. Then you’ve got as good a chance as anyone.”
4. Above all else, start your own chant.
Big Ten fans, administrators and even some coaches have expressed their annoyance with the “S-E-C!” chant. It’s braggadocio and it’s at times hypocritical (tell us how excited you are about that Bama conference title, Auburn!). But it’s one hell of a business mission statement.
Save for maybe Vanderbilt and Kentucky, every team in the SEC will enter 2015 with less-than-insane reasoning as to why it can win the conference this year. And because of the depth and parity in the SEC, winning the title game in Atlanta likely means your school will be invited to compete for a national championship.
When Alabama dismantled Missouri in Atlanta, after the game Nick Saban acknowledged the inevitable Playoff spot the Tide had earned. Contrast that confidence with a cold night Indianapolis. Ohio State pulled out every stop possible to humiliate Wisconsin 59–0 in an effort to lobby a skeptical Playoff committee.
“All I can speak to is, I’ve been around teams that have competed and won national championships,” Meyer said. “And this team, the way it’s playing right now, is one of the top teams in America.”
Meyer had to prove Ohio State’s worthiness on the field but also off of it. A stronger, deeper, meaner Big Ten prevents uncertainty. And we all know what happened to Alabama after that.
-By Steven Godfrey, SB Nation