Monday, June 8, 2009

Tackling the issues

There's no worse time of the year to be a college football fan than June. Spring practice is long over, real games are still a good three months away and there is literally nothing interesting happening (except for players continuing to find trouble, which is just depressing).

It should tell you something that I can go 10 days without posting anything -- and not because I was too lazy or too busy, but because there was absolutely nothing worth posting.

So in the complete absence of any real news, I think this is an opportune time to tackle some questions I've been pondering, and I'll start with one that's baffled historians for centuries: Why does the Big Ten suck in bowl games?

This question comes up every year and is extremely annoying to hear (for obvious reasons), especially when compared with most announcers' drooling adoration for all things SEC. The worst part, for me, is the knowledge that the Big Ten is generally just as good as every other BCS conference, but the teams aren't able to show it when it comes to head-to-head play at the end of the season. The conference as a whole hasn't posted a winning bowl record since 2002, and since then its teams are a collective 15-28 (3-8 in BCS games).

There are typically two reasons cited for these failures:
  1. Since nearly every bowl game is placed in the West or South, Big Ten teams are often facing an opponent that essentially has homefield advantage.
  2. The Big Ten ends its season earlier than every other conference, so each team faces a layoff that's about two weeks longer than that of their bowl opponent.
Even as an admitted Big Ten homer, I can't believe that playing in nice weather is truly that much of a disadvantage. Is it stupid to have to play USC in Los Angeles or Florida in Tampa? Yes. But is it any harder for Ohio State to travel to Arizona than it is for Texas? No. The "homefield advantage" argument might be valid on a rare occasion, but it's not the primary reason for the current state of affairs.

Having six weeks off also doesn't seem that problematic (relatively speaking). Far too often I've seen a Big Ten team look completely different in its bowl game -- think Ohio State against Florida in 2006 -- than it did in the regular season, and there's no doubt in my mind that having so much time off between games is a contributing factor. That said, I just don't see that much of a difference between six weeks off (what Penn State had last season) and four weeks off (what USC had). No team gets to play continuously, of course, and when everyone's facing a relatively long layoff, I think it's hard to argue that an extra two weeks creates that much of a disadvantage.

So what does that leave us with? Well, I think there's one problem -- a self-inflicted disadvantage, but one the conference would never want to lose -- that often goes unnoticed but creates a very difficult situation for nearly every bowl-eligible Big Ten team: Because of the Big Ten's prime bowl slots, it often has middle-of-the-pack teams pulled into games against slightly better opponents from other conferences.

Let's look at the current bowl alignments:
  • Rose: Big Ten champion vs. Pac-10 champion (USC pretty much every year)
  • Capital One: Big Ten #2 vs. SEC #2
  • Outback: Big Ten #3 vs. SEC #3
  • Champs Sports: Big Ten #4/5 vs. ACC #4
  • Alamo: Big Ten #4/5 vs. Big 12 #5
  • Insight: Big Ten #6 vs. Big 12 #6
  • Motor City: Big Ten #7 vs. MAC #2/3
Those don't seem unreasonable at first glance. The problem that the Big Ten has run into is that in each of the past four seasons -- and in eight of the 11 seasons the BCS has existed -- the conference has sent two teams to BCS games (deserving or not), and this has ratcheted up the difficulty level for each of the teams below those two in the pecking order.

2007 was a prime example. Because Ohio State finished No. 1 and played LSU for the national title, the Rose Bowl had an at-large pick available and selected Illinois to play USC (to retain the Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup). I can assure you that at no point during the season did I feel, as a regular Big Ten observer, that the Illini were worthy of a BCS bid, especially when compared with a team like Missouri (which was No. 1 as late as early November but got left out of the BCS). But tradition trumps all at the Rose Bowl, so we got to watch USC drag Illinois behind the woodshed in a completely predictable ass-whooping.

Why is this such a negative for the conference as a whole? Because when the conference has an additional team pulled into the BCS, the team that finished third is pulled up to the No. 2 spot for bowl slotting (and the team that finished fourth gets pulled up to third, etc.). The effect is that a large majority of the Big Ten's bowl games over the last decade have included a team that finished lower in its conference than the opposition.

Look at last season's bowls ...
  • USC vs. Penn State
  • Texas vs. Ohio State
  • Georgia vs. Michigan State
  • Iowa vs. South Carolina (the Big Ten's only win)
  • Missouri vs. Northwestern
  • Kansas vs. Minnesota
  • Florida State vs. Wisconsin
... and compare them with what we would have seen had Texas Tech been selected to the BCS ahead of Ohio State (I know this is an impossible scenario because of the two-teams-per-conference rule, but I'm playing devil's advocate):
  • USC vs. Penn State
  • Ohio State vs. Georgia
  • Michigan State vs. South Carolina
  • Iowa vs. Missouri
  • Northwestern vs. Kansas
  • Minnesota vs. Florida State
  • Wisconsin vs. Central Michigan (Motor City Bowl tie-in)
I'm not saying that the Big Ten would have gone undefeated by any means, but it wouldn't have finished anywhere near 1-6 either. In my opinion, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin all would have won in the modified alignment, while Northwestern-Kansas and Minnesota-Florida State would have been toss-ups. Missouri and USC still would have won, obviously. Again, it might not have been a HUGE difference, but a record somewhere between 3-4 and 5-2 looks a lot better than 1-6.

This doesn't excuse the conference's poor bowl record entirely, of course. I can't argue with anyone who says the Big Ten hasn't been particularly strong in the middle. For the most part, there's been one very good team every year (usually Ohio State), one other team of similar quality (usually Penn State or Michigan) and then a fairly significant drop-off to teams such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State. The Big Ten hasn't been able to match the depth of the Big 12 (which has seen strong play from Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Texas Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma State for most of the past several years) or the SEC (Florida, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Auburn) -- and coincidentally, those are the two conferences the Big Ten faces in four of its seven bowl games. That's obviously bad when it comes to those noteworthy non-BCS bowls such as the Capital One, the Outback and the Alamo.

As for the BCS ugliness, I honestly think the Big Ten's recent struggles are just part of the cyclical nature of sports. The conference's record all-time in BCS games is now 8-11, and that includes a disastrous 0-6 mark over the last three seasons, meaning the Big Ten was 8-5 in BCS games as recently as 2005. Three of those six losses were to USC (by Michigan, Illinois and Penn State) -- I have a feeling that any conference would have a pretty poor record in BCS games if it had to face USC on an annual basis -- and the other three all belong to Ohio State.

So I'm blaming Ohio State, right? Typical Michigan fan ....

No. In fact (although it pains me to say it), I think OSU has gotten a bit of a bad rap over its BCS failures. Of the losses in the last three years -- to Florida, LSU and Texas -- only the Florida game was truly a blowout, and that was a game that saw nearly everything go wrong for the Buckeyes. LSU won pretty comfortably, but only because of a 21-point run in the second quarter. And Texas was fortunate to escape the most recent Fiesta Bowl on a last-minute TD pass to Quan Cosby.

What I'm saying here is that the Big Ten's failures in BCS games have been somewhat blown out of proportion by Ohio State struggling in the conference's two biggest showcase games and USC dominating basically every bowl opponent. I found it somewhat ironic that Ohio State's loss to LSU after the '07 season jump-started the SEC blowhards and Big Ten critics while, just days earlier, Michigan's win over defending champion (and the next year's champion) Florida in Orlando went unmentioned. If that had been a BCS game -- which it easily could have, considering the teams -- the Big Ten might be facing a little less heat over its showing in "big games."

I've gotten a bit long-winded here, so before I write another 1,500 words, let me summarize the best I can:
  • The Big Ten's recent BCS failures have been overstated, because they are based primarily on two disappointing showings in the national championship game and have come directly after an extended successful period (8-5 over the first eight years of the BCS).
  • Half of the conference's current 0-6 skid is owed directly to a dominant USC program that nobody has had success against.
  • The Rose Bowl's sometimes annoying desire to involve the Big Ten and Pac-10 at all costs has hurt the conference throughout the bowl lineup, as having a second (usually undeserving) team in the BCS has distorted the matchups in the Big Ten's other bowl games.
  • Admittedly, the conference's middle tier hasn't kept up with the Big 12 and SEC, and that has further exacerbated the conference's poor bowl showing over the past few seasons.
  • Despite popular belief, the location of the bowls and the lengthy layoff beforehand have probably had little impact on the results.

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