Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Is the Big Ten "Back?"

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

As someone who attended a Big Ten university, I can tell you that most Big Ten fans have an almost mythic reverence for what the conference "used to be."

There is this collective thought that, once upon a time, the Big Ten was by far the best conference in college football. That Ohio State and Michigan played each other ranked in the Top-5 every year, that every other school in the conference filled out the Top-25, and that the national champion surely came from America's Holy Land on an annual basis.

Basically, Big Ten fans remember a time when the Big Ten was the SEC of 2006-2012. It's similar to the way Fox News viewers remember the America of their childhood.

Now, with Ohio State claiming a national championship, knocking off SEC champ Alabama and Pac 12 champ Oregon along the way, and Michigan State knocking off Big 12 champ Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, plus Wisconsin defeating SEC power Auburn in the Outback Bowl, Big Ten fans feel we must be headed back to the glory days!

Well, I hate to burst the Midwest's collective bubble, but those days just didn't exist.

Since 1970, the Big Ten can claim a grand total of four national championships.

Those would be- Ohio State last night (undisputed, outside of Fort Worth, TX), Ohio State in 2002 (a controversial upset of one of the most talented college football teams ever), Michigan in 1997 (though they split the title with also undefeated Nebraska, and more rankings recognized the Huskers as champions) and Ohio State in 1970 (split the national title with Notre Dame, Texas, Nebraska and Arizona State. Seriously, it was split five ways, and the Buckeyes had the fewest ranking services choose them. They were, effectively, No. 5 in the country, yet claim a national title)

That's all you've got in the modern era of college football, Big Ten fans. A pair of miracle Buckeye teams, a Michigan team that was probably No. 2 and a Buckeye team that would barely be ranked in the Top-5 by our current standards.

The SEC, meanwhile, won seven non-split national titles in a row from 2006-2012, and captured nine non-split national titles in the BCS era alone.

Perhaps even more impressively, the SEC has had five different schools capture national championships in the last 20 years. Do you know the last time a school not named Ohio State or Michigan won a national title for the Big Ten? 1966 when Michigan State split the title with Notre Dame and Alabama, though most ranking services recognized the Irish as champions.

If you really want to go back to the true "golden era" of the Big Ten, it's way further back than you think. Like, 1950s and 60s far back, when schools in the South were still segregated and the Big Ten recruited the top African American athletes in the country.

But even then, take a look at the national titles that the conference won in the 50s and 60s:

1951: Illinois and Michigan State split with Georgia Tech, Maryland and Tennessee
1952: MSU splits with GT
1954: Ohio State splits with UCLA
1955: MSU splits with Oklahoma, despite OU being undefeated and MSU having a loss.
1956: Iowa splits with GT, Oklahoma, and Tennessee
1957: Ohio State and MSU split with Auburn and Oklahoma
1958: Iowa splits with LSU, despite having a loss and a tie, while the Tigers were 11-0
1960: Iowa and Minnesota split with Ole Miss, Missouri and Washington
1961: Ohio State splits with Alabama
1964: Michigan splits with Alabama, Arkansas and Notre Dame
1965: MSU splits with Alabama
1966: MSU splits with Alabama and Notre Dame
1968: Ohio State splits with Georgia and Texas
1969: Ohio State splits with Penn State (not yet in the Big Ten) and Texas

The conference won a bunch of national titles in those two decades, to be sure, but are you sensing a pattern? Yeah, basically everybody that won their conference could claim a national title back then. Really, all that's happened is that it's now harder to win a national championship, because we don't regularly hand out four or five of them.

To win a national title back then, you basically had to win a major conference with two or fewer losses.

How many times since 1995 has a Big Ten team finished in the Top-10 and with two or fewer losses, or just finished in the Top-5?

25 times. That's actually eight more times than the conference accomplished that same feat from 1950-1969, the conference's supposed "golden age."

Again, the Big Ten didn't magically start to stink, we just got better at  determining the actual best team in college football. For the most part, the Big Ten has stayed remarkably the same since 1950. Here's the conference formula since then:

Ohio State and Michigan are national powers.

Two or three other schools have their time in the sun (In the 50s it was Illinois, Michigan State and Iowa. In the 60s it was Michigan State and Minnesota. In the 70s it was actually all OSU and UM. In the 80s it was Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State. In the 90s it was Wisconsin and, uh, Northwestern. In the 2000s it was Wisconsin and Iowa, and now it is Wisconsin and Michigan State)

Two or three other schools aren't total embarrassments, and occasionally contend for conference titles.

The rest of the conference stinks.

In a lot of ways, the current Big Ten is set up to be the best version of the conference ever.

Urban Meyer has built what appears to be a perennial national title contender at Ohio State, Jim Harbaugh will take over a sleeping giant at Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State are each rolling, Penn State and Nebraska should always be at least decent, Jerry Kill has made Minnesota viable again, Rutgers and Maryland aren't awful, Northwestern has had high ups under coach Pat Fitzgerald and Iowa still has a legendary coach in Kirk Ferentz (though must would argue his time has passed).

So yeah, there's now the potential for four or five national title contenders in that bunch, plus several other conference contenders, and only Purdue, Illinois and Indiana look like total lost causes at this point (and each of them have shown they can be successful, given the right coach).

While the Big Ten did end up having a banner year, don't say it's "back," because playing mediocre football has been a Big Ten tradition since the Truman Administration, they just used to get more accolades for it.

If anything, this season was something totally new.

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