“It’s cyclical.” It’s been often said. Generally, it’s a battle cry of bad conferences, reminding people they weren’t always bad and there might be better days ahead. Sometimes it’s a reminder to fans of better conferences that their day of struggling is to come. In short, it means that the best conferences change from year to year and a bad conference might be the best conference next year.
As the Big Ten struggles to get a playoff team this year, they are fighting the national perception that the conference is playing bad football. In this post, I will show why the perception exists and why it’s justified.
Not that long ago, I saw a Tennessee fan remind people that Tennessee had the best record since 1926. It was not first time I’d heard one. Back when Tennessee was competing for SEC titles, you heard it quite often as Tennessee sought respect as one of the top programs of the last century. There was a problem with that fact this time, though. It had ceased to be true quite a while back. The trouble with good arguments is that there comes a day when they cease to be true.
We may have reached that point with the “it’s cyclical” argument. It’s been several years since The SEC has not been in the debate for being the best conference, and it’s also been several years since The Big Ten has not been in the debate for being the worst power conference. For whatever reason, The Big Ten has not been able to pull itself up by its bootstraps and after September 6th, 2014, people were writing the conference’s obituary.
The conference had three big games that day. Michigan was playing #16 (AP) Notre Dame, #8 Ohio State was playing Virginia Tech, and #7 Michigan State was playing #3 Oregon. Since it’s hard to find good match-ups early in the season, all three games gained a lot of national attention. The Big Ten teams lost all three, and really weren’t competitive in any of them by the end of the game. As bad as those results looked for the Big Ten, they were actually among the highlights of the day. At the very least, they were games against decent teams.
Prior to the kickoff of those three days, the Big Ten was already facing a perception problem. Nebraska entered their game against FCS McNeese State ranked #19. McNeese tied the game at the end and Nebraska needed a 58 yard touchdown pass in the last minute to beat what should have been a far inferior opponent. Iowa had trailed by 10 to Ball State late and scored two touchdowns in the last 3 minutes before pulling out a win that should have been easier. Illinois needed a fourth quarter comeback against Western Kentucky, a team only a few years removed from FCS. Purdue got beat soundly against Central Michigan, another MAC team, not only losing, but losing badly. Northwestern lost to another MAC team, Northern Illinois, a week after they’d lost to a California team that went 1-11 the prior season. Penn State also struggled against their MAC team leading only 7-3 until late in the 3rd quarter.
Everybody was writing the Big Ten off after that day. Not even staunch Big Ten supporters could muster an argument that the conference was anything but dismal. It was a hard sell that the Big Ten had any hope this year, but I was quick to point out that history was on its side. The Big Ten had had dismal weeks in the past, and everybody who thought that week was something new had already forgotten it. I confidently pointed out that in a few weeks, people would not remember it. As I look out there, it seems they have.
This had been going on for quite a few years now. Because The Big Ten plays most of its non-conference games early in the season, the poor performances get forgotten during conference play. By the end of the year those staunch supports will be telling the world how great the conference is and wonder why there’s a bias against it. Then bowl season comes and reality sets in again, followed by the offseason where the healing and forgetting happen all over again. Usually some Big Ten team will be able to pull off a win against one of the 3 SEC teams that get played regularly and this win will be a sign to them that the SEC is really not that good and they’ll be able to fool themselves until the cycle begins again. “It’s cyclical” has a whole new meaning now.
You think I’m wrong about this? Do you think the Big Ten really has been competitive and I’m just talking it down? Let’s examine non-conference numbers in recent years against the better teams.
The 2005 season was a pretty good year for the conference. From that point it has yet to have a decent year. Overall, here are the major conferences win/loss records against major opponents from 2006-2013 (major opponents being from AQ conferences, plus Notre Dame):
Among the major conferences (excluding the single year the AAC was an AQ); only the ACC had a poorer overall winning percentage against these teams. How about against ranked teams (AP/CO)?
Again, only the ACC had a lower winning percentage and it might be argued it was because they played so many. Against the top 10:
The Big Ten has a slightly better showing here, with the third most wins of any conference. Against 7 win teams:
Just above the ACC again. Against 10 win teams:
The conference is toward the bottom again. Against teams that went to bowls:
It can be argued that the ACC is lagging behind everybody, but the Big Ten is only slightly better. I’ll politely skip the record against FCS teams, but it’s the Big Ten’s record in bowls that has probably been the most damaging to the reputation:
The only comfort that can be drawn from these is that the Big Ten plays tougher bowl opponents than anyone. There is one final thing to look at. When major conference teams that have a .666 or better conference winning percentage play the same from other conferences:
There have been big wins for the Big Ten. Unfortunately, there have been a lot more losses. Looking at this year, The Big Ten is 5-11 against major teams, 1-4 against ranked teams, 1-6 against 7 win teams, and 4-11 against bowl eligible teams. There’s no sign that the conference is any better.
When you look at the non-conference numbers it’s difficult to argue that the Big Ten hasn’t been among the worst of the power conferences since 2006. This has affected how The Big Ten has been viewed in the media and in the rankings both this year and in recent years. A conference can overcome a bad year or two in general perception, but it’s been years since The Big Ten has given anybody a reason to view it positively (on the football field). This year, Michigan State or Ohio State might really be deserving of a playoff spot if they win out, but their schedule is always going to be perceived as weak because of how poorly the conference has performed lately.
For years, Big Ten fans and others have argued that Boise State didn’t deserve to be ranked among the elite because of the schedule they played. The argument has merit, but the same logic can be applied to the Big Ten this year. While the schedule is not as weak as what Boise State played, it’s perceived to be not as strong as what a lot of other power conference teams are playing. It’s hard to argue against that perception. I’m not sure what the formula is for fielding better teams, but the conference needs to win a lot of high profile games.
When Michigan lost to Appalachian State in 2007, several YouTube videos appeared showing fans of other Big Ten teams cheering. This sort of attitude has always baffled me. Later that year, there were 6 Big Ten teams that had the distinction of losing to that Michigan team that failed to beat Appalachian State. In early November, that Michigan team was 6-0 in conference and in position to win the conference. Did these other Big Ten fans really think this was something to cheer about? Say what you want about SEC fans chanting “SEC, SEC, SEC”, but they understand that what’s good for the conference is good for them as well. Right now, Nebraska is tied for the lead in the West Division. Had they lost to McNeese State, how much worse would the perception of conference be? The fact that they struggled even struggled against McNeese State makes it even more difficult to defend the conference.
This year, there are five power conferences plus Notre Dame in the playoff mix. Like musical chairs, someone will be left without a seat. Right now the committee has all the justification it needs to exclude The Big Ten champion. That might not be fair if that team is really one of the better ones in the country, but they may get denied the chance if the playoff committee thinks they’ve not proved it. Until The Big Ten starts showing better results on the field, the conference’s champion might get treated like a second tier team.