Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Big Ten Football Has a Crippling Image Problem

This year's NCAA Tournament selection committee did not think much of the newly formed American Athletic Conference.

Despite having 5 teams in the Top 25 for most of the season, the league only got four bids. The teams that did get in were underseeded. Pre-tournament favorite Louisville was a #4 seed. The eventual tournament champion, ranked #21 in the final AP Poll, somehow ended up as a #7 seed. The greatness of Kevin Ollie meant that UConn fans didn't care about the seed in April.

For a 68-team tournament, the image problem of the AAC meant relatively little. You could argue it points out the meaningless nature of the regular season in college basketball, but in the end, that image problem was solved by wins.

This is not the case in college football. Even with the dawn of the four-team college football playoff, image will remain everything in the sport.

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Going into the final week of the 2013 regular season, there was a serious debate about whether an undefeated Ohio State or a 1-loss SEC team, either Auburn or Missouri, should play in the BCS Title Game against Florida State. It was a fascinating debate because it centered only on Ohio State.

You see, Florida State and Ohio State played almost the exact same schedules in 2013. Florida State played one really good team in Clemson, Ohio State played one really good team in Michigan State. Of course, the loss to Michigan State for the Buckeyes rendered the whole thing moot. But the fact the conversation was even taking place said more than words about how far Big Ten football had fallen.

The final AP Poll, after the bowls were played, included 3 ACC teams and 3 Big Ten teams. Yet it was the ACC team, who played no one of consequence out of conference, that was above reproach in late November while Ohio State was dissected daily.

In fact, the perception of the Big Ten had faded so poorly that even Northern Illinois was affected. Before they lost the MAC Title Game, the critics pointed out the weakness of their schedule and the fact their best win was merely a road win over Iowa, a Big Ten team that would play on New Year's Day.

In the BCS, this image problem posed only a minor inconvenience for the Big Ten. When there are only two teams involved and no true criteria for ranking team, the default was always ranking by the loss column.

As we look ahead to 2014, everything changes. The one constant that has been pounded out by the College Football Playoff's PR armada has been the focus on strength of schedule. Right or wrong, teams will be slotted by the teams they played.

For me, placing such a high emphasis on strength of schedule is a fool's errand. Yes, strength of schedule should play a role, but not the role. Is it really Ohio State's fault that two traditional powers, Michigan and Penn State, are in downturns? Should Alabama be punished because its two conference cross-over games are against lean Florida and Tennessee teams?

But while I may have objections, they matter little. There will be an overwhelming emphasis on strength of schedule. For the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC, this is great news as all three experience positive vibes from the media. For the ACC, this could be problematic but having Florida State and Clemson coming off of BCS bowl wins eases that burden.

For the Big Ten, it is crippling.

I wrote that Notre Dame will make the college football playoff because its burden for playing for a national championship has been lowered. With the schedule they play in 2014, they will get the benefit of every doubt.

For Ohio State, the burden of playing for a national championship may have actually been raised despite the number of teams growing to four. If you think Ohio State was dissected harshly last year, just wait until this year if a similar scenario plays out.

While I am using Ohio State as the example here, it can apply to any Big Ten team making a bid for a playoff berth. There are simply too many poor to average teams in the league and not enough great ones.

As if the image problem of the 12-team Big Ten wasn't enough, they are adding two teams in Maryland and Rutgers that have been mocked relentless for their football prowess since their Big Ten moves were made public in November 2012.

In fact, the aforementioned title run by UConn led to a wave of stories, particularly in the New York City market, about the poor choice of adding Rutgers. While the conference is chasing TV dollars, its counterparts are chasing championships.

Ohio State needed a better schedule in 2014 than in 2013. They now have games against Maryland and Rutgers, two perennial also-rans that have combined for a grand total of 1 major bowl berth in my lifetime.

15 million more subscribers to the Big Ten Network will do very, very well for the bottom line but will ultimately mean nothing to the men and women who gather in December to decide who plays for the national championship.

capital one bowlAs with The American, and yes I am now comparing the Big Ten to the AAC, the only solution is winning. No conference will be as scrutinized in September as the Big Ten. If they suffer through another indignant late summer, like Nebraska losing to UCLA twice, it will be another long, long fall.

Of course, the Big Ten rarely challenges itself out of conference. Indiana just dropped USF, those 2-10 USF Bulls, because it felt last year's schedule was too hard. Yes, that's the same school whose head coach complained about playing Navy.

It will added extra importance to the few non-conference games of note. Pay attention to these, as they may determine the Big Ten's fate for this season and beyond:

UCF vs. Penn State in Ireland, 8/30
Ohio State at Navy in Baltimore, 8/30
Wisconsin vs. LSU in Houston, 8/30
Cal at Northwestern, 8/30
Michigan at Notre Dame, 9/6
Michigan State at Oregon, 9/6
Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 9/6
West Virginia at Maryland, 9/13
Illinois at Washington, 9/13
Nebraska at Fresno State, 9/13
Minnesota at TCU, 9/13
Iowa at Pitt, 9/20
Miami at Nebraska, 9/20
Cincinnati at Ohio State, 9/27

Those are 14 key games with Ohio State figured to win three of them. If the league can't win 6 of the other 11, they are in serious, serious trouble when it comes to getting any teams in the playoff.

There are now four teams in the playoff, not two. For Ohio State and every other Big Ten team though, nothing has changed.

They have to win every single game to play for a national title.

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1 comment:

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