How Can the Big Ten Get Its Mojo Back? Ask a Doctor
First off, let's put all the cards on the table. What is "broken" in the Big Ten? The league suffers under the perception/reality that, while its teams look very good against each other, they fold up in competition with teams from other conferences, specifically the Big 12, SEC and Pac 10.
Why? Because the Big Ten has become synonymous with a slow, plodding, and most of all boring style of football. Does this sound familiar to some of you? It should.
It's exactly what people were saying about Nebraska football about 16 or 18 years ago.
Consider the stats: Between 1980 and 1993, the Huskers didn't miss going to a bowl game. How did they do in those games? Over the same stretch, they went 4-10. Ouch. From 1987 to 1993, they lost seven straight. Double ouch. That stretch included four Orange Bowls and two Fiesta Bowls. Mommy!
By the early 1990s, Nebraska was generally considered a team that dominated its shockingly weak conference but couldn't run with college football's elite any more. Like I said ... sound familiar? I'm looking at you, Buckeye fans.
So what did Dr. Tom Osborne do about it?
He went out and got himself some faster players, that's what. He didn't fire his assistants, he didn't bring in some trendy new offensive scheme, he just got quicker. Osborne and his staff grabbed fast players like Tommie Frazier out of Bradenton, Fla., and Ahman Green out of Omaha. He didn't just look for speed at the skill positions, however. The whole team began to emphasize quickness.
What did he get for his trouble? How about back-to-back undefeated national championship seasons in 1994 and 1995? How about a brutal filleting of the Florida Gators in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl (62-24, and the game wasn't as close as the score might lead you to believe)? How about a third national title after the 1997 season?
The point is, Osborne listened to his critics. He didn't claim that they didn't know what they were talking about, that his team just needed to try a little harder, that these things go in cycles, that the Titanic couldn't possibly sink, and so on. He looked at the film and said, "You know what? We are a little slower than the other teams. I think I need some faster players." That was the only change he made.
That's something I think the Big Ten can learn from. The schemes aren't fundamentally broken; it's still possible to win in college football without selling out to the spread. What I don't see, though, is a willingness to make the personnel and recruiting adjustments necessary to make these schemes prosper again. There's still too much emphasis on just being bigger and stronger than the other guy. A lot of that is because of how Ohio State and Michigan have historically dominated the conference with a big, physical style of football. Unless the schedule gods have smiled on your team by letting them skip one or both of those schools, you haven't been able to win the conference without beating one or both of them.
So perhaps the first team to make this small philosophical adjustment will be the first to go and make something good happen nationally. Or maybe the overdog himself, Jim Tressel, needs to take Nebraska's experience to heart. In Terrelle Pryor, he already has a quarterback who is essentially Frazier with a better arm. All he needs is a little more quickness all the way down the depth chart, and some of these loudmouth SEC and Big 12 fans will be forced to drink a tall, cool glass of humility. Again.