Once celebrated as the epitome of hard-nosed, championship-level college football, the Big Ten conference has slowly spiraled into the depths of BCS mediocrity.
With the non-conference schedule showing anything but improvement so far this season, the collective struggles of the Big Ten have extended this downward trend even further.
Through four weeks, the Big Ten, which starts conference play tomorrow, has had only one victory against a ranked opponent and has won six out of 14 games versus teams in the NCAA’s six power conferences. Penn State, in its first year of postseason-ineligibility, has not helped the league’s cause, losing to two non-ranked teams to begin the season.
Though most members of the Big Ten downplayed the significance of the slow start, rejecting the trend is becoming more and more difficult. The facts alone show the conference is no longer among the elite in the country.
The Big Ten does not have a team ranked in the top 10, whereas the SEC has four teams ranked in the top six.
The Big Ten does not have a bowl-eligible team in the top 20, as No. 14 Ohio State is also ineligible for the postseason this year. The Big 12, however, has five teams ranked in the top 16.
After losing five out of its first six games against ranked opponents, the Big Ten now has only three ranked teams in the week four Associated Press poll.
When asked how to describe the Big Ten’s performance against non-conference teams, Bill Rabinowitz, Columbus Dispatch reporter, said it certainly wasn’t pretty.
“Bad…Horrible…What’s the word?” Rabinowitz said.
The beat reporter, who covers Ohio State, said he is surprised the conference has not been more competitive.
“I think they definitely have taken a step back, and now that we’re into league play, the only thing we can judge them by is the bowl season,” Rabinowitz added. “But there’s no question that the Big Ten is down this year.”
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney told ESPN.com earlier this week he admits the conference started off the season on the wrong foot.
Despite half the coaches being in their first two years as head coach of their respective teams, Delaney said there are no excuses for the conference’s subpar start.
“The narrative is we’ve underperformed, and I can’t argue with that,” Delany told ESPN.com. “We haven’t won big games. The narrative is about right. When you have big brands, expectations are high. I can’t discount the facts, and I can’t discount the critics.”
The conference’s record thus far (33-13) is just one win shy of where it stood at this point last year, leading one to believe that the difference may not be all that significant.
Mark Snyder, who covers the Michigan football team for the Detroit Free Press, said it’s difficult to lump an entire conference into one boat. In fact, there have been bright spots among Big Ten teams so far, such as undefeated teams like Ohio State, Minnesota, and Northwestern.
Yet, the Big Ten had two teams in the top 10 heading into conference play last year and, throughout the 2011 season, seven teams landed themselves in the top 25 — including the Nittany Lions who peaked at No. 12 in week 11.
However, Snyder noted that even the Big Ten teams that have started this season well haven’t played enough talented teams to earn respect. The combined record of the three undefeated teams’ opponents is 15-29.
With this in mind, he said it’s doubtful the Big Ten will be able to rival the other top conferences in the nation.
“I think we’ve already seen most of the evaluation comes from the head-to-head matchups and the Big Ten hasn’t faired well in the non-conference season,” Snyder said.
Meanwhile, members of Big Ten programs argue it’s far too early to count them out.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said there is room for improvement for the conference, but he believes the Big Ten will recover its image by the end of the season.
“Do we want to all play better? There’s no question,” Hoke said. “I don’t think there’s a coach in America who doesn’t want to play better, no matter what your record is. I think our conference will continue to be as good a conference as there is.”
Although the Big Ten hasn’t won a national championship since 2002, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said one thing he’s noticed of college football is the dominant conferences tend to rotate.
“In my opinion, college football as it relates to its conferences is somewhat cyclical,” O’Brien said. “One year, the SEC may have a great year and then the next year maybe it’s the Big Ten or the Big 12 or maybe it’s the ACC.”
But, the first four weeks have yet to show any signs of this year being the Big Ten’s year to bounce back and reign supreme.
Within the conference, the Leaders division has especially struggled. Besides Ohio State, no team has truly stood out so far.
Wisconsin, a team many picked to win the division, is entering conference play at 3-1 with three close victories over underwhelming opponents and a loss to Oregon State. The Lions’ upcoming opponent, Illinois, is coming off of a disappointing 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech, a member of the WAC conference.
The lack of consistent play in the Leaders division so far leaves the door open for Penn State to possibly compete for a division title. Despite not being able to play in the Big Ten championship game, the Lions could still technically win the regular season division championship.
O’Brien said, whether it’s playing for the division title or simply for each other, there is certainly a lot to play for this season.
And tight end Kyle Carter said the fact that the Big Ten is supposedly off to a down start plays right into Penn State’s hands.
“The Big Ten Network was talking about how the Big Ten isn’t what it used to be and that we’re not as good as before and all that,” Carter said.
“But I mean, it just gives us more of a chance to come out here and win this Leaders Division, so that’s all we’re focused on.”