Senior College Football Columnist

Ohio State as standard-bearer? Yes, Big Ten is in trouble


Nebraska's Taylor Martinez is one of just three Big Ten QBs in the top 42 in pass efficiency. (Getty Images)  
Nebraska's Taylor Martinez is one of just three Big Ten QBs in the top 42 in pass efficiency. (Getty Images)  

Here is the ultimate absurdity for the Big Ten, which has taken on the look lately of a big piñata ...

Ohio State could be undefeated. Ohio State could be the only undefeated team left in the country. Ohio State could be the only undefeated team left in the country, leaving AP voters with a choice. Do they reward an (at this moment) uneven team from a mediocre conference?

Yeah, it's a long shot. The longest, probably, for the muddled Big Ten. But the Buckeyes are perfect, on paper, heading to Michigan State this week. The reality is something else. The league it plays in is taking more hits than the NFL replacement refs.

It's almost too easy these days to rip the Big Ten. Still, its performance through four weeks remains perhaps the story of the first quarter of the season. Michigan set the tone on opening night against Alabama. There are few signature wins, none against Notre Dame in three tries. There have been only six victories in 15 tries against BCS conference schools, three of those by Northwestern. The league's highest ranked team is the No. 14 Buckeyes, one of two Big Ten teams banned from bowls this season.

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Because of those probations, the third-place team from the Leaders Division could be playing for a spot in the Rose Bowl. Last season that team would have been Purdue, at 6-6.

What in the name of Pasadena is going on in the Rust Belt? Ohio State remains one of the few rays of hope with that convoluted, twisted, impossible AP scenario. The winner of the BCS title game gets the coaches' No. 1 ranking. (It also does not rank teams on probation). AP hacks could be faced with an almost impossible-to-fathom scenario to anoint Ohio State No. 1. Oregon would have to lose. FSU, too. The SEC would have to trip over its ego, with all four of its teams currently in the top six losing -- maybe twice.

A similar scene played out in 1993. Auburn was on probation but finished as the only undefeated major-college team. It finished fourth. That was before the BCS and the explosion of college football as an hour-by-hour, micro-dissected sport. A similar Ohio State finish would leave a calamitous season-ending fashion show up to those media voters.

So, yeah, there is a chance at another postseason unintended consequence -- about the same chance Jim Carrey had in Dumb and Dumber.

Even if it got to the end undefeated, Ohio State -- and by extension its conference -- would suddenly face the same question as Boise State has for much of its modern existence: Nice team but who have they played?

That brings us back to that ultimate absurdity: In a down year the Big Ten's biggest hope for a national championship rests with a team that can't play for one.

The hits just keep on coming. Aside from the SEC, there is perhaps no other conference that takes as much pride in its history, tradition and style of football. And despite what you read and hear, it is a situation that cannot be explained away as "cyclical."

The Big Ten hasn't won a national championship since 2002 or played for one since 2008. There are rational human beings asking a suddenly rational question: What conference is better, the Big Ten or the ACC? The league dropped out of any real championship consideration after Michigan State's Week 3 loss to Notre Dame.

That history, tradition and style may be changing before our eyes.

"I wish you the best of luck in the national championship in a few years," a friend recently told Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

The friend was referring to new, tougher NCAA academic restrictions that will favor academically-tilted schools like Northwestern in the future.

As for now, go ahead, blindfold yourself, take a swing. Here's a quick look at the league's current issues ...

Recruiting shortfalls are a reality: The "big, slow" reputation is hard to shake. Once those Ohio State teams got out on the field and got run out in consecutive BCS title games in 2007 and 2008 that rep became time-stamped into our psyche.

One player in the top 25 of's top 100 for 2013 is committed to a Big Ten school. Among the players in the SEC footprint in that top 100, one says he going to a Big Ten school. That is, if you consider Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. the SEC footprint. St. Thomas Aquinas defensive end Joey Bosa has pledged to play for Ohio State.

To be fair, Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Michigan's Brady Hoke have recruited aggressively and successfully since getting their jobs. But the nation's population is trending toward the Sun Belt. Most of the best defensive linemen are from the Southeast. They do tend to stay at home in the SEC.

No, Nick Saban can't corral all the good players but he keeps getting enough of them year after year to lap, well, everyone.

Off the field: One-third of the league is on probation (Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan). While it's unfair to compare Penn State's case with, really, anything, certain truths exist. Jim Tressel and Ohio State president Gordon Gee disgraced themselves.

Tressel's cover up cost him his job and a slice of the program's dignity. The school seemed shocked it got a bowl ban but veteran observers of NCAA investigations thought the program got off light. Gee's fundraising skills are unparalleled. Elsewhere, his persona is sometimes an insult to the collegiate model.

The outlandish: "I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me," comment? Sixty-four thousand dollars to "brand" his bow ties?.

And this is the conference where the ultimate tail-wagging-dog tragedy played out at Penn State.

"I think in the Big Ten more than probably any other conference in the history of collegiate sports we've had iconic legendary coaches ...," commissioner Jim Delany said, addressing the probations before the season. "Others who have been difficult to manage."

Where are all the quarterbacks? Aside from Michigan's Denard Robinson, it's hard to name a Big Ten starting quarterback. OK, we'll give you Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez is playing well now but has had an inconsistent career.

Now, more than ever, it's a quarterback game. Minnesota's MarQueis Gray, currently injured, is a converted receiver. Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien lost his job at Wisconsin. Illinois lost to Louisiana Tech last week starting former blue-chipper Nathan Scheelhaase, who was relieved by Reilly O'Toole.

The Big Ten has three quarterbacks in the top 42 in NCAA pass efficiency. The Big 12 has four of the top seven. Guru Steve Clarkson has taught some of the same quarterbacks in the country at his Air 7 academy in Southern California. Since 1995 he can recall one future Big Ten quarterback being at his camp, Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor.

"I think the biggest thing is people are losing site of what is winning games nowadays," Clarkson said. "Defense is starting to get an upper hand. Alabama, LSU, they're winning it with their front seven. They're being able to make you one dimensional.

"What makes it very difficult is when those teams constrict those offenses and make it unpleasant for quarterbacks to make third-down-and-long conversions."

Five Big Ten offenses are in the bottom half nationally in that category. One of those is Michigan.

Understatement of the week: "It was the worst game of my career," Robinson said after his five-turnover game against Notre Dame.

Draft dodgers: Thanks to the Columbus Dispatch for this nugget -- Alabama, LSU and Florida have combined for more first-round picks (17) in the past three years than the entire Big Ten (15). You might have noticed those three schools have combined to win five of the past six BCS titles.

All of it overshadows what's good about the Big Ten at the moment. Meyer was hired at considerable expense to clean up Ohio State's image -- and win. He should do both. Hoke's energy could soon make it an Ohio State-Michigan centric league just like the old days.

Two of the nation's top three dual-threat quarterbacks are committed to Michigan and Penn State. Christian Hackenberg of Fork Union, Va. hasn't wavered in his pledge through the problems at Penn State.

The Big Ten Network, the cable outfit dedicated to putting a positive face on the current situation, is throwing off at least $100 million in profit each season. The conference is well positioned in the playoff when it arrives in 2014. Like Notre Dame, its "brand" isn't going to suffer from a few down years of football.

For now, Northwestern and Minnesota are the only bowl-eligible and undefeated teams. Look for that clash of titans on Oct. 13. Seriously. The league needs some good news. So far, the Wildcats have done the most damage of Big Ten teams against other BCS schools.

As far as those Buckeyes and their unintended consequence? It could happen. Who can Ohio State absolutely lose to? This week's trip to Michigan State looks a lot more winnable than it did in August. Same for the trip to Wisconsin on Nov. 17. Admittedly, these Bucks aren't great, more like a work in progress.

Just like the rest of the Big Piñata, er, Ten at the moment.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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