Last season for the Big Ten in college football provided plenty of visual evidence of the conference’s on-the-field problems. Whether in non-conference play or conference play, the 2012 regular season was far from the Big Ten’s finest hour.
The gap between the Big Ten and college football’s best conference, the SEC, was put on display on the first Saturday of last season. At Cowboys Stadium, the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide brutalized Denard Robinson and the Michigan Wolverines to the tune of 41-14. The Crimson Tide scored the game’s first 31 points and dominated in one of the hardest games I’ve ever had to watch as a Michigan fan. Any and all hyperbole would be fitting for this one-sided domination.
There were plenty of other highlights during the Big Ten’s poor showing in non-conference play last season. That meant following up that poor first weekend with an even worse one as the second week of last season was easily the conference’s worst of last season.
The Wisconsin Badgers suffered a 10-7 loss at the Oregon St. Beavers that week thanks to some pathetic play (to put it lightly) from their offensive line. And this came after nearly losing to the Northern Iowa Panthers the week before. That same week, the Nebraska Cornhuskers lost a shootout in the Rose Bowl against the UCLA Bruins, the Iowa Hawkeyes lost in a low-scoring game to their in-state rivals, the Iowa St. Cyclones, the Illinois Fighting Illini were basically run out of the stadium against the Arizona St. Sun Devils and the Penn St. Nittany Lions lost to the Virginia Cavaliers thanks to four missed field-goals, the last one coming on the game’s final play.
Every conference has their share of exciting and heart-pounding football games once conference play begins. The Big Ten in 2012 was no different. The downside to conference play is that it shows how good a conference really is or isn’t. In the Big Ten’s case, conference play in 2012 showed how good they weren’t.
Any excitement the Big Ten produced during conference play last season was a facade. The excitement came from blown leads late in games, poor defense or a complete lack of defense and poorer than desired play from the teams involved. To give an example, almost every one of the Badgers’ conference losses was an example of all of those characteristics.
In the end, only one team distanced themselves from the pack and showed themselves to be capable of being a legitimate power in college football. That team was the Ohio St. Buckeyes and they were ineligible for postseason play last year. Despite the Badgers and Wolverines playing close against them, it was painfully clear that the Buckeyes were the best team in the Big Ten through all of the 2012 regular season. This ended up making the conference’s championship game, though fun for me as a Wisconsin native, a farce.
To say that the Big Ten has work to do on the playing field would be an understatement. At the end of the day, how the conference’s teams perform in competition is what people take away the most and how the conference is perceived as a whole. The 2012 regular season did little to make people think that Big Ten teams (other than the Buckeyes) could stand up to top teams in other major conferences such as the SEC or Pac 12. This has to change, otherwise college football’s oldest conference will either wither and die, or will join the ACC and Big East as conferences desperately clinging to life on the football field.