All week I’ve been hearing (on TV, in the locker room, even at the City Council meeting) how much the Big Ten stinks, thanks to Ohio State’s second annual national title implosion on Monday. LSU, according to the experts, was faster, stronger, and tougher. The Buckeyes, like the rest of their conference, are stuck in a slow old game of smashmouth football that left the league with a 3-5 bowl mark this year.
The problem with this argument is that it too is behind the times–by about ten years.
In the mid-90s, after a series of big-time Big Ten flops in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, a host of experts and critics said the league hadn’t adjusted to the younger, quicker game epitomized by the programs at Duke, Kentucky, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina.
But others noted that just a few years earlier, the Big Ten had been among the more dominant conferences in the country, featuring Michigan’s Fab Five as well as great teams from Indiana, Ohio State, and Illinois. The problem, according to this line of thinking, was that Big Ten teams weren’t tourney-tested when they showed up for the NCAAs. While just about every other league held tournaments to end conference play, the Big Ten stuck with a regular round-robin schedule that simply didn’t get teams ready for the do-or-die atmosphere of the Big Dance.
The Big Ten finally launched its men’s basketball tournament in 1998. And in the ten years since, Big Ten teams have done about as well as anyone in the NCAAs. Consider: of the 40 Final Four teams from 1998 through last year, nine were from the Big Ten–the same number that came from everybody’s perennial number one hoops conference, the ACC. The SEC and Big East each produced five Final Four squads and the Pac Ten four. Three other teams (Utah, 1998; Louisville, 2005; and George Mason, 2006) weren’t from the power conferences (though Louisville has since joined the Big East).
While LSU was clearly the better football team Monday night, I also thought Ohio State looked at least as rusty as it may have been overmatched, from some of the questionable decisions of the coaching staff to the subpar special teams play. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but the Buckeyes hadn’t been in a real game since topping Michigan on November 17. The Tigers played two huge games after that and had only a month off instead of a month and a half.
In other words, maybe it’s time for the Big Ten to extend the football season by a week or two with a miniplayoff or at least a championship game. It couldn’t have hurt. I mean, if the Illini hadn’t had such a layoff, maybe they would only have lost the Rose Bowl by three touchdowns.