The conference had a chance to redefine itself Saturday as one of the elite conferences, pushing into the background all the mean jokes about how sorry the league is.
But what did the Big Ten do?
It capsized like the Titanic.
One week after Wisconsin blew a late lead and lost to LSU, down went Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, football schools that have long styled themselves as programs worthy of beating any team ranked among the top tier. All the conference did was prove anew it was closer in quality to the Mid-American Conference and the Sun Belt than to the Pac 12, Big 12 or the Southeastern Conference.
Football does run in cycles, and the Big Ten had its run of success. But you can hardly remember when that run was. It surely hasn’t been in the past five or six years, and it definitely won’t begin anew this season.
Any chance the conference had of earning a spot in the four-team tournament for the national championship vanished under the sorry play of every conference team that played anybody of significance Saturday.
To compound the frustrations of the Big Ten, conference members lost to teams like Northern Illinois and Central Michigan, and Nebraska, itself a program with a proud past but not much of a present, needed running back Ameer Abdullah to mimic a pinball machine on a 58-yard catch-and-run in the closing seconds to rescue the ’Huskers from a loss to McNeese State.
How things have gone so wrong for the conference is easily explained. Teams in the South like Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Florida, LSU and Texas A&M figured out years ago that football on the highest level is a game of speed and finesse, not plodding brute.
Speed has become the calling card of the Pac 12 as well, speed that a program like Oregon used to manhandle the Spartans in a matchup of Top 10 teams Saturday.
One writer from ESPN put it well in his analysis of the Ducks vs. the Spartans when he wrote: “You have no doubt noticed this, but college football is rapidly moving toward two unofficial divisions: Tortoise and Hare.”
Yes, football fans have noticed. They have noticed because Oregon and Florida State and Alabama have made it impossible not to notice. They play the game at a Usain Bolt pace, and they have made college football as much of a must-see event as the football games on Sundays are.
If the expectations are to compete for national championships, every team in the conference is wasting its time. At the highest level of college football, the Big Ten has lost its place. The league can’t keep pace with Deep South schools that have remade the sport in ways that have left the Big Ten stuck in its yesteryear.
That’s not likely to change until coaches start to recruit difference-makers with speed. But the tortoise might not care, because he can still look into his stadium and see butts in the seats. And isn’t that more important than winning?
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(Photo: Courtesy of Big Ten Conference)