Big Ten will come down to more than just Big Two this season
The Big Ten certainly wouldn't be the Big Ten without all 11, er, 12 schools. This fall will mark a momentous change, as everyone from Penn State to Michigan State, Iowa to Illinois, acclimates to a world of Leaders and Legends and cross-divisional matchups, trips to Lincoln, Neb., and, for the lucky two, a December showdown in Indianapolis.
But even the proudest Northwestern or Minnesota fan, even the newcomers from Nebraska, understand that to the rest of the country, the conference has long been synonymous with its two most high-profile rivals. Michigan and Ohio State have won or shared 76 Big Ten titles, compared with 91 for all the other schools combined. Their annual late-November clash is one of sports' great events, appointment TV not just in the Midwest but in the East, West and South. Love 'em or hate 'em, the fortunes of the Buckeyes and the Wolverines -- particularly in bowl games -- often define the national perception of the conference.
So as if adding Nebraska and splitting into divisions were not enough of a cosmic change in the Big Ten, consider the makeovers taking place in Columbus and Ann Arbor and the possible ripple effects across the Big Ten and the nation.
For the past decade, one man -- check that, one man in a sweater vest -- lorded over the conference. Having won the Big Ten's last national championship (in 2002), having been a fixture at the top of the conference standings and having appeared in eight BCS games in nine years, Jim Tressel had his teams in more nationally relevant games than any other coach. Tressel Ball became both a symbol of conservative Midwestern values and a punching bag for fans of other conferences. For better or worse his program was the bedrock of the Big Ten.
And now he's gone. On the heels of a scandal last December in which quarterback Terrelle Pryor and five other Buckeyes were suspended by the NCAA for impermissible dealings with a Columbus tattoo-parlor owner, followed by the bombshell revelation in March that Tressel had been informed of the violations but did not report them, Ohio State's long-revered coach resigned under pressure on May 30. The school appeared before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions on Aug. 12 and is waiting to hear if the NCAA will impose sanctions beyond those self-imposed by the school. (OSU vacated its 2010 victories and put the football program on two years of probation.)
Whatever the NCAA punishment may be, the Buckeyes face a litany of challenges in attempting to continue Tressel's success. His replacement, Luke Fickell, will be learning on the fly with no assurance of a job beyond 2011. (The school removed his "interim" tag but said Fickell is the coach "this year.") Fickell will be breaking in a new quarterback after trouble-plagued three-year starter Pryor left school with an eye on the NFL. The coach will also be without top receiver DeVier Posey, top running back Dan Herron, standout tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas -- four of the remaining players implicated in the tattoo case -- for the first five games. As Ohio State debuts in the absurdly named Leaders Division, it appears vulnerable for the first time in at least six years.
Meanwhile its rivals to the North are going through their own regime change -- only by choice. After three years under coach Rich Rodriguez, whose teams went 15-22 and fielded historically inept defenses, the Wolverines kick off in the (equally absurd) Legends Division under Brady Hoke, a defensive line coach for Michigan's 1997 national title team. While not the school's top choice (that was UM alum Jim Harbaugh, who joined the 49ers instead), Hoke has rejuvenated the fan base with his early recruiting success and his passion for all things Maize and Blue. But just as at his first head-coaching stops -- Ball State (where, in 2007, he led the Cardinals to their first winning season in 11 years and in '08 to a 12-1 record) and San Diego State (where the Aztecs' 9-4 record in 2010 was their first above .500 since 1998) -- Hoke has rebuilding to do before the Wolverines can expect to challenge for the conference title.
With one of the Big Two possibly taking a step backward and the other finding its way forward, the door seems open to nearly all the other 10. Last year Wisconsin and Michigan State joined the Buckeyes (all 11-1 and 7-1 in conference play) as part of an unsatisfying three-way tie at the top of the league standings. This season there will be no more shared championships: The first Stagg-Paterno Championship Trophy will be decided on the field (what a novel concept!) on Dec. 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Wisconsin (in the Leaders Division) and Michigan State (Legends) could well meet to decide the crown. The Badgers added an intriguing wrinkle over the summer, bringing in former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson, an accomplished three-year starter who answers what had been coach Bret Bielema's biggest uncertainty. The Spartans have a veteran signal-caller of their own returning, Kirk Cousins, as well as a loaded backfield led by Edwin Baker.
Newcomer Nebraska (Legends) is no stranger to conference championship games, having played in the Big 12's past two. Bo Pelini's Huskers could field the league's top defense, led by two second-team All-Americas, tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David.
And it's never wise to overlook Penn State's Joe Paterno, whose program has been as resilient as its 84-year-old steward. The Nittany Lions (Leaders) have twice shared titles since 2005 and will try to rebound from a 7-6 campaign.
Before the Big Ten announced its divisional alignments last September, the most heated debates inevitably involved the placement of Michigan and Ohio State. Would they be in the same or different divisions? Would commissioner Jim Delany be so sacrilegious as to move their game earlier in the year? In the end the late-November date remained untouched, but it created a potential pickle: the possibility of a rematch seven days later if each team wins its division.
It could be cool. It could be overkill. It could be both. But in those programs' current states, it's most likely an issue for another year. The road to Indy is open to all comers.