The much-maligned Big Ten West needed to up its game.
And now it has. Wisconsin’s hiring of Luke Fickell, on the heels of Nebraska bringing in Matt Rhule, offers the promise of two much more competitive programs.
Add in the fact that Bret Bielema has Illinois positioned to reach its potential—and that Jeff Brohm and P.J. Fleck already have upgraded Purdue and Minnesota—the Big Ten’s ``other’’ division figures to produce much-improved football.
It will be interesting to see how Iowa and Northwestern, which are coming off of very flawed campaigns, react. Kirk Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald are too entrenched to be in any danger. But their staffs are likely to be overhauled.
Some supposed experts have pointed to the Big Ten West as the case for eliminating divisions.
To which I say. . . if the Big Ten had no divisions this year, we would be looking at another Michigan-Ohio State game on Saturday. Two of those eight days? How can anyone think that’s a good idea?
The Rhule and Fickell hirings both were precision strikes that make sense for their programs.
Nebraska has seemingly tried everything since the sainted Tom Osborne retired in 1997—and it has not gotten it right, at least to the satisfaction of Cornhusker fans who expected to be a perennial national-championship contender.
I suspect that Husker fans need to dial back those expectations a tad. The days when Nebraska was an Alabama on the prairie are over.
But if they give Rhule, who breathed life into Temple and Baylor, a chance, he might succeed where Frank Solich, Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini, Mike Riley and Scott Frost have come up short.
Don’t fret about the national championship. A conference championship for Nebraska would be a huge stride.
That said, conference championships don’t seem to be a very big deal these days. And they will be even less significant with the new, but not improved, 12-team playoff.
Time out for old-guy rant: By going from a four-team playoff, where conference championships are under-valued, to a 12-team playoff, where conference championships are irrelevant, college football is doing exactly what it should have guarded against.
When a team can lose its conference championship game (see Georgia and Alabama) or a huge rivalry showdown (see Ohio State and Michigan) and still go to the playoff, the season is diminished.
The bowl games already are in tatters. With conferences signing television deals worth billions, how many dollars do they need to chase?
An eight-team playoff, where conference champions are joined by a few elite runners-up, would have been special. That would have let the players decide, rather than some suits in a boardroom.
But no. Instead of having a national tournament, we are going from a four-team invitational to a 12-team invitational.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. . .
There were many people in Badger Nation who were rooting for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, the interim head coach when Paul Chryst was shown the door, to get the job.
I was not completely opposed to that idea if second-year athletic director Chris McIntosh decided to go that way. I assume he sought the counsel of his mentor, Barry Alvarez, for a momentous decision like this.
That said, it would have been very risky to anoint a young coordinator to such a complex job.
Fickell, on the other hand, looks like a perfect fit. He not only built Cincinnati, the only Group of 5 to reach the College Football Playoff, into a powerhouse. In a sign of what he considers Wisconsin’s potential, Fickell finally decided to leave after Michigan State, Florida State, West Virginia and Louisville had shown interest in hiring him.
Some of that is timing. The Bearcats are moving to the Big 12 next season, where they will face a different set of challenges. At Cincinnati, Fickell had gone as far as he could go without unprecedented changes.
At Wisconsin, he will give the Badgers aggressive leadership they haven’t seen since Bret Bielema left in 2012. And Fickell will do it with a maturity that Bielema lacked.
Like Leonhard, Fickell was a defensive star as a player at his alma mater, Ohio State. And like Leonhard, he was interim coach of the Buckeyes when Jim Tressel was forced out by an improper-benefits scandal.
At 49, Fickell is the perfect age to step into a destination job. And Wisconsin, no doubt, has all the pieces in place to succeed at the highest level. Other than the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin football is the biggest thing in a sports-obsessed state.
As a member of the Big Ten, it will have the boggling resources that are being accorded to college football’s most important conferences.
Nebraska thinks it should be a regular contender for the national championship. The truth is, Wisconsin, with the right coach, has better ingredients to do that.
Whether that happens, only time will tell.
But the fact is, in the (ugh!) 12-team playoff era, if you win the Big Ten (or even come close), you're going to be in the national-championship chase.
I’m guessing Luke Fickell, who had Cincinnati two games away from winning it all when the Bearcats were in the 2021 playoff, thinks the same thing.