Big Ten isn't doomed to terminal inferiority -- but it needs to adjust

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This week, the spotlight shifted to other locales including Chicago, where the Big Ten held its own season kick-off event. The tone, however, differed substantially. There, topics included the league's recent bowl woes, Michigan's worst season in school history ... and the league's recent bowl woes.

My inbox flooded with concerns on both counts.

As a non-SEC fan in the South, I take solace in your oft-repeated mantra of "conference strength is cyclical." Does the SEC TV contract make that no longer true? Are we in for decades of SEC dominance?-- Glenn Boylan, John Creeks, Ga.

Stewart my friend, I need your help. How do I continue to defend the Wisconsin Badgers and the Big Ten when they seem to want me to hate them? It just seems like the Big Ten doesn't realize it's been passed by other conferences even though every big-time inter-conference game ends with a Big Ten loss. You've stated in the past that it's cyclical, but I feel like the Big Ten has been declining for years with no end in sight.-- Niko, Baraboo, Wis.

Let's all take a few deep breaths here. Yes, conference strength is cyclical. We addressed that prior to last season, when compared the first five years of the BCS era to the second five years and showed that during the first period, the now-sullen Big Ten was actually the No. 1 conference nationally.

That said, the SEC was by far the strongest conference over the entire 10-year period, and that will continue to be the case -- generally speaking -- for the foreseeable future. There's simply more fan interest, more money being invested and more homegrown talent in the South than other parts of the country.

But as I've always contended, every season is different, and every league has its "up" and "down" years. In fact, I'd argue the SEC had a "down" season last year. It produced the national champion (Florida), but LSU, Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas all dropped off significantly and Alabama had a great year but suffered an embarrassing Sugar Bowl loss to Utah. Meanwhile, the four-week gauntlet Texas went through in the Big 12 at one point last season -- Oklahoma, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech -- was more rigorous than anything the Gators faced.

The Big Ten, on the other hand, struggled yet again (1-6 in bowl season, six straight BCS losses), and it may not be much better this year. But that doesn't mean the conference is doomed to terminal inferiority -- it just means it needs to adjust.

Remember when Nebraska kept losing to Florida State and Miami in bowl games in the late 1980s and early '90s? Tom Osborne eventually modified his approach by placing a greater emphasis on defensive speed and won three national titles in four years (with all three bowl wins coming against Southern teams). The Big Ten is in the early stages of attempting the same type of adjustment. Teams such as Michigan and Purdue raided Florida last recruiting season in search of some game-breakers. Ron Zook and Tim Brewster have been doing the same at Illinois and Minnesota, respectively. Ohio State's roster is filled with more talent than most SEC teams. The Buckeyes' Achilles heel the past couple of years was their awful offensive line, not a lack of blue-chippers; coach Jim Tressel addressed that area heavily in his past two classes.

Addressing the ubiquitous "negative perception" question, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said this week: "All it takes is one or two big wins in a [BCS] bowl game and all that will go away. And that's going to happen, and it's going to happen when we're better than all the other teams we play."

I don't know whether that will come this year or next, but it will happen. In the meantime, non-SEC fans worried about "decades of SEC dominance" should pray for the one event that's always preceded that conference's down periods in the past: a massive wave of recruiting scandals and NCAA sanctions.

I'm a die-hard football fan who wakes up on Saturday morning and doesn't go to bed until the last game is over, but I hope this $3 billion SEC TV contract blows up in ESPN's face. Most fans grow up watching teams from our own home state/conference. I know the SEC is the best conference (for now), but I will not sit and watch a great SEC matchup over a good ACC or Big East game. I think it's ludicrous that ESPN thinks all ACC, Big East, Pac-10, Big Ten or Big 12 fans will now follow SEC football.-- Bob Pearson, Newport News, Va.

There are a couple points I wish I'd brought up in my column last week that I will hit now. For one, just because ESPN will be showing more SEC games does not mean it will be showing fewer ACC or Big East games. They're simply adding more programming time, be it on ESPNU, ESPN Classic or in syndication. Secondly, I don't think anyone's expecting fans will stop following their own team/conference and switch over to SEC games instead. It's more a recognition that SEC teams tend to play in a lot of big games with BCS implications that fans from any part of the country would be interested in seeing.

But I also think it's important to understand an unspoken motivation behind the deal, which is ESPN could not afford to let the SEC create its own network. Big Ten and SEC football are the two most attractive television properties in college sports. If both leagues started their own networks, and both proved successful, who's to say 10 years from now they wouldn't abandon their outside partners altogether? I believe ESPN purposefully put together an over-the-top proposal -- not just monetarily, but in terms of unique branding, ambitious syndication efforts, etc. -- to take away any possible motivation the SEC may have had to go that route.

With the recent announcement that Virginia Tech will play Boise State next season, I am wondering if any school has had a tougher nonconference schedule over the past 10 years. The Hokies have faced USC, LSU, Alabama, Nebraska, East Carolina, Texas A&M, Marshall and now Boise State.-- Greg Roach, Fairfax, Va.

I certainly give the Hokies props for scheduling those games, but in most cases you're talking about one such game per year. Those matchups have been mixed in with the likes of Furman, William & Mary, Northeastern and Kent State.

While I have no quantitative data to back this up, you'd be hard-pressed to find a school with a more consistently tough out-of-conference schedule than USC (which makes its string of seven straight 11-win seasons that much more impressive). In addition to its annual series with Notre Dame, the Trojans have had home-and-homes since 2000 with Ohio State, Auburn, Arkansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas State, BYU and Hawaii as well as neutral-site games with Penn State and Virginia Tech. During that time, they have played 73 percent of their nonconference games against BCS-conference foes and Notre Dame. The national average last year among BCS-conference schools was 36 percent.

If anyone has data to suggest another school can top that, feel free to submit it.

Can Joe Cox pull off a D.J. Shockley-type senior year for Georgia?-- @Meat686 (via Twitter)

First of all, congratulations to "Meat." I noticed this was his first tweet, sent the day he signed up -- and it proved Mailbag. Dreams really do come true.

Now, onto the question. In 2005, Shockley, a fifth-year senior, led the Bulldogs to a surprise SEC championship after spending four years as David Greene's backup. Cox is also a fifth-year senior who spent the past three seasons backing up No. 1 draft pick Matthew Stafford. While I don't necessarily see an SEC title in Cox's future -- that would require knocking off Florida -- I would not be surprised at all if Cox and Georgia surprise some people this fall.

For one thing, Mark Richt's past two BCS bowl teams (2005 and '07) both started the season outside the top 10, and it appears this Georgia squad will do so, too. That's good news, because the Dawgs don't seem to fare as well when expectations are high (see last year). Secondly, the last time we saw Cox in meaningful action as a redshirt freshman in '06, he came in and led an impressive comeback against Colorado, throwing two touchdown passes. And finally, he'll have a good supporting cast -- no Knowshon Moreno, but an experienced offensive line, star receiver A.J. Green and the underrated Michael Moore (not the filmmaker; the guy who had six catches for 97 yards in the Capital One Bowl).

I think we can say with reasonable certainty the SEC will place two teams in the BCS, and that one of those teams will be Florida. But your guess is as good as mine as to which of four teams -- Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU or Georgia -- will be the other.

When talking about Kansas State in your July 22nd Mailbag, you asked the following: "Will they become a perennial top 10 program again?" My question: Were they ever?-- Savage, Omaha, Neb.

The Wildcats finished in the top 10 six out of eight years from 1995-2002 (and then won the Big 12 in '03). To put that in perspective, Nebraska has currently gone seven years without a single top 10 finish. Pretty astonishing on both fronts.

I know you usually write about the powerhouses of the Big 12, but I thought I could sneak in a question on Colorado. I had high hopes with the hiring of Dan Hawkins, but have you seen any improvement? The father/son combo from Boise State hasn't really panned out the way I expected.-- Andrew, Washington, D.C.

I had high hopes for Hawkins, too, but I knew he would need time to rebuild. Negative publicity from a litany of alleged sexual assaults by players and subsequent recruiting restrictions in 2004 decimated that program and left a fairly empty cupboard when Hawkins arrived in December 2005. But this is now Year 4, and Hawkins knows there's no more room for excuses. He went so far as to publicly predict 10 wins this season, a risky and unusual move (though one in keeping with Hawkins' personality).

On the surface, it would appear the Buffs regressed last season, slipping from an Independence Bowl berth the previous year to a 5-7 record last fall. However, there was more to it than that. Colorado showed its potential with an early season upset of West Virginia, but a rash of injuries (10 season-enders) plagued it the rest of the way. The Buffs were relying heavily on freshmen and sophomores by the end, yet still managed to give fans a tease in the season finale at Nebraska, holding a 33-31 lead until the final two minutes, when Huskers kicker Alex Henery nailed a 57-yard field goal to steal the victory.

So it's hard to say whether Colorado has "improved" to this point, but I see no reason why the Buffs can't make a breakthrough this year and perhaps even contend for a title in the wide-open Big 12 North. Sophomore running back Darrell Scott had a big spring game and seems poised for a breakout. The biggest issue may well be the father/son combo of which you speak. Quarterback Cody had a rough sophomore season, and if he struggles out of the gate again this year, there'll be problems.

Should the Pac-10 reduce its conference schedule by one game?-- Todd, Mission Viejo, Calif.

That's a tough one. On the one hand, I find it admirable the conference goes its own way and settles its champion on the field, thus avoiding controversies like the Oklahoma/Texas Big 12 situation last year. On the other hand, the ninth game is probably hurting the league more than it helps. As Pac-10 aficionado Ted Miller recently pointed out, the conference guarantees itself five extra losses than other leagues, thus making it that much harder to produce a BCS champion, or even a second BCS team (which the league hasn't done since 2002).

From a purely on-field standpoint, it would probably behoove the Pac-10 to take the SEC approach and replace those 10 extra conference games with 10 games against I-AA foes. Voters don't seem to put much emphasis on nonconference scheduling; if you lose, you drop, as much of the conference did last September. However, there's one challenge most Pac-10 teams face that their SEC counterparts don't: filling their stadiums. LSU fans will turn out whether the Tigers are facing Alabama or Arkansas State, but that's not the case at Arizona State, UCLA or Stanford. Those teams need as many meaningful home games as possible.

Mailbag Crush suggestion ... I mean, demand. Not sure if you're an Entourage fan, but Emmanuelle Chriqui is the New Orleans Mailbag Crush selection. You can have your own, but put us down for this simplistic beauty.-- Mickey Triche, New Orleans

I was a huge Entourage fan -- until this season. Am I the only one who's found it borderline unwatchable? Turtle is suddenly a kept man (and a whiny one at that), Johnny Drama has had no storylines built around him (which is inexcusable), the Ari-Lloyd "challenge" should, in theory, be fantastic but thus far has provided no amusement and E ... well, E was always unbearable, so that hasn't changed.

As for the lovely Ms. Chriqui, I find it interesting that I didn't make a single Crush mention last week, yet still got flooded with nominees. Unfortunately, they're mostly all the same names I've been getting for years -- her, Jill Wagner (from Wipeout), Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck),Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother), Kate Mara (various), et. al.

C'mon people, you're going to have to give me someone original (and under the radar) if you want to see our little tradition continue. Or -- I could keep the Lost updates coming. Your call.