Stewart Mandel: Big Ten's struggles are real, but it's all relative; more Mailbag - Sports Illustrated

Big Ten's struggles are very real, but it's all relative; more Mailbag

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I was going to begin the Mailbag by answering a question about Rich Rodriguez, but two hours later I decided not to. I may still change my mind. You'll just have to keep refreshing.

After last year's bowl season was complete I had some hope that the Big Ten might be on its way back and the cyclical nature of college football might be asserting itself. It now appears to me, after New Year's Day, that maybe this was a fluke. The only game it looked like a Big Ten team had a chance in was the Rose Bowl. What does this spell for the Big Ten going forward, and is the cyclical nature of college football dead?-- Nathaniel, Troy, Ohio

To be fair, Nathaniel's e-mail came in before Ohio State's Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas, an extremely important win for the Big Ten in light of its New Year's Day debacle. The fact that it came against an SEC foe was equally significant. But the league still finished 3-5 in the bowls -- its seventh losing record in the past eight years -- and 1-3 against the SEC.

The cyclical nature of college football isn't dead, but we may have just witnessed a very brief up-cycle for the Big Ten. Talent-wise, the Big Ten this year was stronger than it had been in some time. The league had several very good quarterbacks (Terrelle Pryor, Ricky Stanzi, Dan Persa, Scott Tolzien) and a bunch of linemen and defensive players who will be high draft picks next spring (Gabe Carimi, J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Heyward and Greg Jones, among others). Ohio State went 12-1 and will likely finish in the top five. Wisconsin is a top five-caliber team, too, but lost to a slightly better top five team in TCU.

But after that, it was kind of a mixed bag. Give Michigan State credit for winning 11 games, but the Spartans clearly feasted on a very weak conference schedule and were not a top 10 team. On the flip side, Iowa underachieved during the regular season but recovered to beat a 10-2 Missouri team in the Insight Bowl. Who knows how much better Northwestern might have been late in the year if it hadn't lost Persa to injury.

As Michael Rosenberg wrote Tuesday, the league is being dragged down right now because two of its marquee programs, Penn State and Michigan, aren't what they once were. The Nittany Lions seem to be stuck in a perpetual state of good-but-not-great that likely won't change until JoePa retires and the Wolverines have been a mess for several years. That's the big difference between the SEC and Big Ten -- the talent pool is deep enough in the South that an Auburn or Arkansas can rise up in a given year and compete nationally, but that's rarely going to happen with Purdue or Illinois.

And things could get worse before they get better. Take an early look ahead to 2011: Ohio State will be reloading on defense and has to play its first five games without four key offensive players; Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa were senior-heavy teams this season and figure to take a dip; Penn State's quarterback situation looks increasingly murky; and who knows what's going to happen at Michigan. Even new entrant Nebraska figures to be down at least a bit.

That's just the short-term analysis, though. In the long term, we have to concede -- as Jim Delany himself has -- that the effects of population shift on Northern and Midwest football are very real and very irreversible. (The SEC's penchant for oversigning has its own effect, too, though that's another column entirely.)

But I will say this in the Big Ten's defense: While the gap between the SEC and the Big Ten doesn't appear to be closing anytime soon, there's no other conference that's clearly superior. The Big 12 is 3-4 in bowls this year despite more favorable matchups. The Pac-10 was incredibly top heavy this year. The ACC and Big East are the ACC and Big East. But I'm not reading any articles or seeing any snarky Twitter comments about the Big 12's bowl record. People don't scrutinize the Big 12 the way they do the Big Ten, because the Big Ten brings so much attention upon itself with its gaudy self-promotion and because it plays in so many high-profile bowls. If the Big Ten didn't send a second team to the BCS every year, it'd have a much better bowl record, but also less prestige.

Hi Stewart, this quote from your TCU Rose Bowl column sums up my feelings about all the ink that has been spilled about the injustice of the BCS system:

"I don't really care about the national championship right now," said standout (TCU) defensive end Wayne Daniels. "I'm living in the moment. ... I'd say we're pretty good."

I realize that college football has morphed into the Junior NFL (except that everyone but the players get rich), but I think the goal is and should be to win your conference championship and then go play in a great postseason game in some warm location. They still give out trophies for winning those games. Forget computers and pollsters trying to match the true No. 1 and No. 2, and forget a playoff. I wish everyone else would stop complaining.-- Eric, Columbus, Ohio

Eric is part of a small and increasingly drowned-out minority, but my personal views are closer to his than to those of the rabid anti-bowl, playoffs-now crowd. The most interesting part of covering TCU's Rose Bowl win was that it reinforced for me the gaping disconnect between the sentiment of fans and the actual participants when it comes to the playoff debate. You'd think the Horned Frogs would be the most outraged at being denied the chance to play for a national title, but not a single coach or player expressed anything other than sheer joy after the game. And I've found that to be the case with nearly every player from every bowl team with whom I've dealt.

Personally, I think TCU should get that title shot, and under The Mandel Plan it would. But it amuses me to no end when I hear fans deride the bowls as "meaningless," considering just how emotional the players get about winning and losing them. (Did you see Wisconsin star J.J. Watt break down on the podium afterward?) At the end of the day, the obsession with determining an absolute clear-cut national champion in college football is far more prevalent among fans and media than coaches and players. We want to be entertained. We want more football. We want a more climactic finish to the season. But we don't particularly seem to care what the coaches and players themselves want.

What were my Terps thinking by hiring Randy Edsall? I thought the whole point of firing Friedgen was to create excitement and put people in the seats? Edsall does neither. How can you pick someone with one nine-win season in 12 years over an alum with five nine-plus win seasons in 10 years? How could they possibly think Edsall is going to make me want to buy a ticket over Friedgen?-- Menzo Lowery, Landover, Md.

I'm not as down on Edsall as some folks. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison between Friedgen's tenure at Maryland and Edsall's at Connecticut. Friedgen took over a firmly established program in a decently fertile recruiting area. Edsall took over a startup Division I-A program in a part of the country that produces far more hockey players than football prospects. You can't compare their records in a vacuum. But we also can't say with any certainty that Edsall is a better coach than Friedgen, which is what makes the hire so strange.

Clearly, new AD Kevin Anderson wanted Fridge gone. He couldn't have made that point any more bluntly. Perhaps, in hindsight, he should have left out the part about the empty seats, because it heightened the expectation that the school was zeroing in on Mike Leach. Then Maryland did meet with Leach, which created even more anticipation. So when Anderson ultimately went with Edsall, it understandably felt like a letdown to a lot of Terps fans. But just as I can't say with certainty that Edsall is a better coach than Friedgen, I can't say definitively he's a lesser coach than Leach. The Pirate is certainly flashier and he went to a bunch of bowls while competing in a tougher conference, but he has considerable baggage that's apparently scaring schools like Maryland away.

Ultimately, fans support a winner, and if Edsall comes out and goes 10-2 in his first season, Maryland will have no trouble filling those seats. In the meantime, however, I wouldn't expect some huge spike in season ticket sales.

The first excuse was that Utah got lucky and that Pitt was an easy matchup. Then, Boise State needed trick plays to win. Then, Utah got lucky again because it was a letdown game for mighty Alabama. What are the non-AQ bashers going to say now?-- Jason Kingston, Los Angeles


Stewart: Nice TCU Rose Bowl piece. But it's fiction. Congratulations to TCU, but they did very little to win that game. Coach Bielema was the author of their victory. He and co-author Scott Tolzien. Could they have screwed up an easy game plan any worse? They tried to get cute, tried to prove that they were "just as fast," tried to prove that they were balanced. Get real. Run the freakin' football you fools.-- Rich, Alexandria, Va.

There were plenty more where that came from.

I understand the concerns with Charlie Weis at Florida since his Notre Dame stint was obviously not a success. But it's hard to argue about his offensive genius, whether in the NFL or at ND. Since he'll be only focused on offense this time, I find it tough to believe this won't be a success. His offense plus Will Muschamp's lauded defense seems to be a perfect (and scary) match for a college with the recruiting capabilities of Florida.-- Barry, New York

I don't doubt Weis will be a good offensive coordinator once he gets the necessary pieces. To me, the bigger concern is what the move says about Muschamp's larger vision, which it sure seems is to turn the Florida football program into an NFL farm team. You'll note that his choice of defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, is also primarily of an NFL background. Quinn spent the past 10 years with the 49ers, Dolphins, Jets and Seahawks, and his most prominent college experience was at Hofstra.

I get what Muschamp is doing. Nearly all Florida football recruits enter college with designs on the NFL, and Muschamp can now sell them on the fact that they'll be learning from the pros themselves. But a lot of programs have tried this, and it generally doesn't work. See: Nebraska under Bill Callahan, Virginia under Al Groh, Notre Dame under Weis. Pete Carroll's USC dynasty finally began to wane when he started filling his staff with more and more NFL guys. The concern is that players become more invested in their draft stock than in the success of the team.

Obviously, the single biggest difference in this case is that Muschamp himself is a college guy. As Barry said, perhaps the combination of top offensive and defensive minds with Florida talent will prove lethal. I'm more skeptical, however, to the point where I'm backing down from my earlier prediction that Florida would eventually emerge as the strongest of the Big Three under its current and newly hired coaches. Jimbo, I'm now with you.

Comment regarding bowl ratings: Living in rural Iowa without cable it is easy for me to say I watched fewer bowl games than ever before on January 1st. I was hugely disappointed the Rose Bowl was not on network TV. I expected an ABC tie-in as so many regular season telecasts have been. I guess fans like me just aren't worth it any more.--Wes Blanchard, Indianola, Iowa

You're not alone, Wes. Ratings are down across the board. While lower NUMBERS were expected for the Wisconsin-TCU Rose Bowl (which last year had national heavyweight Ohio State) and the Oklahoma-UConn Fiesta Bowl (which last year had undefeated Boise State vs. undefeated TCU), what's really raised my eyebrows is the fact that the Stanford-Virginia Tech Orange Bowl -- even with all the hoopla surrounding Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck -- drew a slightly lower rating than last year's Iowa-Georgia Tech snoozer, and a riveting Ohio State-Arkansas Sugar Bowl couldn't match last year's Florida-Cincinnati blowout. That to me is clearly attributable to the shift from network to cable.

When the BCS first announced the deal with ESPN, I didn't consider it that big of a deal. I can't imagine how any college football fan follows the sport these days without cable. ESPN itself claimed its research showed that 94 percent of viewers who watched last year's BCS games are cable subscribers. However, I know anecdotally, both from friends and acquaintances and from your feedback, that lots of people have chosen to dump cable in recent years to save money. Mind you, most of those same people have Internet service and often watch games on their computers, but the download numbers for those games was relatively low.

Ultimately, people will get used to it. Monday Night Football, the NBA playoffs and some of the baseball playoffs are all on cable and people still manage to find them. And remember, while ratings may be down compared to past BCS games, they're still huge numbers for ESPN. It's getting its money's worth. The greater concern should be for BCS honchos, if the trend continues beyond this year. Then it becomes a reflection of the product, not the medium.

You know, if the NFL ran its business like the BCS cartel, we'd be trying to decide who the No. 1 and 2 teams were at this point. Perhaps New England and Atlanta? The Steelers are pretty good. The Bears? The Ravens? Oh heck.-- Steve, Lancaster, Pa.

And if college determined its champion like the NFL, 6-6 Sun Belt champion Florida International, a.k.a. the Seattle Seahawks, would get a shot at the national title, but 10-2 LSU, otherwise known as the New York Giants, would not.

RE: the Syracuse-Kansas State ending. One of the problems with the celebration penalty is that there's no consistency in how the rule is interpreted. How many times in bowl games did we see a player make a big defensive play and celebrate with exuberance, but not one of them was flagged? Of course, this is the NCAA, which has had a remarkably lamentable year of inconsistencies, so perhaps the flag in Yankee Stadium was simply yet another example.-- Bob Thomas, Los Angeles

Consistency is generally the problem with officiating issues because these are not NCAA officials. Each conference employs its own crews. The NCAA does have a national coordinator for officials (currently Dave Parry but soon to be Rogers Redding), whose office produces videos, conducts clinics and tries as much as possible to ensure national consistency. But at the end of the day, each set of officials reports directly to its conference's coordinator, and each of those may interpret a rule slightly differently.

This particular rule will become even more tricky next season, when officials will be instructed to take points off the board if a player is deemed guilty of taunting before reaching the end zone. In the Alamo Bowl, Justin Blackmon mimicked DeSean Jackson by running parallel to the end zone for several seconds before crossing it -- next year, he'd be ruled down at the spot of the foul. It's a subjective call to begin with, and now one that could carry considerable ramifications.

Did the January 1st Big Ten meltdown take away from TCU's victory over the Big Ten champion in the Rose Bowl? I was trying to think of what a BCS apologist would say after TCU won the Granddaddy and this was the only damaging thing I could think of.-- Alan Bushekk, Belleville, Ontario

Oh, I'm sure they could come up with something else.

The only thing TCU proved, as Boise did a few years ago in beating Oklahoma, is that a motivated underdog can win one game. I don't think they would win regularly in the SEC, Big Ten, or Big 12 conferences.-- Jim Bailey, Whitinsville, Mass.

TCU was a two-point favorite.