It's no secret: the Big Ten's reputation stinks these days. The once-mighty conference is college football's answer to Richard Nixon in 1962, to the Egyptian Army in 1967, and to English cuisine for the last two hundred years. If the Big Ten were a car, it would be the Chevy Corvair post-Ralph Nader. If it were a filmmaker, it would be Michael Cimino post-Heaven's Gate. If it were an advertising campaign, it would be Dan and Dave- or the Kobe-LeBron puppets, if you can't remember back to 1992. Either way, you get the point.
The reputation, sadly, is well-deserved. Over the past few years, the Big Ten has performed brutally on the big stage, getting eviscerated in marquee games in front of millions of football fans who have grown increasingly disdainful of the conference's quality of play relative to the other power leagues. Ohio State's catastrophic loss to Florida in the 2007 BCS Championship Game, coupled with Appalachian State's stunner over Michigan in the opening game of the following season, set the stage for the downfall of the Big Ten's standing among the game's elite, and nothing has happened since then to stem the decline.
Fortunately, college football is a mercurial place, where reputations can be unmade as well as made in the span of three hours on the field. It wasn't that long ago that the Big Ten was as highly regarded as any conference in America. How to get back to that point? All it takes is five simple steps.
Ohio State must beat USC: When people talk of the Big Ten's recent struggles in marquee out-of-conference games, they're referring partly to Ohio State's BCS title-game losses to Florida and LSU- but mainly they're talking about the conference's miserable record against USC. The Big Ten is 0-7 against the Trojans in this decade, losing those seven games by an average score of 36-14. To a certain extent, Pete Carroll has built his dynasty on the backs of the Big Ten; the 2003 Orange Bowl rout of Iowa more than any other single game catapulted the Trojans back into the elite, and since then the boys from Troy have whipped the Midwesterners four times in the Rose Bowl, each by lopsided scores. And we all know what happened to Ohio State last September in Los Angeles.
Of course, no one has had much success against USC since 2002. The Trojans are 82-9 in the last seven seasons, and only Oregon State has beaten them more than once in that period. Petey's teams have made a lot of opponents from a lot of conferences look awfully silly. Still, the Big Ten's losses to USC have tended to come in the spotlight of BCS bowl games or in the case of Ohio State's loss last season, a prime-time, nationally televised "game of the year" and thus are remembered with a special clarity. The fact that the Big Ten has barely put up a fight in those games doesn't help matters.
The September 12th showdown in Columbus stands as the Big Ten's best chance to break the USC hex. Not only are the Trojans nominally rebuilding, with a new quarterback and a revamped linebacker corps, they'll also be playing their first true road game against a Big Ten school this decade when they invade the Horseshoe next month. At night, with almost every hand of the 105,000 in attendance raised against the visitors, this is a game Ohio State has to win. Not just for the sake of the Buckeyes, but for that of their beleaguered conference as well.
Handle the pygmies: Not only have Big Ten teams struggled against the big boys of college football, they've had their share of problems with the little guys as well. Michigan's loss to Appalachian State in the 2007 season opener is the standard-bearer, but there have been other slip-ups as well: Western Michigan's conquest of Illinois, Toledo's victory in the Big House, and Wisconsin's unsightly one-point decision over Cal-Poly, which might as well have been a loss in terms of what it did to the perception of the conference.
No conference is immune to giant-killings, as Alabama's loss to Louisiana-Monroe in 2007 and Mississippi State's loss to Louisiana Tech in 2008 show. But the Big Ten's fragile reputation gives it a smaller margin for error. The SEC can afford an embarrassing loss- or near-loss, in the case of LSU's escape against Troy- because of the hay it makes at the top of the national food chain. But when you're getting body-slammed in the big games and undressed in the small ones; you have a problem. The Big Ten has to start handling business with extreme prejudice against the lightweights of the schedule.
Win a BCS game, with conditions: "Conditions" meaning a win over either USC or an SEC power. The Big Ten hasn't won a BCS game since the end of the 2005 season, and those two victories- Ohio State's Fiesta Bowl drubbing of January punching bag Notre Dame and Penn State's ugly triple-overtime conquest of an 8-5 Florida State team- were hardly of the signature type. The conference is a combined 0-8 in BCS games against USC and the Southeastern Conference in this decade- not counting Michigan's win over Alabama in the 2000 Orange Bowl, which concluded the 1999 season- and none of those games have been close. The average score of those eight defeats is 39-19.
That trend has to change. Beating anyone in a BCS game would be nice- the Big Ten has lost six straight, after all- but only a win over the Trojans or an SEC opponent can change the conference's poor reputation for the better.
Clean up in bowl season: There's more to the college football postseason than just the BCS, and in recent years the Big Ten has been a failure up and down the bowl calendar. The conference hasn't put together a winning bowl season since 2002, the year Ohio State won the National Championship, when it went a neat 5-2. In the last four years the Big Ten is 9-19 in bowl games, including last season's dismal 1-6 performance. In lieu of a tournament, the bowls are the accepted measure of relative conference strength, and by that measure the Big Ten has come up way short.
Actually, it might not be such a bad outcome if the Big Ten only gets one team into the BCS this season. The conference has had two representatives in the marquee bowl games every year since 2001, and that deference has probably hurt its overall performance, as lower-ranked Big Ten teams have been slotted against higher-ranked teams from other conferences in the less prestigious bowls- with generally predictable results. Getting only one team into the BCS would enable the Big Ten to "punch its weight" up and down the bowl schedule, so to speak, and might give it a better chance of winning more postseason games.
And a Buckeye National Title wouldn't hurt: Ohio State is the flagship program of the Big Ten. When the Buckeyes sneeze, the entire league catches a cold. And fairly or not, it was Ohio State's epic fail against Florida three seasons ago that started the Big Ten's reputation on its downward spiral. No one cared that the Big Ten actually had a 2-1 record against the SEC that bowl season, with Wisconsin beating Arkansas and Penn State handling Tennessee. No one cared that just a month and change prior to the Disaster in the Desert, the Ohio State-Michigan game had been touted as the de facto National Championship battle. All anyone remembered was 41-14.
Just as the Buckeyes were responsible for sending their league's perception into the dumpster, they're also responsible for fishing it out and buffing it back to a high shine. No other team in the conference is capable of doing it. Penn State's non-conference schedule is a travesty, and with road games at Illinois and Michigan State, as well as the showdown with Ohio State, I think the Nittany Lions are going to lose multiple games in the Big Ten this season. Michigan is way down. Wisconsin, for all its success over the last decade-and-a-half, has never been a serious National Championship contender. Illinois is too schizoid and Michigan State's recruiting base is too small for the Spartans to make a national push (Duffy Daugherty's elite teams of the mid-1960's were built with black players from the South and Texas who weren't recruited by the segregated schools in their region.) It's all up to the Buckeyes.
Whether they have the talent to win it all this year remains to be seen, but they've certainly got the schedule- namely, USC. If Ohio State beats the Trojans on September 12th and goes on to run the table in the regular season, no one will doubt their bona-fides, at least in terms of being a deserving participant in the BCS Championship Game. If the Buckeyes go on to beat Florida, out of God's Conference and armed with God's Quarterback, in the title game- you can kiss the haters goodbye. With victories over the Trojans and Gators, twin tormentors of the Big Ten, there will be nothing more for the conference- and its flagship team- to prove.
Accomplish any or all of these five simple steps, and the Big Ten will be well on its way back to health in the eyes of the punditry and viewing public. "Simple" doesn't mean "easy" of course. But it can be done. And hopefully, it will be done.