Down for the Big Ten count
By John Feinstein,
Clearly, the death of Big Ten football has been greatly exaggerated.
Oh sure, Michigan looked like the Keystone Kops on Saturday night at Notre Dame, and Denard Robinson’s chances for the Heisman trophy disappeared bit-by-bit into the Indiana night with each bumbling turnover. And it is true that Michigan State, which looked equally inept on offense against Notre Dame a week earlier, trailed Eastern Michigan in the second half Saturday. Sure, Illinois got crushed at home by Louisiana Tech — not Louisiana State, Louisiana Tech. Iowa somehow lost to Central Michigan, a couple of weeks after losing to Iowa State.
Ohio State did beat Alabama-Birmingham. Um, no, not Alabama. Alabama-Birmingham, better known as UAB. Of course the Buckeyes are ineligible to play in postseason, as is Penn State, which now has impressive home victories over Navy and Temple, neither of which has beaten an FBS team.
Purdue is unbeaten against teams with Eastern in their names: Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan. Sadly, Northeastern is not on the schedule. Nebraska lost to UCLA a week before the Bruins lost at home to Oregon State. Wisconsin also lost to Oregon State but has big-time victories over Northern Iowa (by five); Utah State (by 2) and UTEP (an 11-point blowout) all at home. Indiana? Enough said.
But through this midst of embarrassing losses and embarrassing wins over weak opponents, two teams are ready to ride to the rescue: Northwestern and Minnesota. Circle Oct. 13 on your calendars because that’s the day the Wildcats travel to Minneapolis to play the Gophers in what could and should be a battle of unbeatens.
Both these juggernauts are 4-0. Both have beaten Syracuse. Let’s face it: Jim Boeheim’s teams are among the best in the country every year, and a victory over the Orange is something to be cherished. Of course, this is football, and Doug Marrone’s football team is 1-3 and hasn’t beaten an FBS team either.
This is the Big Ten, circa 2012: Two of the 12 teams are bowl-ineligible, and none is worthy of serious national attention.
Someone is going to represent the league in the Rose Bowl because that’s what the contract says. It might be Northwestern or Minnesota and that would at least be a little bit different. Northwestern last played in the game in 1996. That’s about 15 minutes ago compared to Minnesota, which was last in Pasadena on New Year’s Day 1962. To put that in perspective, Indiana has been in the Rose Bowl more recently.
Sadly, it is far more likely that someone like Michigan State or Michigan (whoops, Robinson just turned over the ball again) or Wisconsin will probably end up winning enough games to get to the Big Ten championship game (one suspects there will be plenty of tickets available for that one) and end up in Pasadena with a 9-3 record thanks to the fact that once the Big Ten teams begin playing one another, someone has to win each game.
It won’t change the fact that the league is way down. Consider this: There is probably no team in the conference eligible for postseason play that could finish in the top half of the SEC. (Has anyone noticed that the bottom half of the SEC is pretty awful? Think soon-to-be ex-Arkansas Coach John L. Smith wishes he had stayed at his alma mater Weber State right about now?) The best thing the Big Ten could do for itself right now is declare Notre Dame — unbeaten against three Big Ten teams — the champion and send it to the Rose Bowl. You can bet the people who run the bowl wouldn’t complain.
Notre Dame is 4-0, but it is tough to know how good the Irish really are just yet. What’s more, games that looked like serious tests when they were scheduled — Miami, Brigham Young and Oklahoma — don’t look nearly as tough now. Stanford at home and USC on the road may be the only serious tests for Notre Dame. . . .
Whatever one may say about Bill Snyder — crusty, difficult to deal with, decidedly media-unfriendly — the guy can coach. Snyder took over a perennially awful program at Kansas State in 1988 — he was 1-10 his first season — and reeled off four straight 11-win seasons from 1997 to 2000. When the program began to slip a few years later, he retired. But after back-to-back losing seasons got his successor Ron Prince fired in 2008, Snyder came back. He’s now in his fourth season of Era II (the stadium is named for him) and is 27-15, including 4-0 this season after the Wildcats blew up another Oklahoma season with a 24-19 win in Norman on Saturday night. Snyder turns 73 in two weeks. He may coach until he’s 90. . . .
It isn’t looking like a banner season for the service academies. Army is 0-3 and has lost the past two weeks despite scoring a combined 78 points. The Cadets have given up 42, 42 and 49 — which isn’t bad defense if you are playing basketball. Navy is 1-2 after finally pulling away from VMI, which isn’t even a good FCS team, to win 41-3 on Saturday. (It was 13-3 at halftime.) The Mids have the good fortune of a very easy schedule the rest of the way. Air Force does not have that benefit. The Falcons are also 1-2, and their 31-25 loss at Michigan looks a lot less impressive given Michigan’s play so far this fall. Army, Navy and Air Force have not yet won a game against an FBS team. . . .
Finally, in case you were wondering: Savannah State got to play someone its own size Saturday after its humiliating losses to Oklahoma State and Florida State. The Tigers lost, 45-33, to North Carolina Central, the only team it beat last season.