There used to be a time when a smash-mouth style of football was the only way to play the game.
The outcome of a game was usually determined by what happened at the line of scrimmage, “the battle in the trenches” it used to be called. Good college football teams could run the ball down the defense’s throat. Elite programs could run it down the throat of any opponent. Speed was a benefit, but strength and power were the name of the game.
That style was what made the Big Ten one of the most dominant conferences in college football. And now, that same approach has led the now 14-team conference into the cellar.
The past five seasons haven’t been the most memorable for the Big Ten as a whole. The league hasn’t had a winning record in bowl games since 2009 when it finished 4-3. A conference that has been home to 46 national championship teams has posted an embarrassing 10-21 bowl record since the 2010 season.
What has changed? How does one of the premiere conferences in college football fall from the summit the valley so quickly?
For the Big Ten, it’s been the emergence of the passing game and the significance of speed that has been responsible for its demise. Physicality still plays a major role in the sport but it’s no longer the heart. The game has changed.
Throwing the football has become the biggest asset to college football offenses and the quarterback has become the game’s most prized position. The Big Ten is still relying on the running game and defense.
Last year, Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State team showed the nation that it doesn’t always take a high-powered offense to win football games. But it’s becomingly increasingly rarer to see that approach work. With new rules discouraging players from hitting the quarterback or delivering a punishing blow to a wide receiver, it’s difficult to win with a mediocre offense.
Despite the new rule changes, the need for better quarterbacks and quicker talent position players, folks in the Big Ten seem to be stuck in their 1983 ways.
Currently, only four NFL starting quarterbacks hail from Big Ten conference schools. Russell Wilson (who spent four years at North Carolina State) was the most significant gunslinger in the conference since Purdue’s Drew Brees and Michigan’s Tom Brady in 2000. The fourth NFL starter, Chad Henne, also hails from Michigan.
For the past few years the question of whether the Big Ten can recover has surfaced and the same answer keeps coming to the forefront, “…eh…maybe?”
Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Nebraska all used to be programs that other teams feared. These schools didn’t have good years, rather, strong decades. And, occassionaly, a dark horse would gallop into the spotlight and steal the show for a season or two. Northwestern’s 1996 Rose Bowl run and Illinois’ two-loss season in 2001 come to mind.
Since 2005, only Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin have clinched a conference title. Nobody else has even been much of a threat, and that has proven true in postseason play as well.
So why hasn’t the Big Ten adapted to the new football culture? Maybe it’s true, old habits die hard. Or maybe it gets too cold in the Midwest to play pass and catch in November.
But this is the survival of the fittest and the Big Ten is becoming a dying breed. Yes, talented running backs can pose a threat. Of course a strong defense is a benefit. But the shift from good to great means a high-level quarterback.
So again, the question emerges, will the Big Ten recover in 2014? Can the conference return to the elite status it once held?
The schedule will allow it. Wisconsin plays LSU in the opening week. Michigan State battles Oregon and Nebraska will play Miami. There will be an opportunity to for teams to remove themselves from the punchline of every college football joke.
But, again, the Big Ten will probably still be trapped in the basement, sitting alone in a corner, too stubborn to change its way of thinking and strategy of play.
Until coaches in this once highly-touted league convert to the 21st century of college football, the answer of return will always be “…eh…maybe?”