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Posted: Wednesday July 29, 2009 12:13PM; Updated: Wednesday July 29, 2009 2:47PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
COLLEGE FOOTBALL MAILBAG

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

Story Highlights

Conference strength is cyclical, but recruiting in South will help the Big Ten

More on the motivation behind, and implications of, the SEC network on ESPN

Georgia's chances, a Pac-10 scheduling issue, Crush discussion and more mail

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Rich Rodriguez raided Florida for blue-chippers last recruiting season in an effort to compete with the SEC's talent.
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez raided Florida for blue-chippers last recruiting season in an effort to compete with the SEC's talent.
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Last week, media from across the country convened in Hoover, Ala., for what amounted to three days of gushing over Tim Tebow, Eric Berry and the league's new multi-billion dollar TV deal. I wasn't even there and still felt compelled to join the SEC love-fest.

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 SI.com 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.

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