Posted: Wednesday January 5, 2011 1:16PM ; Updated: Wednesday January 5, 2011 2:25PM
Stewart Mandel

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

Story Highlights

Immediate future is bleak for Big Ten, but league still only trails SEC

Fans want a playoff, but they don't care what coaches and players want

So-so TV rations for BCS bowls clearly attributable to move to cable

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Michigan's struggles in recent years have dragged down the Big Ten's reputation.
Michigan's struggles in recent years have dragged down the Big Ten's reputation.
Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMI

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.
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