For years I have argued that the Big Ten has been better than the media has said. Any Big Ten fan knows the narrative; nobody will come play us, "neutral site" means home game for SEC teams, parity weighs us down, we're just unlucky and up until last Saturday I believed every single one. I truly thought that Big Ten was underrated, a true power conference better top to bottom then the ACC and Big12 and capable of hanging with the SEC and PAC 12. I thought that until Saturday. On Saturday the Big Ten once again played for respect on a national stage, only they did more than let us down.
Saturday wasn't just Wisconsin blowing a lead against LSU, Nebraska blowing a lead against Georgia or an overrated Michigan team being crushed by Alabama, this was complete futility on a national scale. This was the Big Ten's against the world and our best was not good enough. The best defense yielded 46 points to Oregon. The best offense was held to 21 points by Virginia Tech... at home. The leagues most historic program was shutout for the first time in 30 years while some of the leagues best home teams barely survived games against a MAC squad and an FCS team. This wasn't just another failed attempt to pull even with the SEC, this was a failed attempt to pull even with the AAC. What happened?
1. The Big Ten's best wasn't good enough
Coming into the season the Big Ten was trending up. Featuring two true title contenders, a true Heisman candidate and a revamped playoff system that opened the door for long maligned conferences to sneak their way in, the feeling was optimistic. Even an early loss to LSU by Wisconsin had the conference trending up; after all Wisconsin hadn't just held their own, they dominated for most of the game. It was not a surprise then that the three prime time Big Ten games were thought of a as a chance for the conference to finally earn respect. Michigan State would take the league's best defense to Eugene for a fight against the PAC12's best, while Ohio State would take on a solid ACC team in Virgina Tech. The Big Ten's best and brightest were set to shine in the national spotlight... until they didn't.
Let's start with Michigan State. The plan was simple, unleash the Big Ten's best QB (post Miller injury) and arguably best running back against a weaker Oregon defense and use the No Fly Zone to ground the Oregon Blur Offense, just as so many Stanford teams had done in the past. And for the first half it worked. The defense held out well and yielded only 18 points in the first half, 8 of which was fueled by an early Connor Cook interception. After said interception though, Connor Cook would find his groove and toss two touchdowns to put MSU up 24 to 18 at half. Jeremy Langford ran for a touchdown, Cook was playing well, and apart from a short field and a blown coverage the defense was playing well.
This kept through ten minutes in the third quarter, with Michigan State even adding a field goal to go up by 9. Then Marcus Mariota returned to Heisman form and Oregon ignited the afterburners. 5 Minutes of game time and 3 touchdowns later Oregon was up by two scores and Mark Dantonio (the league's best coach) could only watch. Oregon continually burned the No Fly Zone for huge gains scoring touchdowns of 24, 37 and 38 yards over that span. Meanwhile Langford was continually stuffed by the Oregon line as he was held to just 86 yards on 24 carries. With the run game stifled and the Oregon offense running at roughly Mach 5, MSU turned to the Rose Bowl MVP for guidance who promptly threw an interception. The next time MSU got the ball back it was 46 to 27 with just over a minute remaining. The Big Ten's best defense had fallen.
Meanwhile the Big Ten's best 2013 Offense had a date with Virginia Tech in Columbus. Already suffering from the lost of Carlos Hyde to the NFL, OSU fell to dire straits with the loss of Braxton Miller. Despite doubters and a rough game against Navy the Buckeyes were confident they could be title contenders and continue their winning ways behind the arm and legs of dual threat QB J.T. Barrett. This theory was quickly put to the test as Urban Meyer put his unbeaten home record on the line against Virginia Tech (the leaders in football concussion research FYI), a quality team and sleeper in the ACC (if by sleeper you mean not Florida State).
The game started out poorly for the Buckeyes with as 6 first half drives turned into one touchdown, two missed field goals (we in Ann Arbor offer sympathy), and three punts while Virginia Tech punched in three touchdowns despite an early interception. Barnett was sacked to end the half, the crowd booed and Urban headed to the showers staring at a 21-7 home deficit.
Hope was not lost in Columbus though. No doubt spurred on by the scores in Eugene and South Bend, OSU came out of the tunnel to start the second half to promptly punt and throw an interception... but the defense did bail them out and Barnett threw a 53 yard touchdown to draw within a score before the fourth period began. The Buckeye defense once again stood strong in the second quarter, as Joey Bosa forced a fumble off of Virginia Tech QB Michael Brewer giving OSU great field position at the Virginia Tech 15. Two plays later Ezekiel Elliot found the end zone and Virginia Tech found themselves in a tie game in one of the most imposing stadiums south of Toledo. The Buckeyes defense would try to hold, but were defeated by a key pass interference penalty bailed out the Hokies on 3rd and 7. Four plays later, a Brewer pass TD would put the Hokies up for good. Both teams would trade 3 and outs before the Hokies missed a field goal, setting up OSU at their own 29, down 7 with three minutes and all the momentum in the world in their favor. They would make it twenty yards before Donovan Riley ran a J.T. Barrett pass 63 yards into the Buckeye endzone, his third interception of the game. Fans headed for the exits, Urban Meyer found some pizza and one of the Big Ten's best offensive team fell in front of 107,000 people.
2. The Wild Card teams were tamed
While its fairly easy to name the top two teams in the Big Ten coming in to this season, it gets a little muddy when you start to order the next four. Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin could all be title contenders (especially with three in the weaker west) but could just as easily be a just above average team destined for a bowl named after a restaurant or an automotive supply store. After Saturday the picture is a little clearer, of the three wild cards Wisconsin is still a true contender, while the other three are anything but.
Iowa and Nebraska offer some of the best home grown recruits and home field advantage in the conference. Nobody wants to go to a stadium surrounded by corn to face a bunch of large men who essentially invented the term "corn fed." Certainly a little known FCS team and an ex-Brady Hoke coached MAC team wouldn't stand a chance in that environment, even if they each won 10 games last season. Yet they both pushed their B1G ten foes to to the limit. McNeese State ripped off 10 points to tie the game late in the fourth quarter against the feared "blackshirts" while Ball State took a dominating 13-3 lead into the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Things were looking grim.
Fortunately both teams found a way to save a shred of dignity, Michigan-Akron style. Nebraska traded three and outs after the McNeese game tying field goal and found itself with 1st and 10 from their own 38 with 1:14 left. Tommy Armstrong Jr. took a sac and ran for six yard before a quick out to Ameer Abdullah turned into a tackle breaking, game saving, SportsCenter Top Tenning 58-yard touchdown run that stopped the FCS from claiming another Big Ten team.
Iowa meanwhile pulled off the seemingly impossible. After three quarters, twelve minutes and eight seconds of offensive ineffectiveness Iowa finally found the endzone thanks to a 12-yard TD pass by Jake Rudock to Derrick Willies. Holding two times out Iowa kicked the ball away (instead of trying the on-side for some reason...). Ball State burned two Iowa timeouts but an incomplete pass on 3rd and 6 gave Iowa the ball at their own 41, down 3 with 2:23 left. Jake Rudock promptly marched Iowa down the field before another 12-yard TD pass, this time to Jake Duzey, put the Hawkeyes up 17-13 for their first lead of the day. Iowa kicked, Ball State fumbled and the MAC was denied what would have been their third victory against a Big Ten foe in three tries that day. Nebraska and Iowa both survived their games but any thoughts of being true contenders were quickly lost to the cornfields of the Midwest.
The saddest things is that even these performances were still better than what occurred in South Bend. In a matchup of two of the games most historic program, Michigan and Notre Dame looked to end the rivalry with one last hurrah (that really shouldn't count because Notre Dame gets one more home game then Michigan). For Michigan fans, it looked like one last chance to knock down a hated rival, one they had owned in the series overall and in the last few years. Gardner had shined against App. State and had a great history with Notre Dame while the defense looked better than ever. Everything pointed towards an upset and a party in Ann Arbor... until it didn't. Michigan produced nothing that Saturday. No points, no touchdowns, no field goals, nothing. This site has covered this game plenty so I won't repeat it here. It was utter futility, as Notre Dame truly tamed one of the Big Ten's few wild cards.
3. The depth was destroyed
It's easy to consider the Big Ten a deep league. It seems every team has years of history, a solid coach, great home talent and a home stadium that's tough to win at. That's life in the Big Ten, nobody made the title game because the team just beats up on each other right? If Alabama had to win in Iowa in November it would struggle as compared to hosting Kentucky or Tennessee. Even Northwestern has proven a hard place to win at under Pat Fitzgerald so the Big Ten's depth should offer some pride right? Right? Right...?
Wrong. Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern all hosted sub power conference teams on Saturday and none of them looked like power conference teams doing it. Illinois had the best performance of the day against Western Kentucky and still trailed entering the fourth quarter before a 21 point explosion gave the Illini a 42-32 win. I repeat, of the three, this was the best performance of the day.
Purdue and Northwestern meanwhile were beaten rather convincingly by two MAC teams at home. Northwestern hosted NIU and lost a 23-15 game that really wasn't that close, while Purdue hosted Central Michigan and was promptly pounded 38-17. Northwestern is on a 1-9 streak since College Gameday visited Evanston for a matchup with OSU as the Pat Fitzgerald leaving countdown is officially on. Purdue is on a 3-13 streak since the Heart of Dallas bowl following the 2012 season and looks like a team that is years away from contending. Any idea of depth was quickly destroyed on Saturday, and nothing drops a conference faster than a surplus of below quality teams (see death of Big East).
So thats what happened. After 13 games the Big Ten was left in shambles. The No Fly Zone was left in the jet wash of the Oregon offense, while Notre Dame ended the Michigan rivalry with a game bad enough to wake Fielding Yost from his grave (Bo presumably awoke after Akron last year). The mystique of Urban Meyer and Ohio State officially ended as his first home lost was just the latest of setbacks as they endure a 1-3 streak following their 24-0 run. Nebraska and Iowa avoided utter disaster but proved that two of the Midwest's staples still had a long way to go. Ryan Field and Ross-Ade Stadium were smoldering behind the war path of the MAC... while the Illini let out held breath after avoiding similar fate. Through 13 games and across four networks the Big Ten was promptly executed for the world to see and the only thing Big Ten fans can ask is "How did it come to this?"