Before it became a sprawling mega-corporation with its own cable-television mouthpiece, the Big Ten Conference was not much more than a self-righteous idea. Formed in the late 1800s by an oligarchy of Midwestern university presidents, with the notion of reforming college football (and also combining forces to make money off interstate rivalries), it still clings to that long tail of sanctimony every chance it gets.
On Saturday, the Big Ten’s (seemingly) best hope for a spot in the inaugural playoff, Michigan State, will travel to play the University of Oregon. The Spartans are a double-digit underdog, and the Big Ten’s longtime commissioner, Jim Delany, has already conceded that this game is “disproportionately important” for the conference’s perception in this new era of college football: If one of the sport’s five biggest leagues (along with the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) seems destined to be passed over for a four-team playoff bracket, it’s the Big Ten.
Of course, it should be noted that Jim Delany says a lot of things, some of them true, some of them crusted in the sort of pungent fertilizer that’s often advertised during Iowa wrestling matches on the Big Ten Network.
In the midst of a long and tumultuous offseason for the sport, which included former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, Delany actually floated the idea that offering players some sort of compensation beyond a scholarship might force the Big Ten to sink back into the ranks of non-scholarship Division III football. It was so ludicrous that Delany was eventually forced to back off his own threat, but the larger point was clear: the Big Ten, all these years after its formation, is still trying to be all things at once, a conference that somehow stands above the ugly fray of college football while also embracing the cash.
In a way, Delany’s 25-year tenure as Big Ten commissioner has been unabashedly brilliant, in that the conference’s schools are now making more money than ever through Big Ten Network revenues; and yet, at the same time, Delany has presided over the greatest competitive football deficit in conference history. Take a look at the 1999 Associated Press final poll and you’ll see what I mean: Seven teams hailed from the Big Ten. Compare that to this week’s poll, in which four Big Ten teams are ranked, none of them in the top five.
The precipitous fall of the Big Ten in the 21st century was highlighted, most notably, by Ohio State’s back-to-back losses in national championship games at the end of the 2006 and 2007 seasons. The Buckeyes were, in fact, the only Big Ten team to play for a national championship during the BCS era of 1998-2013 (they defeated Miami in overtime to win the Big Ten’s lone BCS national championship in 2002). Over the course of those 15 years, the perception of the Big Ten was eclipsed by every single one of the other major conferences.
Some of this is linked to demographics: The Midwest simply doesn’t churn out prep football players the way it used to, which is, in part, why Delany offered expansion invites to Rutgers and Maryland, a pair of otherwise uninspiring football programs located in strong television/recruiting markets.
But mostly, the Big Ten just doesn’t seem to have advanced in the way other conferences have advanced: A lot of Big Ten football games, especially among the teams at the bottom, are deeply flawed and patently dull (When was the last time you turned on an Illinois-Purdue game for fun?) Among the traditionally marquee programs, Michigan is kind of a mess; Wisconsin blew a late lead against LSU last weekend; Penn State is still regrouping from sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal; and Ohio State lost its best player, quarterback Braxton Miller, before the season even began.
The best hope for 2014, Michigan State, employs a plodding and conservative style that would fit among some of the best teams in the SEC, except the general perception is that Michigan State doesn’t do SEC football as well as the SEC does. And this is why Michigan State-Oregon matters as much as any game in recent Big Ten history: Because Oregon has become the most fleet and flashy and exhilarating team in college football, and because the Pac-12, over the past 15 years, has become everything the Big Ten might have become, if only they’d embraced modernity.
Instead, the Big Ten has staked its reputation on tradition; until this year, when they split into East and West, the conference’s two divisions were named “Leaders” and “Legends,” the kind of sepia-toned brainstorm that seemed as if it might have been culled from a 1930s newspaper column. There are other important Big Ten games on Saturday – Michigan and Notre Dame face each other for the last time in the series’ history, and Ohio State plays Virginia Tech – but the key to the Big Ten’s hopes for its own immediate football future rest firmly in Eugene on Saturday. Either the Spartans solve the riddle of the Ducks’ brisk offensive scheme and score a victory for the nostalgic warmth of Big Ten football, or they get rolled by the future.