It’s amazing to see what college football can do when it is not at war with its own instincts: The first-ever College Football Playoff felt unquestionably like an epic step forward, and the only frustration inherent to last week’s New Year’s Day games was that it took us so damned long to get here, that we spent a good century or so putting up with the sort of half-cocked and hypocritical solutions that have earned the sport’s governing bodies their sterling modern reputations.
Those days of going halfway are over now. The playoff was full-throttle, both in terms of high-level competition and aggressive marketing tactics (and honestly, if centuries pass before I hear that Fall Out Boy song again, I’ll still be at my limit, thanks). The playoff transformed what might have been a lone blowout (Alabama over Florida State) into a fascinating three-game miniseries. The sport broke out of the dark ages in the best possible way, with one game that felt like pure bottled schadenfreude, and with another that may have shifted the paradigm of the sport in a way that could make the next ten years even more fascinating.
And perhaps that is an overreaction – perhaps Ohio State’s 42-35 win over Alabama was just 60 brilliant minutes, and perhaps the Big Ten’s successful bowl season will prove too small a sample-size to mean much of anything. But it’s been so long since the Big Ten had any hope at all that it was easy to pronounce it a giant leap forward.
It’s not hard to find stories about the Big Ten’s newfound renaissance; on Monday, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach even penned an apologia to the Big Ten for underestimating the conference. But as someone who has expressed his own doubts about the Big Ten, I’m not quite ready to go there yet. Some of this is an understandable knee-jerk reaction to the subpar results of the SEC in bowl games, and especially the loaded SEC West; some of this is schadenfreude, since the SEC had dominated the sport for a long-enough period that it seemed it might reside on top forever.
Here’s what we can say for certain: Ohio State is here to stay, presuming Urban Meyer is in Columbus to stay. He was the catalyst for this whole potential transformation; without Ohio State hiring Meyer, who immediately ratcheted up the league’s recruiting tactics, none of this might have happened. Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio might not have mounted a furious attempt to hold Meyer at bay (and, in so doing, defeat a Baylor team that was itself a playoff contender); Penn State might not have hired an ace recruiter like James Franklin in an attempt to propel itself back to prominence in the aftermath of the NCAA sanctions. And, of course, Michigan might not have gone full-bore after Jim Harbaugh, a move that seems more likely to succeed than not, based on sheer force of will alone.
But the truth is, the Big Ten (outside of Ohio State) still has a long way to go. The truth is, Ohio State has always had an inherent advantage over the rest of the Big Ten, largely because Ohio is the one Midwestern state that produces top-tier football talent with regularity comparable to a handful of SEC states (and California). What Meyer did so brilliantly was to go hard to keep the best players in Ohio (like his third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones, who played at Cleveland’s Glenville High), and then go even harder after some of the best talent in the South. I’m not saying what Meyer did isn’t replicable, but he’s one of the best recruiters in the history of the sport, and his success does not necessarily guarantee future results for the remainder of the Big Ten.
In other words, this whole thing doesn’t feel settled yet. Just because Wisconsin defeated a surprisingly erratic Auburn team, and just because Penn State beat Boston College thanks to a missed extra point, doesn’t mean that the Big Ten is ready to peak again. But the sense of possibility is now there. And that sense of possibility, especially if Ohio State beats Oregon, could give the Big Ten the one thing it hasn’t had in quite some time: A competitive selling point.
For most of the past decade, everything Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany engaged in felt like a blatant cash grab. This was a conference with a bloated financial ledger thanks to its television network. This was a conference that engaged in a cynical and competitively meh eastward expansion, adding Maryland and Rutgers largely for the TV markets.
The one thing Delany couldn’t do was catalyze the actual on-field product. He needed help with that, someone who could elevate the conference’s staid image, who could drag it headlong into this new era of college football. Maybe Urban Meyer has changed the Big Ten for good, and maybe he’s just changed Ohio State. If nothing else, at least it feels like we’re in uncharted territory.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb