The Big Ten didn’t make much of a case for being on the rebound from a dreadful 2012 season by lurching out of the starting blocks like a guy who had just finished eating a half-dozen cheese coneys and a washtub of French fries.
Openers may not prove much of anything, but their effect on public perception can be profound. Most leagues have only three or four nonconference games to make an impression on outsiders, so when a league is perceived to be down, there isn’t much chance to repair that image until bowl season.
Purdue’s 42-7 loss to Cincinnati and Iowa’s 30-27 loss to Northern Illinois notwithstanding, the real damage may have been done by Nebraska, which slid by Wyoming 37-34; by Michigan State, which was unimpressive in beating Western Michigan 26-13, and by Ohio State, which struggled in a 40-20 win over Buffalo.
The Big Ten’s image doesn’t really hinge on whether Indiana, Purdue, Illinois or Minnesota are bad outside the conference, but whether Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan State and Penn State are good outside the conference. Even the Southeastern Conference has its weak links, which is why Nebraska coach Bo Pelini bristled when asked a question this summer comparing the leagues.
“I guarantee there are a lot of teams in the SEC that aren’t Alabama that wish they were Nebraska, that wish they were Michigan, wish they were Ohio State,” Pelini said. “So don’t talk to me about the SEC. Talk to me about, let’s compare specific programs. The whole SEC isn’t Alabama, isn’t LSU and isn’t Georgia. Every year is different.”
His point speaks to why some analysts are already saying that the Big Ten probably hasn’t made up much ground from last season, when it went 2-5 in bowl games. They figure if the league’s powerhouse programs can’t handle Wyoming, Western Michigan or Buffalo, then they probably won’t fare so well against Alabama, LSU or Southern California in bowls.
If only for that reason, it may be time to give some respect to these early nonconference snoozers that so many of us choose to ignore. The Buckeyes may have been in no real danger last week of losing to Buffalo, but everyone noticed that they struggled. It’s why they dropped from No. 2 to No. 3 in the Associated Press poll.
The drop probably says more about Ohio State’s struggles than with Oregon’s 66-3 win over Nicholls State. But under the Bowl Championship Series, even in its final year, losing style points against Buffalo, San Diego State and Florida A&M could be the difference between finishing No. 2 and No. 3 and missing out on the national championship game.From the Big Ten’s perspective, the big game this weekend is Notre Dame-Michigan. If the Wolverines beat a team that went to the national championship game last season, all Big Ten teams will benefit, including Ohio State. But the Buckeyes have higher aspirations than most, and they can’t afford to miss a chance to make a statement of their own. A convincing win over San Diego State would make last week’s struggles with Buffalo seem more like a product of first-game mistakes than a sign that the team really isn’t good enough to challenge for the national title.Everybody is watching Ohio State. It has been the Big Ten’s standard bearer for most of the past dozen years and has the most clout in determining how the Big Ten is perceived. If the Buckeyes make it to the national title game and win, talk about where the league stands relative to the SEC would be moot.
But they have to make it there first, which is why the perception created in these nonconference snoozers is all too real.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.