When students walk onto the University of Nebraska campus in Lincoln in autumn of 2011, they will be members of the Big Ten Conference. The move was announced earlier today. The question now becomes, is the Big Ten the premier football conference in all the NCAA?
Before the addition of Nebraska the Big Ten was clearly the second-strongest football conference in the country, bettered only by the SEC. But before acquiring new head coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska was nothing more than an afterthought in the Big 12. And a storied history doesn’t make a conference any more competitive, though it does make it more lucrative.
Nebraska had their best season in quite some time last year, winning the Big 12 North and challenging Texas in a Big 12 title game not to be soon forgotten. But they did it behind one of the more dominant college players in recent history, Ndamukong Suh. Suh now plays for the Detroit Lions, so how much was last year’s success due to Suh and how much was it due to Bo Pelini? That remains to be seen. But Pelini’s philosophies certainly fit with this conference. Run it to set up the pass. Don’t turn it over. Win the field position battle. Make the other team kick field goals. Sounds a lot like Rick Ferentz and Joe Paterno to me.
The conference gets deeper, no doubt. If Nebraska does what Pelini has it aimed to do, within the next two or three years the Big Ten will boast these seven teams: Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State. The SEC’s top seven teams are in this order: Florida, Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Auburn.
Pit Northwestern against South Carolina and you’ve got yourself eight teams on either side who year-in year-out expect to play in a good bowl game at the end of the year. But the SEC is still stronger. How does the SEC get its strength? Great coaching, sure. And Pelini is a nice coaching addition for the Big Ten. But the SEC gets its strength from recruiting in the area it occupies. The size, strength, and speed on display every Saturday afternoon comes from the states occupied by these schools. And Nebraska moving to the Big Ten doesn’t make the Big Ten any more liable to recruit those players, because those players weren’t thinking about going to Nebraska in the first place. Furthermore, a conference championship in the Big Ten creates the possibility that the conference champion is not a viable candidate for a National Championship bid (for instance, 2nd place 1-loss Wisconsin beating 1st place undefeated Iowa makes Iowa less likely to play for a National Championship). This can only hurt recruiting, and it will hurt the sport’s most storied rivalry, played each year in the conference’s last game, between Michigan and Ohio State.
Expand your horizons with teams out east (Pittsburgh and Rutgers look good) and get Notre Dame Big Ten. Then we’ll talk.