September 10, 2009

Is Big Ten's reputation on the line this week?

At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the college football coverage staff for his opinion about a topic in the sport.

TODAY'S QUESTION: Is Ohio State's performance against USC also going to be a referendum of sorts on the Big Ten?

Probably. It's bad enough that last season Big Ten teams went 1-6 in bowl games, including a few blowouts, but the first week of the season was less-than-impressive. Sure, the conference posted 10 wins, but four were over MAC opponents and four were against FCS teams. Another was Minnesota's overtime win over Syracuse, which has a quarterback who hasn't played organized football since 2004. The other victory was Ohio State over Navy, and the Buckeyes barely won that one. Once, the Big Ten was among the nation's most powerful college football conferences. Now, it dominates the MAC and the FCS. Maybe that's progress, though. Remember, in '07, FCS member Appalachian State beat Michigan and the MAC's Western Michigan prevented Iowa from reaching a bowl game. The Big Ten needs an Ohio State victory, or at least a respectable showing. Sure, there are some other good matchups involving Big Ten teams this week. But if USC again tramples Ohio State, that's what will be remembered.


The answer is a resounding yes. The Big Ten's recent history in non-conference games against marquee teams is well-documented - and pitiful. USC has treated Illinois (49-17) and Penn State (38-24) like rag dolls in the past two Rose Bowls. And who can forget how Ohio State was obliterated by Florida (41-14) and LSU (38-24) in BCS title games in the past three seasons? Last season brought us USC's destruction of Ohio State in the Coliseum (35-3). Now the Trojans head to Columbus. Not only is Ohio State's reputation - and national-title dreams - on the line, but the Big Ten's battered and bruised reputation is, too. Get the ice packs ready, Brutus.


The Big Ten is in such dire straits when it comes to public perception, no single regular-season home game is going to be a "referendum" on the conference. If Ohio State wins, Big Ten critics will point to USC's freshman quarterback and inexperience on defense. The Big Ten's poor reputation compared to the SEC, Pac-10 and Big 12 was built cumulatively, starting with Florida's win over Ohio State for the 2006 national championship. Since then, the Big Ten is 13-20 against the SEC, Pac-10, Big 12, ACC and Big East. The record includes a 3-13 record in the bowls and regular-season, neutral-site games. That's where the Big Ten needs to rebuild its reputation. Winning this game certainly won't hurt, but the Big Ten won't reclaim elite status until it wins a string of games against the other major leagues. That means winning this game and winning the Rose Bowl and winning some other major postseason games.


It might not be fair, but that's the situation Ohio State and the Big Ten find themselves in. Until the Big Ten starts winning some big non-conference games - that means wins over good teams from power conferences - it's going to find itself the target of some barbs. Michigan (against Notre Dame) and Purdue (against Oregon) have a chance for some nice wins Saturday. But Ohio State-USC trumps them all. If the Buckeyes fall again, those other potential wins won't matter.


Ohio State's game against USC can't help but be a referendum on the Big Ten. It isn't necessarily fair, but it's inevitable. Ohio State - along with Penn State to a lesser extent - has dominated the Big Ten for about the past five seasons. But the Buckeyes' prowess within the conference hasn't garnered nearly as much attention as their inability to win big non-conference games. The nation hasn't forgotten about those back-to-back BCS championship game losses to Florida and LSU to cap the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Ohio State's 35-3 loss to USC last season garnered far more attention than any of the Buckeyes' recent regular-season victories. Ohio State's failures in high-profile non-conference games have been so well-documented that their 24-21 Fiesta Bowl loss last season to Texas was widely seen as a moral victory. Instead of glorifying what Ohio State has accomplished within the conference (the Buckeyes are 29-3 in Big Ten play since 2005), the general public sees Ohio State's postseason failures as a sign the league must not be very good. Need any evidence? Look at the scorn the Big Ten received for its close calls last week in the Ohio State-Navy, Minnesota-Syracuse, Iowa-Northern Iowa and Indiana-Eastern Kentucky contests, even though the league didn't actually lose any of those games. The Big Ten arguably got just as much grief as the ACC, which deserved all the derision it received after winning only one non-conference game against an FBS opponent in the opening weekend. And if Ohio State loses to USC, the Big Ten can expect another huge dose of criticism. It likely won't end until the Big Ten wins a BCS game, something that has eluded the conference since 2005, when Ohio State won the Fiesta Bowl and Penn State won the Orange.

- STEVE MEGARGEE is your source for: College Football | Football Recruiting | College Basketball | Basketball Recruiting | College Baseball | High School | College Merchandise
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