If Michael Vick isn’t playing quarterback for the Hokies, there are really no excuses for losing to Virginia Tech at home in prime-time. Frank Beamer really isn’t that great coach everyone tried to make him out to be fifteen years ago, and he’s only still empolyed because no one is Blacksburg believes they can do better. That said, Ohio State only has themselves to blame for dropping out of the National Championship hunt early, with their 35-21 loss to their ACC opponent last Saturday.
If that seems a little dramatic on the surface, I’d ask you to really think about it. In the past early season losses to Texas and USC have crippled their chances, even though it may have taken subsequent losses to Penn State and Purdue to put the nail in the coffin of their championship hopes. Someone might be quick to point out how they recovered from a late-season home loss to Illinois in 2007, but it took a lot of chaos to put them in the Superdome with LSU the following January, a match-up that the consensus hated on paper and in reality. One of the problems is wiggle room, and once conference play begins, Ohio State has none. I may be out of line, but what type of showing is required on November 8th in East Lansing to erase the events of September 6th in Columbus?
That’s the problem right there; with ten games left to play, no Big Ten opponent, not Michigan State, regular Michigan, or Penn State, has the clout for anyone that matters to think it took one hell of a football team to take those guys down. If Oregon, who beat the Big Ten’s best from a year ago soundly, or Virginia Tech run the table, things look better for Michigan State and Ohio State, but the Big Ten contenders have a Big Ten problem on the national scene. Of course, the focus might currently be that the Spartans have a Michigan State problem and the same logic applies to Ohio State, Wisconsin, and any other school in the league that has suffered an early season defeat.
The way it used to be, the Big Ten Champ had a set destination. Pasadena or bust, it was a showcase to take on the best out west, the Pac-10 Champ. The game was played on New Year’s Day at the Rose Bowl, and as the bowls expanded and playing in one became less exclusive, it was always special to see your team in the sunshine out west, as you watched the game on ABC on a dark wintry night back east. For the teams, the privilege of being showcased on this stage was not to be taken for granted. For all that Ohio State has been cracked up to be over my lifetime, a span of 36 years and change, they’ve reached the game just four times over that period and just twice since I became congnizant of sports in 1985. Before that, the Big Ten’s participation was something of a status symbol or badge of dominance for Ohio State and Michigan, who represented the conference in the Rose Bowl every year from 1969 to 1981. In the final years, before something called the Bowl Championship Series came to be, the Rose Bowl had National Championship implications for Arizona State in 1997, and then again for Michigan in 1998. The Sun Devils went undefeated in 1996, en route to a Pac-10 Championship and a berth in the Granddaddy of Them All, but were denied a title when the Joe Germaine led the Buckeyes to victory in the game’s final minute. The loss didn’t simply deny them a chance at being the consensus #1; Florida State’s loss to Florida meant winning that Rose Bowl would have left them as the only team without a loss. A year later, Lloyd Carr’s Wolverines did what they needed to do on the field, besting Washington State 21-16, but the world didn’t crumble around them as much, forcing them to share the glory with an undefeated Nebraska team that handed Peyton Manning’s Tennessee team a loss in his final collegiate game.
The next year, they had to get #1 and #2 on the same field. To pull this off, the Rose Bowl would sacrifice its traditional Big 10 vs Pac-10 matchup at least once every four years, in order to be put in rotation with previously inferior games in Arizona, Louisiana, and Florida. Three years later, for the first time since Alabama beat USC in 1946, the Rose Bowl was not a match-up of Big Ten vs Pac-10, but the Big East Champ against the runner-up in the Big 12 North, a game designated as the fourth BCS National Championship. Meanwhile, Illinois represented the Big Ten in a forgettable Sugar Bowl.
In 2003, Ohio State reached that title game, facing Miami, while we got that Big Ten vs Pac-10 match-up in the Orange Bowl and the Big Ten was, once again, not represented in Pasadena. Look, I’m sure few supporters of the Big Ten will gripe too much about being denied representation in the Rose Bowl, given the Buckeyes win in Tempe was the only Championship the conference would attain in the series’ 16 year run, but that was the peak. Ohio State and the rest have slid into the valley since that Friday night early in 2003. Since, highlights include Michigan State’s win over Stanford in Pasadena last January and Ohio State’s 2010 win over Oregon, but even those have been overshadowed by the Southeastern Conference’s 7-year run of National Championships. Ohio State defeated Kansas State and Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, Michigan won a Sugar Bowl, and we saw Penn State and Iowa celebrate Orange Bowl victories, but good luck getting anyone without a dog in the fight to recall or recognize any of that success.
That brings us to where we are today, where the Big Ten has a Big Ten problem. Their reputation now precedes them, and it’s more reality than perception at this point. Did I think there was any shame in getting plastered by USC annually, speaking to the games that saw Michigan, Penn State, and Illinois fail to achieve victory in the Rose Bowl? The answer is no. I didn’t think it was fair to brand the conference as awful when Ohio State lost to the National Champs from the SEC in consecutive years, or even to a Texas team that had a good argument for their own Championship Game pedigree. However, the big picture is telling and I don’t think there’s a solid case to deny it.
As a football conference, the Big Ten stinks.
Now, Ohio State’s problems are mostly their own…mostly. Keep in mind, every school in the country has these types of problems, issues with whom they have no one to blame, but they can argue strength of schedule day and night, even when they’re playing an FCS opponent in mid-November. So, maybe that’s just the SEC, but does it matter if it’s just Alabama that can lose a regular season game and then turn around and get another opportunity at the same team in the title game. We might remember that Michigan wasn’t afforded that luxury in 2006. The point is, someone outside of the Big Ten gets the leg-up, because perfection is not demanded of them, which is exactly what the system requires a Big Ten team to do, if they want to play for all the marbles. How do you avoid it, if you’re Ohio State? While some might respect regular appointments with Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State, they will rarely be admired for wins over Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers, while often avoiding Wisconsin and/or Nebraska in the other division. In a game where style points still mean a great deal, dominance in the Big Ten will long be a hard sell to any type of selection committee, considering the conference has spent nearly a decade planting the seed of doubt.
One school of thought, probably the more popular one, is for Ohio State and their fans to deal with it. Enjoy the 9 or 10 wins every year, anticipate the Michigan game, drink until you pass out, hope for a trip to the Capital One Bowl, and embrace the remaining tradition, rather than getting upset at how much the game has pissed on those very traditions you used to enjoy. That’s a reasonable approach; the world needs its doormats, and if you’ve ever supported a MAC school that was thrown to the wolves at Ohio Stadium, you might understand and appreciate that. Something tells me that most at Ohio State don’t care to simply accept putting the shoe on the other foot, and that Ohio State should be no one’s cupcake opponent, let alone someone from the Southeast region.
Strictly from a football perspective, has Ohio State exhausted the benefit of being a member of the Big Ten? I think it’s worth considering that they have. Money is probably the main thing that debunks this sentiment, as Ohio State gets a lot of it from the Big Ten Network and it’s other television partnerships, but there’s a school, albeit a private one, 250 miles northwest of Columbus, whose pockets are deep without an entire conference of hands reaching into them. I really don’t know if Ohio State can reach the plane that Notre Dame is on with their independence, and the Irish have their fair share of issues scheduling 12 games without 8 already built-in by a higher authority, but maybe it’s an idea worth exploring. Is this a break Ohio State can make, while still maintaining relationships with their former league counterparts? We have not seen anyone depart from the Big Ten in my lifetime, but if expatriated institutions like Nebraska, Texas A&M, or West Virginia serve any precedent, I doubt remaining members of the conference would be amicable about continuing their rivalries with the Buckeyes as non-league foes.
Even without the obligation of league play, I believe Ohio State would want to keep Michigan and Penn State on the schedule every year, with the finale against Michigan remaining in tact. I do not believe Ohio State would ever schedule more than four games away from Columbus, and why should they? If you want Ohio State to come to your place, you would probably need to ante up a nice ransom since that game is an automatic sellout, but agreeing to a home & home would probably be worth more than cold hard cash, depending on the stature of your program. Another thing to consider is taking a page out of the USC playbook and scheduling regular trips to Hawaii, just to get awarded that 13th game, since Independents don’t have that bonus conference championship game.
So, how does the schedule shake out for Independent Ohio State? It really depends on the Big Ten’s attitude towards them in the aftermath of their departure. If they’d be cooperative, and they should be, Michigan and Penn State stay on the schedule constantly, and I imagine we’d see two more of their former conference opponents in some kind of rotation, something similar to the ACC’s new relationship with Notre Dame football.
Notre Dame would likely be the model to use, and you know that means service academies, in addition to traditional rivalries. Away from the Big Ten, that might include in-state rival Cincinnati, regular Rose Bowl opponent USC, and fellow Independent Notre Dame. As it stands, the Buckeyes have future commitments w ith Oklahoma, TCU, Texas, and Boston College; no reason not to honor those. I’ve taken the liberty of drawing up a mock schedule, with and without the cooperation of the Big Ten. We’ll start with 2015.
|2015 w/ Big Ten
||2015 w/o Big Ten
|at Virginia Tech
||at Virginia Tech
|2016 w/ Big Ten
||2016 w/o Big Ten
|at Notre Dame
||at Notre Dame
||at Kansas State
|at Penn State
With this, we tried to honor existing agreements, but an independent is always at the mercy of who might actually be available when October and November roll around, given conference obligations. One would think this would open the door to escalate strength-of-schedule even more than we’ve done here, but in the real world travel is a concern, as well as the amount of teams that might reject a proposed series with Ohio State. Tennessee, Georgia, and Vanderbilt have all pulled out of deals that would have required them to travel to the Midwest in recent years, though it’s possible things crumbled from Ohio State; we’ll never really know.
In the end, none of it matters. Ohio State isn’t leaving the Big Ten next year or ever. Money talks and the Big Ten has it. Ohio State will simply deal with their Big Ten problem, but they obviously must address the problems they see in the mirror first.