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All Points West: Big Ten conf. suffers setback
January 08, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
Word on the street says Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern were exposed during this bowl season, while Nebraska’s win over UCLA and Wisconsin’s win over USC were called upsets. This indicates a level of respect the Big Ten (the conference went 5-5 in bowl games) doesn’t have, yet.

Being labeled a tough conference seems more applicable to the SEC, which went 7-5 in bowls. There are a lot of questions about why a team might think the bowl games don’t matter unless there’s something at stake. I thought pride would be a factor – pride in one’s school and one’s conference. Would coaches and players think, why risk injury in the last game of the season, non-conference, surrounded by a week’s worth of hoopla and distractions because some players, especially the great ones, maybe even some of the good ones, think they’ll being playing on Sunday? A handful of Ohio State players declared for the NFL, yet handled Notre Dame, 44-28.

Did the Stanford Cardinal team that lost to the Northwestern Wildcats on Sept. 5, first game of the season, 16-6, at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., get that much better over the course of three months? Stanford had to be feeling good about any kind of win over Notre Dame in their final regular season game. Then beating USC for the second time in two months for the Pac-12 championship gave them a feeling most teams should have this time of year – can’t and won’t be beat. The Huskers had that mentality versus the Bruins, shoring up some serious weaknesses: turnovers, play calling and clock management.

Given the result in the Rose Bowl, should Stanford, a team that prevailed 45-16 over No. 5 ranked Iowa, have been ranked higher than let’s say the Michigan State Spartans, who crashed and burned in the Cotton Bowl? The Hawks were run over by the Alabama Crimson Tide (I still don’t get the elephant mascot), 38 to zip.

Meanwhile fierce Buckeye rivals the Michigan Wolverines (10-2) with barely double digits in the win column, took on the Florida Gators who finished atop the SEC East, routing the reptiles, 41-7. Northwestern finished 10-3 overall and sat runners up to Iowa in the Big Ten West. Their notable losses came against Michigan and Iowa. Expected. But count up the number of close games during the season, Ball State, Nebraska, Penn State, Purdue, and Wisconsin, all were within one score of being tied or going the other way. Ball State?

No doubt Iowa played its heart out for the Big Ten title game. The tough 16-13 loss to Sparty was probably tough to take, given the sullen faces of the Hawks at the Rose Bowl. Could it be they just weren’t feeling it? Yet, that doesn’t clearly explain the Spartans, who were blanked.
Michigan State’s QB Connor Cook couldn’t find an open target past five yards. With no running game, a one dimensional offense froze the Spartan offense.

This wasn’t the first time Mike Dantonio was embarrassed by Nick Saban. In 2011 at the Capital One Bowl, Bama spanked the Spartans 49-7, but with three NFL caliber running backs in Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. This year, the Tide had Heisman winner Derrick Henry on the sidelines, but Alabama’s offensive approach made the powerful fleet-footed back little more than a decoy.

Take nothing away from Sparty. Dantonio doesn’t have a stable of five-star recruits, three deep at each position. Yet, he has consistently showed up for the big games. Also, keep in mind that Saban once coached at East Lansing, and considered moving to the SEC to coach LSU and Alabama a step up. In 1999, under Saban’s watch, State toppled Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State for the first time since 1965 and became the first Spartan team to win 10 games in one season in 34 years, but ended the season with a No. 7 ranking.

Compare these elite coaches to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who succeeded Hayden Fry in December 1998. He has never suffered a losing season during his tenure with the Hawks, his lowest point being the 2007 season in which Iowa finished 6-6. Although bowl eligible that year, Iowa didn’t get ONE invite. For the majority of Big Ten teams, recruiting remains a contentious issue. Harsh winters versus living in the Sun Belt? This is where pride goes out the window, perhaps with the exception of football factory Ohio State, and now Michigan under Jim Harbaugh. Given the program, culture, and coach, recruits who suit up for Urban Meyer or Harbaugh know they’ll be showcased on TV, and competing for conference if not national titles on a regular basis.

However, to be well coached is not good enough anymore. Drawing top recruits as Saban does for Alabama turns even more top recruits to his SEC rivals. Meyer probably reigns as the biggest threat to SEC teams because he knows the system. He faced a lot of these teams while guiding the Gators to unimaginable heights.

Aside from drawing top recruits, if salary is an indication, Meyer is the second highest paid coach in the Big Ten at $5.8 million a year. Michigan’s Harbaugh is at the top, pulling down just over $7 million. Down the line past Penn State’s James Franklin ($4.4 million), Iowa’s Ferentz ($4.3 million), and Dantonio ($3.6 million) sits the 39th highest paid coach in the nation, Nebraska’s Mike Riley at $2.7 million. This either indicates the caliber of coach, or the Huskers are just not interested in raising the bar. Nebraska is content with building world class athletic facilities and arenas, and having the most gracious fans in the world.

The Huskers, like the rest of the Big Ten, remain mired in mediocrity, at least when faced with the challenges of playing in top-tier bowls against teams like Alabama, which routinely run the gauntlet in the SEC.

Or, if you’ve run out of hope and money, consider the Milan High School Indians who won the Indiana high school state championship in 1954 with an enrollment of just 161.

You might say different game, but in the end, it’s all the same – coaches and players.

A message to the Big Ten teams who lost in embarrassing blowouts: The game always means something. At the very least, have pride as a player. You made the college ranks.

Or, just ask the Huskers.

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