New Years Day 2011 may well go down as the single worst day in the history of the Big 10 conference. ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit labeled it so, and it's hard to think of any reason to disagree.
The Big 10 had five teams in action, with three games against SEC teams, and two against teams from Texas. The conference had won their first two bowls this year, but Illinois' win over Baylor, who hadn't seen a bowl game in 16 years, and a come from behind Iowa win over Missouri, didn't amount to much the conference could hang their hat on. Games against teams established as powers on New Years' Day, the traditional "biggest day of the college football year", would be the what the conference would be measured by.
It couldn't have gone any worse once the ball was kicked off. All five games were losses, and the three games against the SEC all by double figures. At least Penn State was in the game until late against Florida, and both Northwestern and conference champion Wisconsin mounted late scoring drives to give themselves a chance. But the state of Michigan would have been better off forfeiting.Michigan played one good quarter, and led 14-10. But the Wolverines then saw Mississippi St. run off 42 unanswered points on the way to a 52-14 win in the Gator Bowl. Conference co-champion Michigan St., who, at 11-1, actually was in the consideration for a BCS game, gave up 49 consecutive points to Alabama before they were able to avoid being shut out, in a 49-7 loss in the Capitol One bowl.
All five teams came in as underdogs, even the Spartans, despite being ranked higher than Alabama, and all but the Rose Bowl were played in enemy territory. Underdogs don't win in hostile environments very often in college football for good reason; they are usually not as good as their opponents. But this was a day the Big 10 needed to get some wins, and have no embarrassing outings. Prying key recruits out of the southeast and southwest just became much harder, and even a Big-10 network won't be that big of a help.
Now, with only Ohio St.'s Sugar Bowl game against Arkansas left, a losing bowl campaign is assured. The Buckeyes will be the only Big 10 team favored in a bowl game, but the Razorbacks in New Orleans, just down the road from home, will represent a quality opponent in a hostile environment. So an Ohio St. win is far from a certainty, against a team that beat 4 bowl teams in a row to finish the regular season.
Why did it happen? Largely because most of the Big 10 simply does not play very good defense. Even in their wins, most opponents have chewed up Big 10 defenses. Missouri threw for 434 yards, and gained 512, against Iowa, and Baylor threw for 313, and ran for 124 more, against Illinois, despite being beaten by 24 points.
To put it into perspective, consider that Northwestern rushed for 229 yards and still lost to Texas Tech. Not surprisingly, the Red Raiders threw for 369 yards, but they also ran for 183.
Michigan St. gave up 546 yards, 271 in the air, and 275 on the ground, to Alabama. Mississippi St. rolled up 485 yards, 281 throwing, and another 204 on the ground, against Michigan.
Penn St. and Wisconsin were only mildly exceptions to this pattern, but not enough to put them over the top.
The Nittany Lions gave up 178 yards rushing, and two touchdowns. And while the Badgers were solid against the run, no one was surprised that Andy Dalton threw for over 200 yards against them.
The clear message, and one that applies elsewhere than just the beleaguered Big 10/12, is that with the widespread evolution of offensive football, is that good athletes, and ones with speed, as well as innovative schemes by creative defensive coordinators, have become a necessity.
It's a tough problem to fix too, as the best athletes are more than ever interested in making offensive highlights. And losing high profile games in embarrassing ways makes recruiting the scarce defensive game changer even harder. But it's a task the Big 10, and some others, need to get busy on.