Strange days lie ahead for the Big Ten, or whatever they’re officially calling the conference right now. (B1G?)
As news broke that North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson could be taking his talents to Madison, it solidified the fact that there’s near historic instability around the Midwest in college football, a recipe that should help Notre Dame and Brian Kelly thrive in the coming years.
(Last night, I walked my way into a Twitter beehive, when I was credited as breaking the story that Russell Wilson had chosen to transfer to Wisconsin. I didn’t mean to walk out on a ledge and be the news-breaker. More importantly to all those aspiring journalists out there, if what I wrote can be construed as your source material, you’re really not doing your job. Moving on…)
The point of looping Russell Wilson into this story isn’t to atone for my Twitter misstep, but to point out just how upside down the pecking order is for Midwestern football teams. Since when did Wisconsin pick up the No. 1 free agent in college football? More importantly, since Barry Alvarez had Ron Dayne trucking undersized defensive backs, when was the last time Wisconsin walked into the preseason as the resounding favorite to return to Pasadena?
With Ohio State likely facing a program-changing penalty from the NCAA, the perennial top of the mountain will likely be knocked down to lower altitudes for the next five years. (Sure, they might put together a good season next year with an “Us against Them” attitude, but scholarship reductions and coaching changes have a real way of messing things up…) Michigan, the winningest football program in all of college football, is starting over with a head coach with a sub-.500 record and a defense coming off back-to-back historically bad seasons. Welcome to a world where the college football team from East Lansing is co-champs of the Big Ten, and loses their bowl game to a fourth-place SEC team by six touchdowns.
But that’s the landscape Brian Kelly inherits, and it makes sense to look at the traditional power programs in the region that Kelly will battle both on the field and on the recruiting trail.
(With distance from Notre Dame in parenthesis)
Ohio State (250 miles): Where the Buckeyes go is anyone’s guess, but it’ll be with an interim head coach, an athletic director that isn’t likely to survive the rather large magnifying glass that peers over his department, and a flagship program that’s unraveling faster than twine down stairs.
A very realistic outcome is something along the lines of USC — and maybe worse — but drastic scholarship reductions are coming soon, which lessens the chance of a coach like Urban Meyer taking over the program, something that’d put a tourniquet on the blood that’s being shed.
Still, on field results still trump stability and until the Buckeyes prove they’ve lost it, it’s hard to catapult an Irish football program that’s just a year removed from its own coaching transition in front of one of college football’s perennial powers.
Verdict: Irish still in rearview mirror, but the passing lane is only a season or two ahead.
Michigan (160 miles): Remember when rival fan’s took to spelling Lloyd Carr’s name with three Ls, almost belittling the coach’s inability to win more than eight or nine games? That level of “mediocrity” wasn’t good enough for Michigan brass so they brought in West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez to kick-start a program that was still one of college football’s elite. Three loses became three wins and Rodriguez was never able to put together a defense that could withstand the Big Ten schedule, nor an offense that could make up for it.
After three turbulent seasons, Rodriguez is gone and Jim Harbaugh didn’t come to Ann Arbor. In his place, Brady Hoke, who has successfully played the “wake up the echoes” card that tends to work well amongst proud football programs.
The Wolverines staff has taken dead aim at reclaiming Midwestern recruits and the message has been well received. Still, Hoke’s new offensive system could detract from the one strength Michigan had last year — a potent spread offense that ran Denard Robinson into the ground.
Verdict: For as bad as the Rich Rod era was, he still took 2 of 3 from ND. Dead heat, with this season’s match-up the likely tie-breaker.
Michigan State (150 miles): Mark Dantonio’s program is poised to assert itself after a breakout season. Will the Spartans do it? That’s been the question over the last few decades. Shy on Q rating, the Spartans still manage to own the Irish, winning six of the last nine meetings with Notre Dame, including three of the last four. Perception wise, this is a battle that Notre Dame could start winning soon. But perceptions end every September, when the Irish and Spartans usually play a close game.
Verdict: ND may win on the recruiting trail, but they need to do it on the field.
Northwestern (108 miles): The Fighting Fitzgeralds have become a legit program under their beloved coach, but they’ve used the cupcake formula to create winning seasons. Boston College has replaced Illinois State in non-conference games, meaning the Purple will have to earn their victories this season. In 2014, the Irish and Wildcats will finally have a chance to size each other up, settling a simmering debate amongst snooty alums everywhere.
Verdict: Push. ND should pull away soon, but right now it’s still neck and neck.
Purdue (Driving distance: 115 miles): Under Danny Hope, the Boilermakers haven’t had much success. Last year’s team finished with six straight losses after injuries and youth plagued the roster. There’s reason for optimism, but the Drew Brees era feels like a long time ago.
Verdict: Irish shouldn’t struggle with Purdue.
Illinois (200 miles): The Fighting Zooks have been a bigger player on the recruiting scene than on the field, with their nine-win 2007 run to Pasadena erased by a stretch of mediocre football. If Illinois is a rival of the Irish, it’s in the battle for Chicagoland recruits, and Ron Zook isn’t likely to survive another bad season in Champaign.
Verdict: Instability at Illinois means open season on Chicago recruits.
Wisconsin (250 miles): If you’re looking for an example of a coach-in-waiting working out well, look no further than Camp Randall, where Barry Alvarez handpicked his successor and Bret Bielema took off running out of the gates. The Badgers have won 12 games, 11 games, 10 games, and 9 games since he took the reins of the Badger program in 2006, doing it with a high-octane running game and a pro-style passing attack under Paul Chryst. If there’s any program poised to take hold of the Big Ten with Michigan and Ohio State rebuilding, it’s the Badgers.
Verdict: No Big Ten program does more with less than Wisconsin.
Iowa (300 miles): Kirk Ferentz has long been considered one of the best coaches in college football, but his team’s have hardly been the most consistent. The Hawkeyes put together an 11-win campaign and an Orange Bowl victory in 2009, but stumbled to five losses last season. Ferentz’s days as a legitimate NFL coaching candidate are likely gone, meaning he’ll keep the Hawkeyes near the top of the Big Ten.
Verdict: Expect the Irish and Iowa to compete for a few recruits every year.
Penn State (500 miles): The Nittany Lions might not be that close geographically, but with Penn State in the Big Ten, they’ll always be considered Irish contemporaries. Call it a rite of autumn, but one of these years is going to be Joe Paterno’s last in State College, and when that happens, the fertile recruiting grounds of Pennsylvania and the Northeast should open up.
Verdict: The program may not be what it used to, but JoePa still has his pick of the region.