|RUSSO ON FOOTBALL: Down Big Ten takes few more hits|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 16 September 2007 14:33|
The Big Ten commissioner felt compelled to defend his football teams with an open letter in February after they went 2-5 in bowl games and drew poor marks from recruiting gurus.
Well, the new season has provided more fodder for Big Ten critics, and they're not just talking about Michigan.
On Saturday, Minnesota lost to Florida Atlantic, a Sun Belt Conference team that had never beaten a team from a BCS conference. In fact, the Owls had been outscored 506-89 in 11 previous games against the big six leagues.
Later in the day, Iowa lost to previously winless Iowa State. Sure it's a rivalry game, but Iowa State had lost its first two games to Kent State and Northern Iowa, which plays in the second-tier of Division I.
The topper came Saturday night, when Duke snapped the longest losing streak in the nation by winning at Northwestern. The Blue Devils hadn't won in 22 games and hadn't beaten a major college team since 2004.
While none of those losses will register nationally the way Michigan's embarrassing defeats to Appalachian State and Oregon did the first two weeks of the season, they are hits to Big Ten football's beleaguered image.
And image is everything.
Less than a year ago Big Ten football was as proud as can be, with Ohio State and Michigan Nos. 1 and 2 in the country. Then both teams went bust in their bowl games, and just like that the Big Ten was back to being too slow to keep up with the speedy Southeastern Conference teams and sleek Pac-10 squads. As if suddenly all the players in the Big Ten were running in lead shoes.
When signing day came around about a month later, the Big Ten didn't make the grade with the supposed experts and the critics started piling on. That's when Delany decided to go on the offensive.
An open letter from the commish was posted on the Big Ten Web site, detailing recent success against the SEC in bowl games - 2-1 last season and 8-6 over the last five years. He also took what came across as a dig at SEC academics with this line:
``I wish we had six teams among the top 10 recruiting classes every year, but winning our way requires some discipline and restraint with the recruitment process,'' Delany wrote. ``Not every athlete fits athletically, academically or socially at every university. Fortunately, we have been able to balance our athletic and academic mission so that we can compete successfully and keep faith with our academic standards.''
Delany's plan to blunt the critics backfired and he came across as a sore loser who was making excuses for a lagging league. He also didn't help himself or the conference during the summer when he got into a war of words with Comcast over the cable companies' refusal to carry the fledgling Big Ten network on its basic tier.
Here's the way things have been going for the Big Ten so far this season: After Appalachian State stunned Michigan and essentially knocked the Big Ten favorite out of the national title race in the first week of the season, the Big Ten Network was touting the historic upset as proof it had ``can't miss'' games.
How's this for a slogan, ``The Big Ten Network: Where history is made at the Big Ten's expense.'' Surely, that's not what Delany had in mind.
OK, reality check: The Big Ten is not terrible. Far from it.
After three weeks, only Minnesota and Michigan have losing records. Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State are ranked in the top 10 this week. Michigan could still turn its season around, though the last thing the Big Ten needs is to be represented in the Rose Bowl by a team that lost to Appy State.
Yet, there's no doubting the Big Ten is down.
No Big Ten team could match up against Southern California, LSU, Oklahoma or Florida. The middle of the conference - Iowa, Michigan State, Illinois and Purdue - scares no one. At the bottom, Northwestern and Minnesota could be in for long years, and don't be fooled by Indiana's 3-0 against terrible competition.
Still, no league - not the ACC, not the SEC, not the Big 12 or even the Pac-10 - outdoes the Big Ten in tradition. As far as balancing academics and athletics, the Big Ten is as good as it gets.
Right now, though, on the field, the Big Ten isn't measuring up to its own lofty standards and there's plenty of detractors happy to point that out.
Ralph D. Russo covers college football for The Associated Press. Write to him at rrusso(at)ap.org.