- Erin Kirkland/Daily
By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 31, 2012
TAMPA, Fla. — The Big Ten has taken more public floggings recently than a 17th-century criminal.
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As the conference’s football teams have stumbled their way through their seasons in recent years, with mediocrity generally the rule and excellence the exception, it has become a rite of fall and winter for analysts and other conferences’ fan bases to rip the Big Ten for its relative weakness.
The conference has a long, hearty football tradition, but that hasn’t done much to stave off growing national irrelevancy — a Big Ten team has not won a national championship since 2002, and one hasn’t played for the title since 2007.
Meanwhile, the Southeastern Conference has produced the last six national champions and could add its seventh straight if Alabama defeats Notre Dame for the national title on Jan. 7.
Representatives of the respective leagues have met multiple times during bowl season for a long time now, most often in the more prestigious New Year’s Day games. Tuesday’s Outback Bowl between No. 18 Michigan and No. 10 South Carolina is another example of that.
On each occasion, much is made about conference pride and, in the recent past, whether the Big Ten could gain any respectability by topping an opponent from the SEC, what has emerged as college football’s dominant conference.
But on Monday, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier downplayed that aspect of this year’s Outback Bowl, saying that in his mind it was simply “our 11 guys against their 11 guys.”
Even though Brady Hoke said earlier this month that his team is “always” playing for the pride of the Big Ten, the Michigan coach agreed with Spurrier’s take on Monday.
“I think the media makes more out of it than we do, because as coaches, you’re coaching a team,” Hoke said. “We’re both proud of our conferences, but at the same time, there’s going to be 11 guys on the field for South Carolina and 11 guys on the field for Michigan, and they’re going to go compete.”
Since 2000, the Big Ten is 13-20 in bowl matchups against the SEC, including a 5-10 mark since 2007. For their part, the Wolverines have held their own, carrying a 7-4 all-time record against the SEC in bowl games into Tuesday’s affair. In its last such game, Michigan fell, 52-14, to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl following the 2010 season.
Previous to that, the Wolverines topped Florida and Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow, 41-35, in the Capital One Bowl after the 2007 season, in Lloyd Carr’s last game as coach.
Other Big Ten-SEC bowl matchups this season include Nebraska vs. Georgia in the Capital One Bowl and Northwestern vs. Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, both also on New Year’s Day.
WHO’S BACK THERE?: With the injuries to senior quarterback Denard Robinson and redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Touissaint, the composition of Michigan’s backfield has been a question to some extent going into each of the team’s last four games.
After speaking vaguely about the quarterback situation for the Outback Bowl the last several weeks, Hoke finally announced on Monday that the Wolverines would go with the same setup they’ve had for the previous three games: senior Devin Gardner will start at quarterback, and Robinson will play some snaps at quarterback and at other skill positions on offense.
It is still unclear whether Robinson is able to throw — he hasn’t attempted a pass in a game since injuring his elbow against Nebraska on the final Saturday of October.
As for the running backs, Hoke repeated his stance that the position would continue to be run by committee. Sophomore Thomas Rawls, fifth-year senior Vincent Smith and redshirt freshman Justice Hayes could all see time against the Gamecocks.
“(Who starts) will just depend what personnel group, as far as openers go,” Hoke said. “There’s a lot of things that go into that. Hashmark, field position, where the ball’s at, all those things. It’ll be one of those three guys.”
SPURRIER SOUNDS OFF: Not one to mince words, Spurrier again provided some interesting material when asked about the difficulties of preparing a team for what are essentially meaningless affairs — bowl games that don’t affect the championship picture, like the Outback Bowl.
After talking about how coaches make reaching and winning a bowl game a goal before the season, Spurrier spoke about the postseason exhibitions more generally.
“I think a lot of these bowls are sort of made for television,” Spurrier said. “Obviously, there’s nobody in the stands at a lot of them, hardly few, and you can understand that. But football is a sport that (it) seems people like to watch on television, so for (nobody) in the stands, that’s okay, I believe is the thought, and most people are watching on television.”
NOTES: Hoke said that freshman Dennis Norfleet, who was moved from running back to cornerback in pre-bowl practices, will remain on defense even after the Outback Bowl. It was thought the move might be temporary, to add depth in the wake of the suspension of fifth-year senior cornerback J.T. Floyd.
Freshman wide receiver Jehu Chesson was the lone player that Hoke mentioned by name when asked about which younger players stood out in bowl practices. The St. Louis native is redshirting this season.