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SportsMonday Column: Big Ten has a long way to go to earn respect

Todd Needle/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 7, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE — Trees blanket the horizon beyond the eastern border of Ross-Ade Stadium, stretching endlessly, interrupted only by the smoke stacks and wind turbines that soar skyward in the distance.

It’s a picture of the Midwest. Expanses of nature and remnants of an industrial age stand side by side in the land of the blue-collar. Cropped close to that backdrop, the brick, steel and grass of Ross-Ade Stadium straddle that line.

The tapestry is built for Big Ten football, stitched together for blue-collar men and a blue-collar game. The conference has historically been big, brawny and bruising.

But this fall, the Big Ten football programs have failed again and again on the national stage. Respect in college football isn’t just given, it’s earned. Right now, the Big Ten deserves none.

On Sunday, the USA Today coaches poll was released and, for the first time in its history, no Big Ten teams were ranked among the top-25 teams in the nation. (Ohio State is undefeated but ineligible for ranking while serving punishments for the program’s 2011 sanctions.)

During the non-conference slate this fall, the 12 Big Ten teams posted a combined 34-13 record. Those losses can’t be chalked up to strength of schedule, either. Just five of those losses were to ranked teams, and only one win was over a team in the top-25.

The powerhouse programs plummeted early.

Ohio State and Penn State entered the season crippled by sanctions. Neither is in contention for a bowl appearance, a national ranking or a stab at the Big Ten championship.

Wisconsin began the year ranked No. 12 before a tumultuous three-week stretch against consecutive unranked opponents — a five-point win over Northern Iowa, a three-point loss to Oregon State and a two-point win over Utah State.

Michigan lost to No. 2 Alabama in the season opener, barely escaping with its dignity in a nationally televised blowout.

Michigan State snuck by No. 24 Boise State in week one and climbed the polls. Then the Spartans lost to No. 20 Notre Dame, who then beat Michigan the following week.

The Leaders Division has become a two-horse race between Purdue and Wisconsin. And neither team is a thoroughbred.

The Legends Division crown is expected to go to Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska at season’s end. All three teams have two losses on their schedule, with the Spartans and Cornhuskers already losing a Big Ten game.

Now nobody can crack the nation’s top 25. C’mon, even teams you barely recognize made the top 25. Iowa State? Louisiana Tech? Cincinnati?

The Big Ten can’t stand up to the rest of the nation. It’s become a bit of an embarrassment for a once-proud conference. And it’s nothing new.

The discussion rises up every winter when bowl games come and go: How does the Big Ten stack up with the SEC, the ACC, the Pac-12? The truth is that it doesn’t. Not right now.

It’s not only the teams that haven’t kept pace in college football this fall, it’s the Big Ten’s headlining players too.

Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell and Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead all entered the season with Heisman hype.

Bell, averaging 129 rushing yards per game, is the only one putting up the numbers expected of him, but he’s nowhere near the Heisman frontrunners after six weeks.

The Big Ten just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That brings us back to West Lafayette and Michigan-Purdue, a game in which the Wolverines rolled to a 44-13 victory in front of a crowd of less than 50,000 scattered throughout the Ross-Ade Stadium horseshoe. It really was never close.

The scary part is that Purdue has a legitimate shot at a Big Ten division crown — ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit even called Purdue a Big Ten favorite prior to the game. The blue-collar conference is one marred by futility. And national respect isn’t easy to get.

It’s the big life, big stage, big problems.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.


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