As I start this, the clock has just expired on one of the worst seasons ever for Big Ten football.
The season ended with another embarrassment for the conference, summing up a season of negative momentum and catastrophe. The 7-5 Wisconsin Badgers, 4-4 in the conference, are your 2012 Big Ten champions. Your Big Ten champions won the conference by showing up in the title game, and getting grouped in with two ineligible teams. Hurrah.
This game, one where the Badgers blew out the scoreboard and blew away a national television audience to other games, seemed like an appropriate end to it all. Sloppy football, in the most generic of settings, with every other option more attractive.
How did we get this way? A couple of reasons, all of which can be turned around.
First, there's Ohio State and Penn State's ineligibility. With these two banned teams doing so well, they essentially knocked off all the legitimate schools on their way to useless records. Since neither school counts in the BCS standings, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions created a scenario where the talking point was constantly 'the Big Ten has no schools in the top 10/15/20...but would have one if Ohio State was eligible!'
Looking at the week-to-week polls, Ohio State's victories knocked Big Ten contenders out of the polls, and out of the national discussion in the process. In week 5, a Michigan State team that had dropped from 10 to 20 after a loss to Notre Dame faced Ohio State, and the Buckeyes' 1-point win dropped Sparty out for good.
The next week, Ohio State beat a 21st-ranked Nebraska team, knocking them out of polls for a month or so.
Meanwhile, Penn State struggled early (taking them out of any polls), but lit up the Big Ten schedule. Their 3-0 start inside the conference included Northwestern's first loss, a crippling blow in the rankings for the Wildcats.
If these two teams came out struggling in 2012, the perception of the conference is that of a strong conference with traditional winners and new blood, plus two longtime powers that will come back soon. But with their success this year, Ohio State and Penn State created wins that couldn't really be celebrated and losses that really made an impact.
Second, Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are 12-0, with two early wins over Michigan and Michigan State. Typically, both of our in-state teams can beat up on the Fighting Irish in at least one of the two games, and get a momentum-building win on a national stage. That didn't happen this year.
On top of that, both Michigan and Michigan State lost to Notre Dame before they became the nation's darlings. Notre Dame won in East Lansing as the underdogs, with a #20 ranking against the #10 Spartans. The Fighting Irish beat Michigan as the #11 team in the country two weeks later, just out of top-10 status. No honor to be gained at the time with those losses.
Third, all out-of-conference play killed the Big Ten.
It wasn't Michigan losing badly to Alabama. It was Michigan losing to Alabama after Wisconsin barely beat Northern Iowa. It was Wisconsin getting upset by Oregon State, despite that unranked Oregon State team going 6-0 to start the year. It was Penn State starting 0-2, Iowa dropping a couple early, and the week-to-week consistency of a surprisingly tough schedule beating the dregs of the conference.
Even though Louisiana Tech finished 9-3 and Illinois finished 2-10, it still looks bad for the conference at the time.
Even though Wisconsin lost to Oregon State and barely beat Utah State, two opponents who ended with great seasons, it looked bad in the national dialogue.
And having the flagship program, Michigan, start 2-2 seems to be a bad sign of things to come.
There aren't that many great games in September, so any kind of storyline gets beaten into the ground. And by the time conference play began, the Big Ten had a rough month through a stretch of shockingly tough opponents, with the effects showing all year.
Lastly, legitimate scheduling hurt the conference.
The vast majority of the nation's football fans only look at the top 25. When there's no Big Ten teams in the top 10, and barely any outside of the bottom, there's a bad perception. Sure, it's only perception, but that really is the only thing keeping this sport together.
By having a tradition-based conference where so many good teams play each other, teams are bound to drop a game or two. Of the top conference teams, here's who they lost to:
Nebraska - Ohio State
Michigan - Nebraska, Ohio State
Northwestern - Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan
Ohio State - None, but they're ineligible, so are always mentioned with a verbal asterisk
Penn State - Ohio State, Nebraska
Wisconsin - Nebraska, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State
Of the top six teams, only one lost to a team outside this group, Wisconsin to Michigan State.
It was the same in the SEC, where the top three teams in each division went undefeated against everyone else.
Problem is, a loss in the Big Ten means that you're not as good as you thought. But a loss in the SEC means that the SEC is just a great conference that's so tough to win in. Perception, perception, perception.
Once again, when looking back, Big Ten teams played the toughest schedule. At the time though, it just looked like a weak conference.
All of these problems can easily be fixed next year.
It starts by taking care of business in September, and getting that momentum going for the conference schedule. In the second week of the season, Michigan hosts Notre Dame. One week later, Nebraska hosts UCLA. Those two potential wins, over 2012's most talked-about comeback teams, could set the tone for the season.
Next, having Ohio State come off probation is huge. The Big Ten needs to get teams in that BCS discussion when the time comes around, and the obvious candidates are Michigan, Nebraska, and either Ohio State or Wisconsin. The either/or is due to those two teams playing in late-September, knocking one out of the national championship discussion.
In a perfect world for the Big Ten, Michigan and Nebraska go undefeated for two months, both open up in the top 10 of the BCS, play a game with national implications, then end the season with Michigan aiming to knock off Ohio State, and Nebraska awaiting their potential shot after that. That's the best case scenario for the Big Ten, and it only happens when Ohio State is eligible.
Last (or first), the conference has to win some bowl games. If Wisconsin can upset Stanford like they upset Nebraska, it's good for the conference. If Michigan can take out Johnny Football, it's good for the conference.
Since everything comes down to perception, those wins to end the year can start some positive talk for the conference, or at least shut up the naysayers for eight months of offseason chatter.
This was a rough year for the Big Ten. Conclusively 4th out of the major conferences. Shut out of national title discussion. It was a perfect storm of suck.
But hey, next year starts tomorrow. And there's always basketball.