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January 15, 2014

Big Ten a bit lopsided

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COLUMBUS, Ohio-Two summers ago, at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, some of the conference's coaches were concerned. They believed the league to be a bit lopsided heading into the 2012 season.

The Legends Division featured Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska-three preseason top-20 teams-and two teams-Iowa and Northwestern-coming off multiyear bowl streaks.

Then there was the Leaders Division, with two teams-Ohio State and Penn State-ineligible for the conference championship game due to NCAA sanctions, so only four teams-Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin-were competing for a spot in the league title contest.

"There's some imbalance there, maybe, that we can look at doing something," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "It's different."

Nearly 17 months later, the Big Ten seems to be in a similar situation.

Starting next season, with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, there will be new divisions:

The East-Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers.

The West-Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin.

The Nittany Lions are still ineligible for postseason play, but moving forward, the East division appears to be much stronger than the West.

At the top of the East are Michigan State and Ohio State. The Spartans are coming off a 13-win season that ended with wins in the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl. Ohio State has won 24 games in the last two seasons, with its only losses coming against Michigan State, in the league title game, and Clemson, in the Orange Bowl.

At the top of the West are Wisconsin and Nebraska, which won 10 and 9 games, respectively, in 2013. Neither has won a BCS game since the year 2000 (Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl). In fact, no West division team has won a BCS game since the Badgers garnered roses in Pasadena more than 14 years ago.

Since 2000, three different East division teams-Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State-have won BCS games.

But the league's imbalance has less to do with history and more to do with how programs are shaping up going forward. This likely cannot be better exemplified than by looking at what some of the schools have done so far this offseason.

Ohio Sate hired two new defensive coaches Tuesday, Larry Johnson Sr., former defensive line coach at Penn State, and Chris Ash, former defensive coordinator at Arkansas and previously at Wisconsin in the same position. Johnson will coach the defensive line in Columbus while Ash will coach the secondary and be a co-defensive coordinator.

The two replace former Ohio State coaches Mike Vrabel, who left for the Houston Texans, and Everett Withers, now the head coach at James Madison University.

Johnson may have been the bigger coup. He knows the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area as well as anyone in the country after coaching high school ball in Maryland and Virginia, and could step in right away and become the Buckeyes top recruiter.

Johnson leaves Penn State after the Nittany Lions hired former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin. Former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien departed from State College after two seasons to become the Texans head coach.

The Nittany Lions will still feel the effects of the sanctions imposed by the NCAA following the Jerry Sandusky scandal for a few more seasons, at least, but Franklin seems posed to bring Penn State back to an elite level. He's a good coach-he took Vanderbilt to multiple bowl games-and probably an even better recruiter.

The final class he assembled at Vanderbilt ranked in the top 25 nationally by Rivals.com.

"Our recruiting philosophy, we're going to dominate the state," Franklin said. "We're going to dominate the region."

That statement may be scary for Ohio State fans-the Buckeyes often go head-to-head with Penn State for recruits-but its good for the conference.

Michigan, which had a lackluster performance in 2013, made a hire that should reap benefits moving forward. The Wolverines hired former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to the same position. Nussmeier has developed multiple NFL quarterbacks and should develop Michigan's offense in a way former Wolverine assistants couldn't.

And then there is Michigan State, which hasn't made any significant changes heading into 2014, but then again, why would it? The Spartans return a majority of its starters and will likely be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason polls.

On the other side of the conference, the future isn't as promising.

Nebraska has won at least 9 games in each season Bo Pelini has been the head coach, but will the Huskers ever become the elite program they used to be?

Wisconsin still hasn't performed on the big stage, losing its past three bowl games.

Iowa is coming off an eight-win season in 2013, and could likely achieve the same in 2014.

Illinois and Purdue are in similar situations, led by young coaches with potential yet to fulfill. Minnesota had a decent season in 2013, while Northwestern was extremely disappointing, collapsing after a loss to Ohio State in early October.

The Big Ten has gotten better this offseason. For the conference to truly succeed on a national stage, however, the West division will have to start doing what the East has done this January.

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