Tuesday, January 8, 2008

It's NOT the Speed, Stupid!

Another BCS title game. Another beatdown of Ohio State.

And by extension, another hit on the woebegone Big Ten. Too big. Too slow.


Speed is not the Big Ten's problem. Coaching is the problem.

The Big Ten has athletes. Plenty of athletes. Athletes big and small. Speedy and slow. Explosive and plodding. Just like any other conference. Just like the SEC.

On the 2007 NFL opening day rosters, there are more Buckeyes (44) on NFL teams than any SEC school. There are more Michigan alums (36) than all SEC teams save Georgia (37).

And they're not all big, immobile linemen. Ohio State leads the league with nine wide receivers. Nobody has more linebackers than Michigan, also with nine.

But there's got to be a reason why Big Ten teams routinely get trashed, not only in the BCS championship game, but also in the Rose Bowl and elsewhere. This bowl season, the Big Ten limped home with a 3-5 record, and that was only somewhat respectable because of Michigan's surprising 41-35 victory over Florida.

That reason is coaching.

The Big Ten has fabulous players, but while they're in college, they play under coaches whose philosophies and methods are outdated. These deficiencies are not exposed when they play other Big Ten opponents because they operate under the same mentality and methodology.

And they don't get exposed, for the most part, during non-conference games. Most Big Ten teams choose to play either MAC teams due to geographic convenience, or Notre Dame, which really is like a 12th member of the Big Ten. So top teams in the Big Ten, particularly flagship programs Ohio State and Michigan, routinely rack up 10-win seasons and only to get a rude awakening when they head west or south in the bowl season.

While the Big Ten has embraced the forward pass, they haven't really embraced forward thinking. The smash-mouth mentality is an easy fallback. But there is little imagination or creativity included in the game plan.

Case-in-point, in Lloyd Carr's final game, Michigan finally loosed all the trick plays that seemed to be gathering dust in the playbook over the past decade. Against Florida, some worked, some didn't. But the impact was that those heretofore unseen formations and tactics kept Florida on its heels. What the Wolverines proved that day at the CapitalOne Bowl was no more than that they have plenty of athletes. And when properly deployed, they can play with anybody.

On the flip side, neither Illinois nor Ohio State demonstrated any willingness or ability to keep their nemesis guessing. And after absorbing a barrage of big plays that led to touchdowns, both teams just seemed staggered and showed no capacity to get off the mat.

That, too, relates to coaching.

The Big Ten is now officially put on notice. It's been routed in its last four BCS bowl games, by 14 points or more in each. The last time a Big Ten team defeated either an SEC or Pac-10 foe in a BCS game was in the last century, when Michigan beat Alabama and Wisconsin defeated Stanford following the 1999 season.

Yep, that's a long time ago.

Further reality check will come soon enough. Ohio State will play USC at the Coliseum next season. And Michigan, sensing the changing of times, has taken the risky measure by handing its fabled program to an outsider with an unfamiliar playbook.

Until we see some evidence to the contrary, the Big Ten will have to be relegated to second-rate status. And don't blame the players for this debacle.

Speed may hurt. But coaching kills.

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