Stunning it was to discover that Rich Rodriguez wasn’t the solution that Michigan football needed to turn things around. Well actually, he did start a turnaround with the Wolverines. The team’s record improved each year he was there, but Big Blue had just six conference wins in three years and was 0-6 against Ohio State and Michigan State, and the NCAA investigations into his practice habits and other things probably helped him out the door Wednesday.
I think far more damning was the seemingly increasing problems the Wolverines had stopping … well, anybody. Crunching the numbers reveals that the Michigan defense gave up more than 35 points a game this season, which might be OK if you’re Oregon and score 49 points a game but not if you’re supposed to be one of the historic programs of the Big Ten.
A season-best performance in the opener against Connecticut Sept. 4 in a 30-10 victory sparked a 5-0 start, but that included a 42-37 win over Massachusetts and a last-second 42-35 win over Indiana. Three straight losses to the Spartans, Iowa and Penn State followed, but it was the next game against Illinois that perhaps best symbolized both the better win total but also the overall drop in the prestige of the program.
It took a late fourth-quarter TD for the Wolverines to tie things at 39-all, and only a stop of a forced two-point conversion in the third overtime gave them a 67-65 win in the highest-scoring game in the history of the Big Ten. The previous record for highest-scoring conference game? A Michigan win over what would later be known as Michigan State in 1902, 119-0.
Sure, winning a game by 119 points doesn’t happen any more, but apparently neither does needing less than 50 points to win a game. And the 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl was the last straw. It also helped exemplify just how far the Big Ten as a whole has fallen.
The SEC was 3-0 against the conference on New Year’s Day with a 31-point average margin of victory, but non-automatic qualifier TCU’s 21-19 win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl was just as damaging to the Big Ten. Ohio State held off a late charge by Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, but the only other wins for the Big Ten in bowl season came against Missouri — likely a paper tiger, pardon the pun — and an average Baylor squad.
The top talent in the country is going to the SEC, with a lesser amount going to conferences like the ACC, Pac-10 and Big 12. That’s what makes a player like Denard Robinson or Terrelle Pryor stand out so much in the Big Ten. Their talent level is probably suited more for a conference with more speed and overall ability across the board, but their features are a rarity in a conference better known for size and strength, three yards and a cloud of dust.
The additi0n of Nebraska, which lost three of its last four and had its own special bowl disaster against a .500 Washington team it had beaten by 35 earlier in the year, won’t change things much. Until the Big Ten can start attracting more top-level talent — and unless global warming kicks in and keeps the winters from being, well, what it is right now, I don’t think it will happen soon — the conference will continue to play second fiddle.