Because I am who I am and this blog is what it is, I'm going to compare Jim Delany to Hitler. The Big Ten is making a very public show of its interest in expansion. I have no doubt that this move is motivated by a major case of SEC envy. Barry Alvarez was probably sitting on his couch for the first weekends of the past two Decembers, watching the #1 and #2 teams in the country play each other in the Georgia Dome and thinking to himself "man, we need something like that." However, what the Big Ten needs is not the game in early December; what it needs is teams of the quality of Florida and Alabama.
Let's imagine that the Big Ten had a conference championship game this year pitting Ohio State and Iowa and the game was played in Chicago on the same day as the SEC Championship Game. Florida and Alabama were #1 and #2, playing for a spot in the National Championship Game. The game featured the 2008 Heisman winner against the eventual 2009 winner. It featured two of the top four defenses in the country. It featured Urban Meyer against Nick Saban, the two coaches who would probably command the highest salaries if every college coach became a free agent tomorrow morning. In contrast, Ohio State/Iowa would have pitted two teams outside of the top five. The quarterback match-up would have been wasted talent/big disappointment Terrelle Pryor against the immortal James Vendenberg. The coaching match-up would have pitted Jim Tressel and Kirk Ferentz, who were last seen competing with one another in Columbus to see who could create a denser diamond out of the lumps of coals in their nether regions.
There are reasons why the Big Ten is sixth in the 2009 Sagarin conference rankings while the SEC is first. There are reasons why the same was true in 2008 and 2007. In 2006, when the Big Ten was allegedly up and had a famous #1 vs. #2 game in November, the SEC was first and the Big Ten fifth. This is the fourth straight season in which the Big Ten has finished way behind the SEC, its one rival in terms of media profile, fan interest, and revenue generation. Those reasons have nothing to do with the conference ending its season before Thanksgiving. Big Ten teams would suck just as much in September as they do the other three months of the season.
There are two reasons for this gap, one of which the Big Ten can control and one of which it can't. The obvious reason is that there is a vast disparity between the talent available in the Southeast and the Midwest. One can look at the Rivals database for any year and realize the gulf in proximate talent. For instance, this year, there are 44 players in the eight Big Ten states rated as four-star or higher by Rivals. There are 49 such players in Florida alone. Big Ten teams are behind the eight ball because population drain from the Midwest, as well as a variety of other factors, means that they are farming barren fields.
The second factor, which the teams in the league can control, is a collection of mediocre coaches. The Big Ten and SEC outpace every other conference in terms of revenue. What the Big Ten states lack in fast, mean dudes who can tackle, they make up in eyeballs that interest advertisers. What the Big Ten should be doing with that revenue is ploughing it into brand name coaches. After all, if you have to go outside your region to acquire talent, shouldn't you hire a top coach who has: (1) name recognition in Florida and Texas; and (2) the ability to make average talent look better?
SEC programs are certainly willing to spend top dollar for the coaches with the best resumes; Big Ten programs are not. There is no analog in the Big Ten to Arkansas hiring Bobby Petrino or South Carolina hiring Steve Spurrier. South Carolina and Arkansas can best be described as lower middle class in the SEC. They are behind Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida in terms of natural advantages. Thus, they hired two coaches with great resumes and paid those coaches market value for their services. Even when SEC programs hire cheaper, underwhelming coaches (see: Kiffin, Lane and Chizik, Gene), they then spend their savings on top notch assistants. If they end up with Braxton Bragg instead of Robert E. Lee, then they at least get Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet to be the subordinates. Leaving aside the fact that there are no Petrinos or Spurriers in the Big Ten's middle class, there are no Malzahns or Monte Kiffins, either.
Every head coach in the SEC falls into one of three acceptable categories for a major program head coach: (1) significant success as a head coach at a lower level (Johnson, Meyer); (2) success as a head coach on a comparable level (Petrino, Miles, Nutt, Brooks, Spurrier, Saban); or (3) coordinator for a national championship program (Richt, Mullen, Kiffin, Chizik). Where does Pat Fitzgerald fit into those categories? Or Ron Zook? Or Danny Hope? Or Bill Lynch? Or Tim Brewster?
And so, to come full circle, the Big Ten right now reminds me of the Third Reich in the summer of 1944. Germany was about to get hammered in the East by Operation Bagration and in the West by Operation Cobra. Faced with major issue, Hitler decided that the way to win the war was by firing a bevy of V-2 rockets at London. His decision was a classic case of praying for some sort of saving throw the the dice when faced with basic shortcomings. This analogy isn't perfect because there was nothing that Germany could do to win the War after Stalingrad, whereas there is an obvious way for the Big Ten to get out of its current crisis. (The analogy also has a timeline issue in the sense that Hitler was always too obsessed with technological solutions, so pinning his hopes on the V-2 was not just a summer 1944 mistake.) Hitler didn't have the option of bringing in better generals to reverse setbacks in the field. Still, the basic idea is that the Big Ten is proposing a solution that does not address the problem. Expanding to 12 teams and adding a championship game will add revenue to the league, but the conference is already awash in revenue. The problem is what the programs are doing with that revenue.
(And speaking of revenue, coming back to the Mandel article that I linked above, I don't understand how a championship game that should generate something in the neighborhood of $12M annually [assuming that it is close to as economically successful as the SEC Championship Game] could possibly be offset by the occasional loss of a second BCS bid that is worth $4.5M. Mandel also ignores the fact that, using this year as an example, if Ohio State beat Iowa in the title game and knocked them out of at-large contention, Penn State would have stepped right in to fill their shoes. Those criticisms aside, Mandel's piece about Big Ten expansion is excellent and I agree with his conclusion. There is no obvious candidate for expansion other than Notre Dame. Missouri seems unlikely to join and Pitt does not bring much in terms of additional fans/TV markets.)